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  • Documenting The Legacy Of Slate Extraction In Pennsylvania
  • Joseph E. B. Elliott (bio)

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Figure 1.

North Bangor Quarry, looking west toward Bangor, Penn., 2016. (Photo by Greta Brubaker)

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The Pennsylvania "Slate Belt," an area of only twenty-two square miles, lies approximately fifty miles to the northwest of Philadelphia and just south of Blue (Kittanning) Mountain between the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. The first quarries opened in the 1830s, but significant growth followed in the first decade of the twentieth century when the Lehigh Valley accounted for approximately half of the slate produced in the United States, eventually becoming the greatest slate-producing region in the world. During World War I, many of the slate firms closed to release men for other essential war work, especially in the Bethlehem Steel plant nearby. Most of the quarries never reopened after the war, as modern synthetic materials such as asphalt composites and plastics proved less expensive and easier to use and required less skilled labor to fabricate and install.

Today only a handful of slate quarries remain active. Penn Big Bed Slate Company and Dally Slate Company, still in operation, are two of the oldest and best preserved of the early operations, with Victorian crane hoists, steam (electrified) and electric machinery, mill shops, and extensive series of former and active quarries. These companies, still economically viable, and interested in spearheading the valley's industrial history, offer a unique opportunity to document the legacy of the slate industry in Pennsylvania.

In 2015–16 I collaborated with Professor Frank Matero and a team from the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) of the University of Pennsylvania on a project entitled Pit and Quarry: The Extractive Landscape of Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. The plan was to document, analyze, and propose preservation strategies to the various constituencies in the slate belt. We undertook in-depth recording and analysis of the most significant sites and landscapes using current recording technologies.

I photographed Big Bed, Dally, and several abandoned quarries. My goal was to produce a unified narrative of the process of slate extraction and milling. Sites were examined from multiple points of view, looking at topography, geology, archaeology, technology, and human form. All of these factors continue to interact over time. For example, the active quarries use vintage hoist frames and engines that have been moved to different locations as pits become exhausted. Hoist engines have been rebuilt many times and converted from steam to electric drive. Slate extraction remains a straightforward process that has changed little over time, using the elemental laws of physics to cut, pry loose, and hoist slabs of stone hundreds of feet out of the earth. Quarry walls show the marks of early cable saws that cut stone with a slurry of sand, although cutting is now done with modern [End Page 185] portable saws. Similarly, although initial cutting in the shop is done by semiautomated circular saws, all splitting of shingles and slabs is still done by hand.

For me, the process of documentation is always collaborative. I undertook this project in collaboration with the preservation professionals and students of the ACL. In the field I worked with my photo colleague Greta Brubaker, who shot the North Bangor quarry on four-by-five inch film. In the active quarries and plants I worked under the watchful eyes of managers and workers. Descending into the deep pit at Dally Slate was impossible for a novice without mine-safety training, so John Dally graciously offered to go down himself with my camera. The beautiful images from the pit are his work. The project would be glaringly incomplete without them.

This project allowed me to continue my longtime interest in photographing industrial processes, structures, and landscapes. These have ranged from coal mines to steel mills, brickyards to power plants. I am fascinated be the material presence of these places, by the simple but monumental forms that arise to solve the physical problems inherent in each process, and by the human ingenuity expressed in the solutions. [End Page 186]

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Figure 2.

Worker housing, on the road to Pennsylvania Big Bed...