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Slate quarrying in Peach Bottom, Pa.

Scattered about the globe there were, and in many places still are, communities of people of Welsh origin that have proudly clung to their Welsh heritage. Patagonia is probably the best known but another can be found on the Pennsylvania-Maryland border (the Mason-Dixon Line). The following section is designed to augment the story of the Welshman Robert L Jones (1841-1907) and his life in West Bangor, Pennsylvania. The reason for my interest is that within my extended family, there was a seventeen-year old young, Welsh lady called Isabel Ellen Roberts who made the long voyage from the United Kingdom to the United States and less than a year later married Robert who, nine years earlier and like many other workers in the slate quarries of North Wales, had made that same voyage .

Peach Bottom Township in Pennsylvania (maps) is a region, not a town, to the west of the Susquehanna River and to the north of the Mason-Dixon line (the small community of Peach Bottom lies on the opposite bank of the river). Passing through the township is a ridge which extends about 17 miles from northern Maryland through and into Pennsylvania's York County and Lancaster County (the latter is known for its Amish community). Buried within the ridge is the so-called "Peach Bottom formation" which yields a high quality, long-lasting slate that retains its blue-grey colour and is ideal for roofing. The earliest slate quarries at Peach Bottom were probably the first such quarries in the USA. It is thought that slate was first discovered there in about 1730 but more than fifty years would elapse before commercial quarrying began and then on only a very small scale. This took place around Slate Point, just south of where the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Plant is currently located. Over the years several other large quarries were created and workers were drawn from all parts of Europe, bringing with them the experience and expertise that quickly established a commercially successful slate industry in America. There are essentially two ways of getting at the subterranean slate: tunnelling or taking off top (i.e. exposing the slate by removing all the rock, etc. above it). The latter method was common but I believe it was the Welsh immigrants who introduced into Peach Bottomthe the idea of tunnelling; it could be less expensive, it provided shelter from the weather for the workers and it helped to reduce moisture loss after blocks had been removed.

However, tunnelling would have increased the workers' exposure to dust from the slate and this proved costly in lives. Accidents caused by equipment failure, carelessness or bad luck were all to frequent, resulting in injury or loss of life but the biggest killers associated with the slate industry were silicosis or silica dust-associated tuberculosis: "Men working slates and exposed to dust arising there from experience an excessive death-rate from pulmonary tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases" [Davies, T. W., Tubercle 1939 Vol.20 pp.543-55 ref.10] Those who were successful were not immune to the risk; it was pulmonary TB that killed Robert L Jones.

The Welsh, whose cottages replicated those of the mining communities of North Wales, were a close-knit community, socialising together and sharing their two loves, the church and music. Rehoboth Welsh Church in Delta helped perpetuate the Welsh language and culture; it taught Sunday School in both Welsh and English. By such means the children of Welsh families were exposed to their heritage and bi-lingual services continue to be held to this day. By the late 19th century Eisteddfods took place in America, performers and choirs from Wales were touring the Welsh settlements and Welsh literature was being imported. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, several Visitors from the Motherland to the Welsh communities in Peach Bottom commented on the differences in the way Welsh was spoken in America, both in intonation and in vocabularly, but noted how the people retained their Welsh heritage. There is still a strong Welsh tradition in the area and in 1984 the now famous Cor Rehoboth was formed. You can hear its recordings of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Welsh national anthem, accompanied by photos Welsh settlers had taken to USA) and of Cwm Rhondda.

Below: Photo (ca 1880) of workers at a quarry owned by Robert L Jones

RLJones quarry c1880

Extracts from 'The Slate Quarries' section in History of York County Pennsylvania (Volume I) by George R. Prowell (Chicago, J. H. Beers & Co., 1907):

The slate quarries of this township for half a century have been famous. They have given popularity to the name Peach Bottom over a large extent of country. Industrial statistics show that five-eights of the slate used in America is quarried from Northampton and Lehigh Counties, in this State, and the valuable quarries of Peach Bottom. For roofing purposes the slate of this township is unexcelled on account of its durability. The roof of the Slate Ridge Church was placed on it in 1805, and is still well preserved. The quarrying of the slate of this region for use as tombstones began at a very early period, but for roofing purposes slate was quarried only in small quantities before 1800. ......

The slate is first blasted out, then hoisted by steam to the bank in large irregularly-shaped blocks. These blocks are then broken or 'scalloped' into smaller blocks, and then split into sheets of required thickness. For that purpose a chisel or knife about eighteen inches long is used. The slate as it lies in distinct veins, splits readily wherever the knife is put in, if inserted when the block is wet, or 'green', as it is called by the workmen. They denominate the original moisture in the slate 'sap'. After the blocks become dry, they harden and cannot be split easily. After the blocks are split, the sheets are dressed or trimmed into shingles of the required shape, by means of a machine worked by foot-power, which is from 6 x12 inches to 14 x 24 inches.

