Empresses, queens, princesses, duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, ladies, doubles, and singles. These were the standard slate sizes from largest to smallest.
Corris, Wales: a town made from slate. The homes, shops, sheds, and chapels are of slate slices and slabs, sometimes fitted perfectly together, more often mortared. The roofing is slate shingles. Walls—along roads and pathways, between fields, even running through woods, everywhere—are of slate. The fences around gardens and graveyards and separating roads from pastures are of long slate shards—planted in the earth and wired together. The walkways and steps are slate. In homes, the hearths and mantlepieces are slate. The roads are slate crushed into aggregate and hardened with tar.
In the back room of the Idris Store and Café, a decorative slate piece spanning the fireplace opening (now fitted with a woodstove) is beautifully carved with Celtic knots, flowers and leaves, a joyfully flying bird.
The menu in the community coffee shop run by volunteers is written in chalk on a large slate board. As with all local signage, it’s in two languages, Welsh first. Mwg and mug, caws ar toast and cheese on toast.
The nearby pub is the Slaters Arms. It features a slate floor and an impressive selection of Welsh ales.
The genealogical notes my cousin sent me trace our grandmother’s lineage back to northern Wales, from which her grandparents emigrated. The tantalizingly brief notes about David and Catherine Roberts state that “David was the ‘hired hand’ when Catherine ran away from Cwm Dyli with him” in 1860. Catherine was 21 and pregnant, and David was 26. A typical enough emigrant story, perhaps—a young couple leaving conflict behind to start new lives. The notes tell that David was a Roberts, and that Catherine was as well; her parents were Rhys and Catherine Roberts. Rhys and Catherine owned a thousand-acre farm.
I know the word cwm from Scrabble. It’s an acceptable English word, one of those words illustrating how w can sometimes be a vowel. (Remember chanting as a child, learning about vowels, a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y and w?) Scrabble players don’t usually bother with the meanings of words, but that is one I knew well before coming to Wales. Cwm (pronounced koom) means valley.
I deduce that the Robertses were farmers in a valley in what is now Snowdonia National Park, near the slate mining town of Beddgelert, some 50 straight-arrow miles north of Corris. Cwm Dyli today is the name of a hydroelectric power station built in 1906 to power the area’s slate quarries. There are still sheep farms in the area.
The genealogy report follows Catherine’s family back to 1677. For generations, her people were born in either Cwm Dyli or Beddgelert.
Slate derives its name from the Old French word esclater, meaning “to split,” a perfect description of its most highly valued quality. Six hundred million years ago, what is now North Wales lay under the sea, gradually accumulating a thousand-foot-thick layer of fine-grained mud. In the collision zone of converging continental plates, the deposits were subject to immense pressures which caused the massive folding and mountain-building; the shale then metamorphosed into [different slates from different time periods.]
– Wales: The Rough Guide, by Mike Parker and Paul Whitfield
The slate industry in Wales, at least on a small scale, goes back to Roman times, when the material was sometimes transported long distances to be used as durable, waterproof roofing. Once a system of narrow-gauge railroads replaced horses (and sometimes women) for moving slate wagons to the coast for export, northern Wales became home to the largest slate quarries and mines in the world. In 1898, the industry peaked when a work force of 17,000 men produced 500,000 tons of dressed, or finished, slate. The mines around Corris connected to rail in 1859.
Slate was first worked from quarries, in systems of terraces that gradually removed entire mountainsides. Where the slate veins went deep into the mountains, underground mines replaced open quarries. The term quarry generally applied to both open quarries and underground mines.
Graveyards are everywhere here. The names repeat. Evans, Jones, Hughes, Williams, Davies, Lewis. Roberts. The headstones are always slate, always generous. The lettering is largely Welsh, all those w’s and l’s and long sequences I struggle to pronounce. The older headstones, whitened with lichen and worn by weather, are difficult to decipher. Their carved weeping willows reach toward the ground.
In the churchyard: washed-out grasses bending in November’s wind, slate cold to the touch, graves and their stones overgrown with brambles, a very few plastic flowers.
The name Cwm Dyli is very close to the name of the valley I’m staying in at Corris, Cwm Dyfi. I fanaticize that the genealogist confused them, that I’m in the very place that David and Catherine fled. No one I meet seems to know the meaning of either Dyli or Dyfi. They are just place names, I’m told. When I consult a Welsh dictionary, I don’t find much help. Dyli relates to “habit of body or condition, temperament” and Dyfi might be rooted to a meaning of light or shining. Ieuan Dyfi was a 15th century poet. Dyfi is pronounced Dovey, like the bird.
Cwm Dyfi is named for the 30-mile river, Afon Dyfi, that arises at Creiglyn (“rock lake”) Dyfi and flows through the valley. Dyfi is also the name given to the forest that fills much of the valley, a nature reserve, an osprey project and wildlife center, a bike park, and the Dyfi gin distillery built at the site of an old slate mill.
We walk a narrow ledge over an enormous deep pit, clipping ourselves into ropes along the wall for safety.
