Coal Country Tours Share History and Help the Economy in Southern West Virginia
Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Enhance Your Product, Know Your Customer/Product, Serve Local Community
Type of attraction: Heritage Area/Scenic Byway/Heritage Trail, Tourism Organization
Summary: When the Battle of Blair Mountain erupted in 1921, more than 10,000 armed coal miners fought thousands of heavily armed mine guards, deputies, state police and company employees.
When the Battle of Blair Mountain erupted in 1921, more than 10,000 armed coal miners fought thousands of heavily armed mine guards, deputies, state police and company employees culminating more than two decades of disputes as coal companies repeatedly fought attempts by miners to organize unions in southern West Virginia.
For Doug Estepp, studying the West Virginia Mine Wars – as the episodes came to be called – is a three-decade “obsession” that he now shares with others through his new company Coal Country Tours.
“My family includes three generations of coal miners, but I didn’t discover the story of the mine wars until I was a freshman pursuing a degree in history at West Virginia University,” says Estepp.
In 2010, Estepp decided the time had come to share these stories with others and at the same time to help an area especially hard hit by the recession. “I grew up here so I know how tough the economy is,” Estepp says. “Tourism is the number one industry in West Virginia, but it hasn’t really reached the southern end of the state. I am trying to use local sources for tour guides, and our lodging is at state parks, so I am doing what I can to help the local economy.”
The three-day, two-night tour is designed to facilitate local connections between tourists and residents. Estepp explains: “I will be the general tour guide, but when we get into the southern coal fields, I want people to have a chance to talk to local guides including people whose grandparents fought in the Blair Mountain Battle.”
In Matewan, where the 1920 eviction of striking coal miners led to a shoot out between coal company guards and coal miners, tour participants will have dinner with coal miners and their families including some whose grandparents were part of the event which became known as the Matewan Massacre.
“I want to help them tell their own story, to explain who they are and what our history is,” Estepps says.
To get the word out about the tours, Estepp drew on his involvement in a nearly decade-long fight to save Charles Town’s historic Jefferson County Jail, a landmark in the story of the mine wars, from demolition. As part of the campaign to save the jail, Estepp developed a presentation on the mine wars. The positive response to his presentation encouraged him to consider developing the West Virginia Mine War Tours.
“I learned a lot from that experience about generating publicity,” Estepp says. “I started sending emails, making cold calls and putting listings on blogs. The Associated Press picked up on it and wrote an article in December 2010. ‘All Things Considered’ on National Public Radio is also doing a story. I am also working with the tourism bureaus in the area. There are other ways to get publicity without an advertising budget when you have a unique angle, and historical stories are usually not generally run-of-the-mill.”
The real test came when Estepp started taking reservations for the first West Virginia Coal Mine Tour scheduled for June 2011. “I told myself if I didn’t have 10 reservations by the end of January, I would cancel the tour,” he says. “By February, there were already 34 reservations. Some are from people who have connections to the coal fields, but a lot are from people who just find it’s very interesting history.”
Encouraged by the response, Estepp next created the Southern Appalachian Coal Railroad Tour, a four-day tour exploring sites connected to the history of the railroads in West Virginia.
Estepp partnered with Capitol Tours’ tour director Leah Taylor to develop tour schedules and “make sure everything works.”
“By 2012, we want to go for a full schedule,” Estepp says. “History has always been what I love, but it was never a way to make money. Now if I can make a living and share history and get money to that part of the state, it’s like a dream come true.”