I fretted the whole trip down, wondering what I’d find when I got there. Would I really be able to run a household by myself? Back at the old camp, the women had all pitched in. This would be the first time I’d truly be on my own.
We moved in under a cheerless gray sky, buffeted by a cold wind. As I struggled with a box, my new next door neighbor, Mrs. Whitt, came over, wrapped me in a hug and offered to watch Gracie while I unpacked.
I think I was going to be all right.
Our new home town was fueled by trains and coal, with most of Matewan proper wedged between the railroad tracks and the Tug Fork River. Red brick and wooden buildings, arranged in neat rows, ran parallel to the tracks. Matewan had everything it needed for a respectable downtown: Several restaurants, a hotel, a hardware store, a grocery, and a bank. We even had a jewelry store, run by the mayor of the town, Cabell Testerman.
Surrounding downtown were clumps of private homes, shops and the Stone Mountain Mining Camp, where we now lived. When it came to Stone Mountain, the whole concept of ‘mining camp’ was a bit misleading. It was more like mining camps. Stone Mountain might have been a small operation, but it was spread out across the entire area. There was a cluster of homes just steps from downtown, as well as to the north and ones to the west that clung stubbornly to the mountain side.
On the other side of the river lay the vast wilderness known as Kentucky, exactly the same as West Virginia, just as hilly and rugged, except in Kentucky I swear they talked a little funnier than we did. Many folks traveled across state lines at least once a day, making the arduous trip of about thirty yards over a rope bridge. Some went all the way to Kentucky to get their drinking water, others went just for a drink, while some folk went there for more virtuous reasons, to attend the Baptist tent revivals that sprung up like mushrooms wherever there was a spot of flat earth, a rare commodity in these parts.
Getting to Matewan by automobile was like eating spaghetti with a spoon: Difficult at best and not really worth the effort. You had to crisscross up and down over mountain ridges, one after the other, along dirt roads that carried wagons as well as cars. Why bother when you had the railroad that could deliver you in comfort straight to downtown?
Like a force of nature, the railroad cut through mountains that separated towns, it pushed aside thick forests and chugged over swift-moving rivers.
Our whole lives revolved around it, the rumble of the train ever present. It was how we got most of our goods, how we traveled, how many children even went to school. Most importantly, it’s how the coal we dug got to the outside world. Without the railroads, there would be no coal mining in West Virginia. Matewan didn’t even exist until the train tracks were laid.
Given life by the railroad tracks and the coal in the surrounding mountains, Matewan thrived. Always a little special, a little star-crossed, the town already had a reputation long before we had ever set foot there, as the site of the now legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.
No, I wasn’t a McCoy. Not one of those famous McCoys, at least. I wasn’t going to lay claim to something I had no right to. The McCoys were living in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia long before my father had ever set foot in America.
My father was one of those Irish McCoys that populated the Emerald Isle. He might’ve looked exactly like any other resident of Matewan, but his accent and his religion always gave him away as an outsider.
He never talked about why he left. He hardly ever talked about his past at all. I knew that by the time he was sixteen, my father had found his way to America, to one of those port cities like Boston or Baltimore. I knew that he must’ve had a brother or two, because one time he mentioned how much Frankie reminded him of his brothers. If they were like Frankie, maybe that’s why he left. But how he ended up in West Virginia? That was a mystery. His life in Ireland? That was a mystery too.
Despite not being proper McCoys, that didn’t stop us from feeling a strange sense of family when we moved to Matewan, surrounded by people who by chance shared our last name. Nor did it stop people from assuming we were a part of that famous clan. I couldn’t exactly blame them for the misunderstanding.