Coal Country Tours leader hits screens

"The Mine Wars" director Randall MacLowry, left, and Coal Country Tours leader Doug Estepp set out to see Blair Mountain in relation to the new documentary, which is set to air on PBS at 9 p.m. Jan 26. Photo courtesy of Doug Estepp

After years of delving into the deep history of West Virginia mining communities, Toms Brook resident Doug Estepp is now sharing his knowledge further with his recent contributions to documentaries.

Estepp has been leading Coal Country Tours since 2010, taking tourgoers from the East Coast, Midwest and southern states on journeys that immerse them in that history. He said interest has boomed since 1987, when John Sayles’ film “Matewan” laid bare the struggles of early 20th century coal miners.

Though he himself grew up in the middle of coal country, Estepp said the significance of the struggles of mining communities and the landmark Battle of Blair Mountain – what he called the biggest insurrection in U.S. history outside the Civil War – wasn’t spoken about or taught in schools.

“People started losing their inhibitions about it and now everyone wants to talk about it,” he said in an interview.

He’s experienced that eagerness firsthand by coming to know a kind of “tour magic” that attracts locals to share their own experiences, family histories and viewpoints. He said he’s learned quite a bit from those individuals alongside his tourgoers over the years.

Through acquainting himself with area news outlets, Estepp said he’s built a network of connections with those that bear a vested interest in the topic. That network was what put him in contact with “Blood on the Mountain” director Mari-Lynn Evans and “The Mine Wars” director Randall MacLowry.

While “Blood on the Mountain” examines a broader timeline of West Virginia workers, Estepp said “The Mine Wars” focuses on the specific and turbulent timeline for miners in the early 20th century. The former film first premiered on May 26 and has shown at several film festivals, while the latter will premiere on PBS at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

On both occasions, Estepp said he pointed the directors to key locations and voices to contribute to their documentary’s message and mission after they reached out to him via phone. In either case, he said the creators ended up condensing a massive amount of material and knowledge to finalize their film.

“He has that great skill where he can take just a ton of information and distill it down to a few sentences,” Estepp said of McLowry. “He’s really good at what he does; I’m really looking forward to the film.”

Estepp hasn’t yet gotten the chance to preview “The Mine Wars” before it airs, but he said his taped interview with McLowry at Morgantown covered all the bases.

“He had questions for the whole period all they way through…a lot about life in the coal camps,” Estepp said. “We covered it all, I guess that’s why the interview ran so long.”

This year, Estepp said he hopes to lead at least three tours out of Pittsburgh, Shepherdstown and hopefully D.C. He’ll also be leading credit courses for teachers at Shepherd University on the subject as part of its Lifelong Learning program.

With a long family history steeped in the mines – including a grandfather who started working at 14 and died of black lung – Estepp said he felt compelled to spread awareness and education on the topic. To him, contributing to that awareness through the documentaries and classes is simply the next chapter.

“It kinds of validates my love for the history,” he said. “I come from a family of coal miners…I feel like the good life that I lead wouldn’t have been possible without their sacrifice.”

Estepp leads other supplemental trips centered on both Quebec and the Hatfields and McCoys, but the “tour magic” of the West Virginia coal country tours is what sticks with him and his regulars.

“There’s always more to learn, and every year I kind of find a few more things out,” he said. “I’m always talking about the hard life and the poverty…but people who grew up down there…there’s just a love for the area and what’s home for them that’s kind of hard to explain.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or