The book goes on to mention John Humphreys (former employer and neighbour of Robert L Jones) and Robert, himself (Robert's brother "John W Jones" lived in West Bangor and worked in the slate quarries but the "John W Jones" mentioned below was almost certainly another, younger "John W Jones" who lived in nearby Delta - see here for information).

The extract also describes the process of removing and treating the slate:

Slate is packed and sold in squares, which contain 100 square feet, or sufficient to cover a space of 10 feet by 10 feet, when laid on the roof. One square of slate covers the same area as 1,000 shingles. For more than a third of a century the quarries at Peach Bottom have been operated by the Welsh, among whom are John Humphreys & Co., William E. Williams & Co., E. D. Davies & Co., James Perry & Co., William C. Roberts, Thomas W. Jones & Co., John W. Jones & Co., Foulk Jones, Hugh E. Hughes & Co., Kilgore & Co., and others, all of whom are intelligent men. Many of them worked in the slate quarries of North Wales before coming to America. John Humphrey located here, coming from Wales in 1849. The means at the disposal of miners for getting out and dressing the slate were then very limited and chiefly confined to an ordinary crane and derrick. At that time the mines were not deep like now [1907]. The slate ridge which crosses the township south of Delta is neither high nor steep, but preserves a rather uniform outline as far as it can be followed by the eye from the valley below. From 3,000 to 3,500 squares of slate of the best quality and 1,000 tons of second quality have been obtained yearly from some of the best quarries. Some of the quarries are 200 feet deep. Prof. Agassiz, the great naturalist, visited these quarries in 1870.

The excellent quality of the Peach Bottom slate is proven by the fact that it has stood the test of use and wear for a hundred years and more. As early as 1805, the Slate Ridge Church was covered with slate taken from an adjoining quarry. It remained in position on the roof of the church for a period of ninety-six years, until the building was removed, and it was then in good condition. Owing to the popularity of this product, quarries are operated on a large scale and their annual output within recent years averaged 40,000 squares. The output of the leading quarries ranges from 2,500 to 10,000 squares. Peach Bottom slate is now in demand in many states of the Union. The Peach Bottom slate belt covers an area of nearly two miles square, and extends from Peach Bottom Township over the Pennsylvania line into the northern part of Harford County, Maryland. .....

R. L. Jones & Company of Delta operates a large quarry in this township, which has been in existence for many years. The firm is composed of R. L. Jones, and his two sons, Arthur and John Jones.

The Rocks of Deer Creek, Harford County, Maryland; Their Legends and History, by Thomas Turner Wysong (Published: Baltimore, Printed by A. J. Conlon, 1880) Page 87 mentions Robert Jones's business and that of his brother, John:

The Slate Quarries of Harford County, Maryland, and York County, Pennsylvania, are distant about eight miles northeast of the Rocks. They are a source of prosperity to the section of country in which they are situated, and promise, upon the completion of the Baltimore and Delta and York and Peach Bottom Railroads, to develop its wealth indefinitely. The slate is of superior quality, and held in high estimation wherever used.

The quarries employ many men and afford subsistence to many families. The Welsh alone, who are chiefly employed, constitute a population of six or seven hundred. The village of Bangor, upon the summit of the Ridge, is composed principally of this nationality. It has several stores and other places of business. There are two churches, Welsh Congregational and Calvinistic Methodist. ... The village of Delta, at the foot of the Ridge, is composed chiefly of a native population.

R L Jones's quarry sign The representative business men at the Quarries of the Welsh population are Faulk Jones, William E. Williams, John Humphreys and Hugh C. Roberts, Esqrs., John Parry & Co., Richard Reese & Co., Wm. C. Robertson & Co., John W. Jones & Co., Richard Hughes & Co., Robert L. Jones & Co., and Humphrey Lloyd, Esq. These gentlemen came to America in their youth, and by industry and skill have accumulated property; and occupying prominent and influential positions in the community, have given proof that industry and integrity are roads to success.

(Click on photo of sign for an enlargement)

In the early years the only method of long distance transportation was by river and thence to ships for wider distribution but from about 1830 the quarries were able to make use of the developing canal system, necessary because so many sections of river were not navigable. These, in turn, gradually became redundant with the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s and with its subsequent expansion. Peach Bottom slate was distributed not just within America but also abroad and it gained a worldwide reputation. In 1850 it was exhibited at the prestigious Crystal Palace Exposition in London, where it was adjudged the best in the world.

Some further links:
Slate - The Delta Story
See page 87-89 of The Rocks of Deer Creek, Harford County, Maryland
Some information about the Rehoboth Welsh Church & about its history can be seen here.

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