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History buff plans bus tours of W.Va. coalfields

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FILE - In a March 31, 2006 file photo, Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine tour guide and retired coal miner George Archibald demonstrates a tamping rod in Beckley, W.Va. during an underground tour.  Doug Estepp, a Mingo County native, has launched a company tha

FILE - In a March 31, 2006 file photo, Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine tour guide and retired coal miner George Archibald demonstrates a tamping rod in Beckley, W.Va. during an underground tour. Doug Estepp, a Mingo County native, has launched a company that could be the first to share the rugged region’s history with tourists. Coal Country Tours LLC is planning at least two tours for the summer of 2011, including a three-day West Virginia Mine War Tour in June.

Dale Sparks, File, Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia's southern coalfields, known to many outsiders for recent mining disasters, are also rich with American labor history and tales of bravery that Doug Estepp believes will rivet the tourists he plans to take there next summer.

Estepp, a Mingo County native, has launched a company that could be the first to share the rugged region's history with tourists. Coal Country Tours LLC is planning at least two tours for the summer of 2011, including a three-day West Virginia Mine War Tour in June.

"I'm basically trying to finance my obsession," Estepp, 51, joked Friday.

"Really, my goal is to expose people to the history. I'm from that area. It's a tough area. The economics are rough," said Estepp, who now lives in Toms Brook, Va. "But I really think there's a real potential for tourism, and I wanted to jump on it because no one's doing anything with it."

A spokeswoman for the state Division of Tourism said it is happy to have any new business move into the area, and local visitors' bureaus that are aware of Estepp's idea are supportive.

"From an educational standpoint, it's great — and it's also fun," said spokeswoman Andrea Bond. "It suits different ages, from school groups to senior citizens."

On average, bus tours tend to generate $7,000 to $10,000 a night in any given location, Bond said, "so we're thrilled" with the idea.

Coal mining and labor history are also areas that people have expressed interest in, she said. Though other groups have done tours in the area that include the mine wars, they've tended to focus more on the bloody Hatfield-McCoy feud between two families in the 19th century.

Estepp, who works for the U.S. Treasury in Martinsburg, grew up in a coal-mining family but never heard much discussion of the region's bloody history as a child in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1920, a shootout between unionizing miners and coal company security guards left 12 men dead on the streets of Matewan, in the county where Estepp was raised. The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed union uprising in adjacent Logan County, eventually required the intervention of federal troops.

"Blair Mountain was the second largest insurrection in U.S. history after the Civil War — the only time the U.S. has deployed air power against its citizens," Estepp said. "But you have to seek this history out."

As a child, Estepp said, he'd heard vague references to strikes and tent colonies. But even 50 years later, it was too soon for many families to discuss the mine wars. Grandparents and great-grandparents had been involved, after all.

It wasn't until director John Sayles' 1987 film "Matewan" came out that people started really talking about the extent of the violence. Then came several books about the mine wars.

Estepp studied the conflicts as a student at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Decades later, armed with a history degree, he found himself starting to share the old stories.

For several years, he fought Jefferson County's plans to demolish the old jail where United Mine Workers leader Bill Blizzard and other miners had been incarcerated for treason after the Battle of Blair Mountain before they were acquitted in 1922.

Eventually, the county relented on razing the jail. But in the meantime, Estepp had developed a presentation he was giving to community groups and colleges.

The talks were so well-received, he decided to turn it into a seasonal side business that he intends to run while on furlough from his Treasury job.

The tours will start and end in Charles Town. The first will stop not only in Matewan and at Blair Mountain, but also at Holly Grove, where a tent-dwelling community of striking miners and their families were attacked with machine guns. It will visit old jails and courthouses, former coal camps, an 1890 coal company store and the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, which gives tourists a glimpse of mining before mechanization.

Neither the mayor of Matewan nor a representative of the Logan County Chamber of Commerce could be reached for comment Friday. But Estepp and his business partner — travel guide writer Leah Taylor, the president of Jefferson Capitol Tours in Charles Town — believe they will find plenty of business.

Their first marketing targets will be the Eastern Panhandle, northern Virginia, Baltimore and the District of Columbia. But coal miners scattered throughout the eastern United States after the 1950s, and Estepp believes that migration means plenty of potential patrons.

"Everywhere I travel, I have an obsession with it and I talk to people about it. It seems like everyone has a family member who was descended from miners," he said. "There are people all over the East Coast who have connections."

Online:

Coal Country Tours LLC: http://coalcountrytours.com/

W.Va. Coal Heritage Trail: http://www.wvcommerce.org/travel/gettinghere/wvbyways/coalheritage.aspx

Hatfield-McCoy Country: http://hatfieldmccoycountry.com/