Bangor’s Slate Industry

Bangor’s Slate Industry

Located at the base of the Blue Mountain, the area now known as Bangor was originally settled as a small farming community around 1760. In the early 1800s, however, the discovery of a fine-grained sedimentary rock called “slate” prompted a dramatic transformation that would eventually revolutionize the entire region.

Slate, which is naturally waterproof and can be easily splintered into thin, smooth pieces, had long been used as a popular roofing material in Europe. So, when large deposits of the rock were discovered on a farm in the nearby community of Slateford in 1836, it didn’t take long for European immigrants to begin mining operations here in the Lehigh Valley.  

In Bangor, this blossoming industry was led by a Welshman named Robert Morris Jones. A trained geologist who came to the area in the late 1840s, Jones established several of the area’s largest mining operations, including the Old Bangor Slate Quarry, which opened in 1866, and the North Bangor Quarry, which opened in 1871. Widely considered to be the father of modern day Bangor, Jones was elected the borough’s first chief burgess in 1874 and is even credited with naming the community after Bangor, Wales – a well-known slate mining town near his birthplace in the British Isles.  

By the late 19th century, Bangor and the nearby communities of Wind Gap, Pen Argyl and Slateford were home to dozens of slate mining companies and had earned the epithet the “Pennsylvania Slate Belt.” For Bangor, the immense growth was reflected in the borough’s population, which between 1880 and 1890 jumped from just 1,300 people to more than 2,500 – nearly doubling in just ten years. 

Enticed by the prospect of jobs in the quarries, they flocked to the area with hopes for a more prosperous life. 

The majority of the people who came to Bangor were European immigrants from England, Italy, Germany and Wales. Enticed by the prospect of jobs in the quarries, they flocked to the area with hopes for a more prosperous life. What they often found, however, was the reality of long, hard hours toiling in extremely difficult – and often dangerous – conditions.

For men laboring in the mines, jobs included the backbreaking work of digging and opening new quarries (which, in an era before the invention of power tools and machines, was done completely by hand with picks, shovels and explosives), excavating raw slabs of slate (which could easily weigh between three and seven tons a piece), meticulously hoisting the slabs out of the pits and onto the quarry landing via a system of masts and cables, and then finally hauling each slab from the quarry landing to the mills for processing.  

Once in the mills, workers known as “splitters” would use a hammer and chisel to splinter the raw slabs into the final product. Because wet slate splits cleaner and easier than dry slate, many mills also employed young boys, known as “hollibobbers”, whose job was to work with the splitters. They spent their days taking a stick wrapped in burlap, dipping it in water, and then swabbing the slate to keep it wet.  

By the dawn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Slate Belt led the nation as the country’s largest supplier of slate – accounting for more than half of all slate produced in the entire United States. In 1903, slate shingle production reached an all-time high of approximately 140 million square feet, for a total business of more than five million dollars ($1.2 billion in today’s money). 

But despite this incredible success, the Slate Belt’s industrial reign was short-lived. Following America’s entry into World War I in 1917, many slate workers left the quarries to go to work in jobs deemed crucial to the war effort. In the Lehigh Valley, this resulted in many quarries shutting down completely so that their men could work in the Bethlehem Steel plant, which, at the time, was in need of additional employees to accommodate both increased production and fill vacancies left by those sent overseas to fight.  

By the time the war ended in November of 1918, this drastic shift in manpower was proving extremely difficult to reverse. Coupled with an overall decline in the demand for slate shingles, which, by the early 1920s, were being steadily replaced by new materials such as asbestos, Bangor’s slate industry slipped into a steady decline from which it would never fully recover. Although various quarries would find ways to remain open throughout the following decades (primarily by diversifying their production line), the region’s overall output would never again reach the heights achieved in previous years.  

Today, although only a handful of Bangor’s slate mining companies remain open and operational, aspects of the region’s roots are still visible. In the town center, a life-size statue of Robert Morris Jones pays tribute to his pivotal role in defining the borough, while large piles of waste slate, known as slag, still dot the landscape.

Bangor SlateDid You Know…

Although shingles were the most widely produced slate product to come out of Bangor, other popular items included slate flooring, steps, fireplace mantels, tombstones, slate turkey calls, decorative items such as mosaics, large slate blackboards for schools and small personal slate boards, which were used by individual students in the days before paper was readily available.  

A strictly regional item that is still popular today is slate quoit boards. Although the game of quoits is played throughout the world in many different forms, the use of slate boards is unique to Pennsylvania and played almost exclusively in the Slate Belt and Lehigh Valley area.  

Visit History…

The Slate Belt Heritage Center, located at 30 North First Street in Bangor, is open Saturdays and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. through the end of October, and Sundays only from November to March.  Originally built in 1907 as Bangor’s town hall, the Center now features a multitude of exhibits showcasing the region’s rich history.  For more information or to plan a trip, please visit: slatebeltheritage.org  

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