In the early 20th century, battles erupted throughout West Virginia as miners clashed with coal companies and “thugs”— spies from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Later known as the Mine Wars, this vicious period rattled America.
Mercer County wasn’t immune from the discord. In fact, it had ties to the Baldwin-Felts company. Here’s a brief account of that turbulent time.
New sheriffs in town
In the late 19th century, America was still a new country. Populations were small and scattered. Not surprisingly, police protection was even patchier. Unless you lived in a large town, help might take days to arrive.
The time was ripe for hired security. William Baldwin and Thomas Felts, two enterprising businessmen, filled that niche. Starting in the 1890s, they created the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. It started as a protection service for railroads. America’s economic wealth depended on those trains, which lugged coal, lumber, mail and supplies throughout the country.
Before long, Baldwin-Felts started providing security for coal companies. Their new clients were concerned. Discontented with low pay and miserable conditions, miners were forming unions. Coal operators weren’t pleased with this development. Scrip and company housing controlled men—things that labor associations could abolish.
Baldwin-Felts’ began spying on miners for coal operators. They built their West Virginia headquarters in Bluefield, cementing ties to Mercer County. From there, agents would pose as miners and attend meetings.
The Matewan Massacre
It wasn’t long before tensions flared. A strike in Kanawha County lasted for more than a year; at one point, miners were shot from an armored train. More bloodshed followed. In 1920, when southern West Virginia tried to unionize, shootouts echoed through handfuls of coal towns. Springtime reached a climax with the three-day Battle of the Tug.
Then came the Matewan Massacre. On May 19, Baldwin-Felts men came to town and evicted union families from company homes. Word of this outrage reached Sid Hatfield, the town’s perennially sunny police chief. He sympathized with the miners. Indignant, the officer faced off with the detectives as they waited for an evening train. Everybody claimed to have arrest warrants, including Hatfield. Detective Albert Felts had one, too. Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman claimed it was a fake. The air simmered with electricity.
Meanwhile, armed miners watched from various homes across the street. They held their breath. Suddenly, bullets were flying. Nobody knows who started the gunfight. By the time the Matewan Massacre ended, several detectives were killed, including two Felts brothers.
The Battle of Blair Mountain
Victorious, Hatfield and his posse withdrew. The police chief—popular to begin with—had risen to new heights. He even escaped sentencing.
The Mine Wars weren’t over, though. Next year, Hatfield and his deputy were shot in cold blood by the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse. Their deaths inspired a massive uprising. Roughly 20,000 miners marched to Logan, where they fought county sheriffs and police. Life became untenable. Residents cowered in their homes as gunfire crackled at anything that moved.
The Battle of Blair Mountain had begun.
By this point, President Harding had had enough. Fed up with the endless ambushes and shootouts, he declared martial law. Under his orders, 2,500 soldiers suppressed the warring miners. Airplanes from a bombing squadron provided extra coverage. Two weeks after the uprising, the Battle of Blair Mountain ended.
The Baldwin legacy
Because of these ugly events, the Baldwin-Felts agency slowly withered. The federal government encouraged its demise; laws eventually prevented private agencies from spying on employees. In 1937, Baldwin-Felts collapsed.
Mercer County still has its headquarters, though. Located in Bluefield, the Baldwin House is a rare Mine Wars survivor. It still has jail cells. If you’d like a tour, please call and make an appointment.
The Eastern Regional Coal Archives in Bluefield holds even more history. It has a wonderful collection of newspapers, films and photos. Call them for access to the archives. Researchers can also answer your questions about the Mine Wars.
Visit Mercer County and get in touch with history—literally!
This post was last updated on March 27, 2018