Matewan poster

Did You Know . . .

by Ray Del Papa

Have you ever watched the movie Matewan, staring Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, and David Strathairn?

Here is a brief background to the movie. Back in the 1920’s coal miners in southwestern West Virginia were trying to organize into the United Mine Workers of America union. The company, Stone Mountain Coal Co., hired the Baldwin-Felts detective agency to keep the mine non-union. A massacre ensued involving the Baldwin-Felts agents, the miners, and the pro-union police-chief Sid Hatfield. In the end, several agents and miners were killed along with the town’s mayor. The Matewan incident led to an even bigger fight one year later at the Battle of Blair Mountain – the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War.

Rich Melvin at the throttle of 765,  Photo by Walter Scriptunas

Rich Melvin at the throttle of 765,
Photo by Walter Scriptunas

The real Matewan is located on the Tug Fork River and along the N&W Pocahontas division mainline. However, the movie Matawan was mostly filmed in Thurmond WV, along the New River, and on the C&O Railroad. The railroad “movie stars” were Nickel Plate 2-8-4 # 765, plus Rich Melvin and his 765 crew. Rich Melvin also is the producer of the Railfan video company, Hope Well Productions.

John Sayles, Matewan’s director, did not think the current town of Matewan would work for the movie (it had become too modern), so he chose the town of Thurmond WV, to shoot in. Thurmond is that legendary town on the C&O railroad where the station, coaling tower, and steam era water tanks were still intact in 1986. This allowed John Sayles, who had a very low budget to begin with, to spend very little money on making a West Virginia town of 1920. Today Thurmond is a National Historical Site and draws hundreds of railfans every year.

Matewan poster

Matewan poster

The town as it is today. Image of modern Thurmond from

The town as it is today. Image of modern Thurmond from

Why 765? In 1986 the only operating N&W steam locomotive was the J class 4-8-4 #611. It was too modern of a steam locomotive for the time, and even if the 1218 was ready, it too would have been too modern. The N&W of 1920 was running K class 4-8-2’s, Z class 2-6-6-2’s, 4-6-2’s, and the early Y class 2-8-8-2’s. Only a 4-6-2 survives today. Thus the former NKP S class Berkshire was chosen. Even though 765 also is a modern steam locomotive, its looks could pass for a locomotive of the day. Former PRR P-70 coaches were also used, as well as a caboose and some boxcars.

from the May, 2011 SMARTT Newsletter

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