Tourism is a major component in southern West Virginia’s transition away from a coal based economy.
Tourism success in the coalfields seems to begin and end with a network of ATV trails, but it’s what’s in the middle that creates the challenges.
For $60 a head, Keith Gibson offers tourists visiting Matewan, West Virginia an airboat ride on the Tug River, a designated West Virginia flatwater trail.
“I worked at the coal mines,” Gibson said. “So I’ve had to relearn myself. Everything that I’m doing now is so different. Nothing like a coal mine.”
With headsets and microphones on to drown out the noise, Gibson tells his passengers tales of coal mine wars and the forbidden, feud-sparking love of Johnse Hatfield and Rosanna McCoy that began just over the Kentucky riverbank.
Gibson said many come to his airboat tour for a respite from the choking dust of the region’s popular ATV trails. But he said getting to the remote border town may call for a feud with the state legislature.
“We have to work extra hard to attract people to drive that extra 100 miles on curvy roads to get here,” Gibson said. “Then, we have to work hard to accommodate them when they are here.”
Gibson said the legislature needs to consider the challenges border counties face, with prices often lower just a bridge ride away in neighboring Kentucky. He said he was getting close to economically recovering from the pandemic, when inflation hit.
“They have to have somewhere to stay, they have to have something to eat, but they don’t have to have an airboat ride,” Gibson said. “They don’t have to have a t-shirt.”
Jamie Cantrell knows about border battles. Her Matewan Trailhead Bar and Grill is just a half mile from the Hatfield Hideout Cabin and RV Camp in McCarr, Kentucky that she also has an interest in. She said the growing tourism industry here needs much more help from the state.
“Do some stuff with the roads to help people get here,” Cantrell said. “Finish the King Coal Highway. We always need more lodging. There’s people buying up homes and putting them on AirBnB left and right. We could use more food places. Politicians need to come into Matewan and see what we have to offer and try to get us some grant money to help restore a lot of these old buildings.”
With ATV’s whizzing through the middle of downtown Matewan, an old coal mining bank building has been converted into the Mine Wars Museum. Co-founder and museum board member Wilma Steele said the organization remains dedicated to correcting revisionist history.
“When I found out the United Mine Workers, in 1920, offered equal pay for blacks and whites and their members were not discriminating against their brothers because of culture or speech or any of that, that blew me away,” Steele said. “We don’t have that history. It’s not in the textbooks.”
Steele said Matewan’s growing tourism industry stems from freshly voted in city leadership and a united community effort.
“The more that you work as a team and a town to do something, the stronger you get,” Steele said. ”The Mine Wars Museum, from the very first, has been that group that has been right here working and caring about development.”
A museum not too far from Matewan, the Kimball World War I Memorial in McDowell County, sits isolated and somewhat neglected. Curator Clara Thompson said this was the first and now the only remaining memorial to African American veterans of the Great War.
“Believe it or not, we had over 1,500 soldiers to go to World War I from McDowell County,” Thompson said. “When the soldiers came back from the war, they approached the county about constructing a memorial, because the white soldiers had also asked for a memorial and so they got it. They looked to place it in the county seat at Welch but there was none to be found. So that’s how we ended up here in Kimball.”
Replete with outstanding displays, open part time and struggling to maintain board members and infrastructure, the privately-funded museum works to make ends meet with a community center downstairs offering hall and kitchen rentals. Thompson said she gets national, even global visitors, yet the local population seems unaware of its own history.
“Why don’t the schools have the kids come here and visit this museum? That’s a part of their history,” Thompson said. “We could use funding so that we could advertise more, put out more brochures and things like that. But we don’t have funding and most grants, they ask for matching funds. Where are we going to get it from? It would be so nice if the legislature had that money already allotted to building these historic sites, so that they can do their job.”
The local representative in the legislature, Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, agreed the state needs to do more.
“You’re right, it is not open all the time. I don’t think there’s a full time employee,” Evans said. “We still have a large African American population here in Kimball on the hill behind us. Up the road here toward the North Fork and Keystone, you’ll find large African American populations.”
Evans said help with matching grant funds to enhance history-related tourism was an impetus for the legislature creating the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission. Evans said the commission should be helping bolster declining coal communities like Kimball’s infrastructure and helping their memorial become a desired destination. But it hasn’t received the funding it needs to get started.
“It should have been underway immediately. The governor said he has to fund that off the back side of the budget,” Evans said. “We have plenty of backside but we haven’t funded it. I was always told it could be as much as $250 million put in there. That would be money that anybody that wants to write a grant could pull down from us for matching funds.”
Secretary of Economic Development Mitch Carmichael is the chair of the Coalfield Grant Commission. He said with much of his efforts lately going to bring major corporations to West Virginia, he hasn’t formed a commission, hasn’t found out about funding and doesn’t have a timetable. But he said he’s committed to the process.
“We will be very active and make sure that we’re getting input from the local groups and facilitating growth in those areas,” Carmichael said.
In developing southern West Virginia tourism, the ‘haves and have nots’ seem separated right now by varying degrees of private business investment, community teamwork, infrastructure development, government assistance – and the continuing transition from a coal based economy.