Railroads and feuds in Big Sandy Valley

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at nwhs.org
Sun Apr 8 14:53:23 EDT 2007

I suppose that with this spotlight on the latest theory about the
Hatfield-McCoy feud, railroad historians will be motivated to clarify the
relationship between the railroads and the land claims and conflicts and
social/cultural implications in the Big Sandy River Valley. I do apologize
if from my distance, I am just rehashing old discourses, and railroad
historians have done better on this than the general Appalachian social

General social historians are very ambiguous and contradictory about the
relationship between railroads and culture in this Valley.

Before the intensive feud phases (1878-82 and 1887-89), the railroads
supposedly had much to do with such things as choosing sides in the Civil
War (Waller in FEUD, Lewis article in Billing´s BACK TALK FROM APPALACHIA).
Their later role in provoking social eruptions is not so clear.

The tardiness of railroads arriving to Tug Valley (WV) and Pike County (Ky)
supposedly explains the "social and economic withdrawal" in these zones (¿a
cute substitute for the stereotype of "backwardness"?) relative to the rest
of the country, the Tug Fork more affected by being less accessible to river
traffic than the Levisa Fork (Waller, Torok`s GUIDE to this river valley).

While Jack Weller in YESTERDAY´S PEOPLE (1965) hardly mentioned specifically
the railroad as a factor in the interpretation of Appalachian cultural
heritage (which he tends to ambiguously demean while purporting to
appreciate it), he and the historians who often quote him posit the role and
aggravation of the supposed mountaineer isolation, violence and idiosyncrasy
in the agenda of outside power brokers ("fast talking outsiders") in
general. These same brokers (timber, coal, railroad, and salt
corporations, plus speculators, politicians, missionaries, social workers,
mass media and legal representations) then claimed that their brand of
"modernization" would eliminate this "backwardness".

concentrating her analysis in other regions of the State, nicely summarizes
the prevailing wisdom of social historians (citing mainly Waller) of the
feud that "assigns a great deal of significance to outside industrial
designs on the Tug Fork timberland that Hatfield owned.. He left a long
record of patient legal attempts to solve his problems. a jarring contrast
to the reputation that survives him".

The timing of events, with clear differences between zones in this region
(e.g. early Clay County salt capitalism), doesn´t seem necessarily to
support a presumed linear relationship between corporate intentions and
tactics, land chaos, cultural manifestations like violence and corporate
success. However, Waller does carefully link the second phase of the feud
directly to "preparation for the capitalist transformation".

In the Big Sandy River Valley, as opposed to others, the histories I have
consulted say little about railroad tactics other than general references to
how the power brokers in general took advantage of the railroad "tool of
condemnation" (Rasmussen), but they repeatedly mention that these brokers
would end up in big conflicts with the railroads especially regarding rates
and freight car allocations (and, I find rather curious, very little note
of right of way use conflicts which are so inherent in railroad social
politics nowadays).

Is there a real relationship between the apparent tardiness in getting rails
down the east side (the Ohio Extension of the N&W) and up the west side
(beyond Whitehouse by the C&O) of the Big Sandy, and the land conflicts,
highly publicized social happenings, company town developments (with their
particular kind of social control) and later surges of investment and
urbanization of Mingo, Pike and other counties? And these as opposed to
usually alluded reasons the N&W constructed first into the interior and only
later down the Big Sandy in Wayne County? And even the very late
incursion of N&W into Martin County (Ky)? (Torok)

In general, can cause and effect be sorted out in all the Big Sandy railroad

Further along in time, as the "capitalist transformation" brought timber
exhaustion, labor conflicts, mining mechanization and unit train
transportation, along with the private automobile and school consolidation,
new huge social and cultural changes have been engendered, which in any
society would likely produce violent reactions but in this region are an
excuse to enhance the lingering backwardness stereotype.

Nonetheless, this more recent history, as well as a more careful
reconstruction of what happened between 1865 and 1905, could be used to test
the presumptions about cause and effect.

Warren Crowther

warren13 at racsa.co.cr

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