Matewan's fame derives from the “Matewan Massacre” of May 19, 1920, depicted in the 1987 movie Matewan. The “massacre” was perhaps an inevitable result of long-standing disputes between labor and management in the West Virginia coal mines. In a short but bloody confrontation—a shoot-out—seven detectives from Bluefield's notorious Baldwin-Felts agency, who had been hired to evict union miners from their homes, were killed, along with two miners and Matewan's mayor. Police chief Sid Hatfield, who opposed the Baldwin-Felt henchmen in their unlawful evictions because they had no warrants, survived the massacre but was gunned down a year later in Welch, in obvious retaliation.
Matewan is located where Mate Creek empties into the Tug Fork River. The town was first settled in the early 1890s when the Norfolk & Western Railroad came through on its way northward to the Ohio, opening the Williamson coalfield to development. Named for a city in New Jersey, Matewan served as a commercial and entertainment center for nearby coal camps. Physically, Matewan is strung out along a narrow floodplain, with railroad tracks and the business district occupying the scant level area. Residential areas extend into hollows and climb hills to the north and east. As evidence of the limited level space, buildings on the northern side of Mate Street, the town's main street, faced both the street and the railroad. Customers arriving by rail could enter stores directly from the station platform, while those on the street could enter from the sidewalk.
Disastrous floods have frequently inundated Matewan and its narrow valley. In the 1990s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a floodwall parallel to the Tug Fork to protect the town. Between the wall and the town, a leveled area has been made available for Mate Creek Community, a public housing project that, if successful, will be among the most sensitively designed residential projects in coal country. As of this writing, however, Matewan is still a work in progress. Although intended new construction will undoubtedly return a sense of community to the area leveled for the floodwall, for now the structures that survive from earlier times seem lonesome indeed.
In May 1997 the Matewan Historic District, already on the National Register of Historic Places, was declared a National Historic Landmark, commemorating its significant role in the history of labor in the United States.
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