This article appeared in the July 2005 issue of American Motorcyclist.
By Grant Parsons
Heading from the Midwestern prairie toward the foothills of the Appalachians in southeastern Ohio, the change starts gradually. A mild rise in elevation here, a few more curves in the road there.
The stoic north-south, east-west gridwork of county roads eventually gives way to diagonals, and soon those diagonals begin to zig-zag around small hills that grow bigger the farther south I go.
By the time I pass through the town of Jackson and pick up Ohio Route 93, the calendar appears to have rolled back several decades. As I bank through turns on the way down to the Ohio River, I’m enjoying the ride.
I reach the banks of the Ohio opposite Ironton, Ky., one of those places you have to admire for the simple honesty of its name. Of course, the iron industry ran out decades ago, and these days, the local economy revolves around Ashland Inc., which runs several refineries and transfer stations along the river, the largest of them being a smokestack farm outside Huntington, W.Va.
That town was named for Southern Pacific Railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, who needed a major depot between the East Coast and the Midwest. He chose this spot in 1870, and the town grew up around the rail facility.
My short run along the river underscores how important this waterway was as a transportation link. Practically every available acre along both banks is taken up by refineries, power stations, barge-loading facilities, railroad yards or towns.
And as soon as I move into the hills south of Huntington, civilization disappears in my mirror.
Winding along West Virginia Route 152 and then Missouri Branch Road, the pavement is curvy and fun, and I roll for miles without seeing much in the way of towns or traffic.
These roads rock, with hidden corners over every rise that keep you on your toes. The bike feels right in its element, with a light steering touch that makes it easy to react to the pavement’s every whim.
This area is a hidden treasure for motorcyclists. It has roads to rival more famous destinations, without the tourist traffic and prices. There’s an undiscovered feel to the whole region that makes it hard to believe this rugged country was home to hundreds of thousands of coal miners in the teens and 1920s.
The coal companies simply delivered them by the traincar load, installed them in company towns and sent them down into the mines. Not surprisingly, the inevitable dangers of coal mining, combined with absentee owners setting both safety standards and production quotas, meant that this pocket of West Virginia has been home to a fair amount of contentious labor history.
By the time I finish up a late-afternoon lunch of more tasty curves along state Route 44 and U.S. 52 heading into Matewan, I find plenty of evidence of that sometimes violent past.
These days, the two blocks of Main Street in downtown Matewan are pretty sleepy, thanks to a newly constructed floodwall along the Tug River and a new bypass road. Blocked off from most of the traffic, the downtown area resembles a ghost town.
It’s a bit eerie, which makes it the perfect backdrop for learning about what’s known as “The Matewan Massacre.””
It turns out that in 1920, the town was the scene of a Old West-style shootout between a dozen operatives of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and Matewan Police Chief “Two-Gun” Sid Hatfield.
The 12 detectives were on the payroll of the coal company, and they came to town to evict several miners suspected of trying to start a union. Hatfield was protecting his town and its citizens.
Nobody knows exactly how it started, but the operatives got into an argument with the police chief, the mayor and several others at the train station. Suddenly, gunfire broke out, and when the smoke cleared, seven of the outside detectives, two coal miners and the mayor were dead.
Today, you can still see the bullet holes in the buildings, designated by historical markers.
I ponder what it must have been like before I head off to enjoy more West Virginia roads. It’s almost heaven.