The Norfolk and Western Railroad played a pivotal role in the development of Matewan’s history. Matewan was a rural and remote area when initially founded by F.A.J. Ferrell in 1890. The town’s growth intensified over the next decade as Norfolk and Western Railroad began it's Ohio extension and started moving into the Williamson Coal Field in 1892. The use of the railway has been crucial to the rise of King Coal in Southern West Virginia. And for a long time, it was the primary means of transportation for people in and out of the remote mountains. Rail line also provided a means of transportation for companies that extracted black gold, or coal, from the Appalachian mountains. Visitors can still see trains frequenting the tracks, transporting coal to outside markets.
It didn’t take long for Matewan to become a thriving and incorporated town when Norfolk and Western first laid down their track. Matewan was incorporated in 1895, and soon became a regional center, providing a direct route from the town of Matewan to Bluefield. Between 1890 and 1920, the overall population of southern West Virginia quadrupled. This was the case for many towns in Appalachia after the railroad emerged. Where did these people come from, and why?
Coal development, coupled with the railroad and the industrial revolution, would explain the sudden growth spurt in towns like Matewan. Like Stan Cohen explains in King Coal, [a]s more trackage was laid following the Civil War, there was a corresponding increase in the volume of coal mined and shipped from the state.
Indeed, the expansion of the railroad set the stage for coal companies to perform their work. Coal companies would recruit workers from across the world and nation--African Americans from the U.S. South, Hungarians, Italians, and more--and bring them to Mingo County to work in the coal mines. Mine owner Justus Collins encouraged mine operators to hire a “judicious mixture” of races and ethnicities to curb unionization and collective action on behalf of the workers.
Coal companies would build an entire town for their workers, and the closest company town to Matewan would be Stone Mountain Coal Company; however, there are remnants of company towns still scattered throughout West Virginia. Many of these workers would arrive to coal company camps in a passenger train, and they’d discover that they were already indebted to their employer’s for their ride into town. What’s more, coal miners had to also pay for their own living expenses and tools to work, such as the company doctor, food, dynamite, and feed for the mule.
The Norfolk and Western Railroad had many contributions to the fabric of United States history, but here in Matewan, the railroad opened the southern coalfields up for business, provided transportation in and out of these hills, and exported coal to eastern and world markets.