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The National Park Service recognized Matewan as a National Historic Landmark due to the town's significance in "the history of labor organization in America." Matewan is the scene of the "Battle of Matewan" which left 10 dead and several wounded. The battle was the result of coal company detectives attempting to evict union workers from company housing. The gunfight at Matewan was a pivotal event in the eventual end of coal company control in West Virginia.
The process that led to the designation of the Matewan Historic District was begun in 1987. At that time the Matewan Historic Landmark Commission received a grant from the West Virginia Division of Culture and History to survey and inventory the historic resources in the town of Matewan. The task was contracted out to a Marshall University professor, Mack Gillenwater. In 1992, the Matewan Development Center, Inc. was able to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fund the preparation of the Matewan Historic District National Register of Historic Places nomination which was contracted to Michael Gioulis, a historic preservation consultant. On April 27, 1993, the Matewan Historic District was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1994, the Matewan Development Center worked with the office of United States Senator Robert C. Byrd to have the National Park Service prepare a National Historic Landmark nomination for the Matewan Historic District as part of the 1991 Congressional mandate to undertake an American Labor History Theme Study of Historic Resources. The National Park Service (NPS) contracted the work to John Bond, a former NPS historian. The nomination was ready to be submitted for consideration at the February 1995 meeting of the National Park System Advisory Committee. The wheels were turning to have the designation completed in time for the 75th anniversary of the Battle. Unfortunately for Matewan, the National Park System Advisory Board expired at the end of 1994 and was not reconstituted for another nine months or so as the National Park Service was involved with downsizing and reorganization. The nomination finally made its way before the board in December 1996 and was officially announced on February 18, 1997.
Matewan's designation is the 17th in the state of West Virginia and only the second in the country to be made under the American Labor Theme Study.