Of the several slate mines around Corris, Braichgoch was one of the largest. It operated from 1836 until 1971, eventually carving out seven levels of a vein that extends miles into the hills.
I take an advertised tour with Mark “the Mole” to see just part of one of Braichgoch’s levels. In miners’ helmets with attached lights, our group sloshes down wet tunnels wide enough for the old wagons, which brought out two tons of slate at a time. We walk a narrow ledge over an enormous deep pit, clipping ourselves into ropes along the wall for safety.
Mark, a renowned cave explorer who has climbed through many miles of tunnels and chambers in this mine and others, cheerily asks our group to guess the average life span of a Victorian slate miner.
He doesn’t even wait for us to answer. He tells us: 35.
Cause of death? Not, as one might imagine, being crushed by falling rock. The most common cause of death, Mark tells us, was falls of the men themselves. The miners worked from platforms anchored to the rock faces, or they hung from chains wrapped around their thighs. They worked upwards in a chamber, reaching as much as 60 feet above the floor. They worked by candlelight, and not very much of that. Their falls were mainly attributed to the lack of light. They couldn’t see very far around them. They couldn’t see their feet.
Glyn Davies welcomes me into his home, where we sit at his table made of slate. He is an elfin, quick-moving bald man with eyes that can only be described as “twinkling.” He doesn’t mind that I showed up on his doorstep, wanting to know about slate mining.
“I am the only one left,” he tells me in thick Welsh accent. He’s the only old-time miner left in town, and I’m just one more in a string of people who have come to him with an interest in mining history. “There used to be ten or 12 here, and I’m the only one left. They are all dead now.”
Davies worked underground at the Aberllefenni mine, just a mile or so up the road from Corris, for 20 years total—not all continuously. He retired about 2002, at age 63, his last years on the job spent doing finish work in the mill. The mine closed about that same time, though the mill continues to this day. By my calculations, Davies is 80 years old.
“It got too dangerous,” he tells me. Towards the end, they were taking out slate half a mile in and 170 feet down.
In the late 19th century, 200 men worked in the Braichgoch mine. This number may or may not have included children. Mark tells us that children as young as eight—both girls and boys—were allowed to work, but girls had to leave the mine at age 14, presumably to begin having and caring for children of their own, the next generation of the family work force. The children’s jobs consisted of gathering and removing waste rock and pushing the slate wagons in and out of the tunnels.
Welsh slate was firmly established as the finest in the world at the 1863 London Exhibition, where one skilled craftsman produced a sheet 10 feet long, 1 foot wide and a 16th of an inch thick—so thin it could be flexed. – Wales: The Rough Guide
At the pub next door to where I’m staying, I sit by the fire with Tim and Annie, regulars I’ve sometimes chatted with. I mention that I took the Braichgoch mine tour and that I thought Mark did a good job of it, and that I’d just found a fabulous book about Welsh slate. Tim hasn’t heard of the book and seems particularly interested, and I tell him I’ll give him the title and author the next time I see him.
The talk, with others around the fire, goes off to weather, one’s soon-to-come trip to Australia, and the triplet granddaughters of another. Much later, Tim quite suddenly says to me, “We own a mine here.”
He and Annie, it turns out, own 40 acres of mine adjacent to Braichgoch. They purchased the property a year or so ago, since they already owned lands around it.
To me, it seems an extraordinary thing to buy an old mine. I can only think of liabilities, clean-up costs, property taxes, conflicts over boundaries and rights. What are their plans?
Tim shrugs. They want to clean up some of the waste slate, selling what they can, probably to be ground into aggregate. Perhaps they’ll lease some of the mine to an Outward Bound-style group for explorations, something a little more adventurous than the usual tourism. Mostly, it seems, they just want to consolidate their properties. Those things we worry about in America don’t seem to apply here.
When my ancestors David and Catherine Roberts left Wales, they caught a boat to Montreal and soon settled in Pawlet, Vermont, where, according to the genealogy notes, many Welsh immigrants worked in slate quarries. When he was 63, David “died in an accident in his own quarry when a derrick broke.” He did well in America, apparently, ending up with his own quarry, even if working there killed him. His gravestone, the genealogy says, is inscribed with Cwm Dyli, as though he or the family that buried him still wanted to be associated with their place of origin.
David and Catherine, who lived to be 90, had eight children, including my grandmother’s mother, who married a man also named Roberts. Thus, it appears—if the genealogy is correct—that my family includes successive generations of Robertses marrying Robertses.
A walking trail from Corris takes me along slate walls and slate fences, into a plantation forest of very straight, all-in-a-line fir trees with no understory—nothing beneath them but dead needles and a very few cones. It brings me to what is described in my walking directions as an old slate shed, a rough building made of slate, where quarried slate would have been finished into roofing slates. I wonder, though, if the shed might have been a caban, a shelter where the men would have had lunch. It fits that description as a small building (or corner space inside a mine) with a fire for warming and making tea. One corner has a simple chimney built into it. Cabanau were associated with the intellectual and political lives of miners; they were where the men sang, recited poetry, and engaged in vigorous discussions.
From there, I pass by several old, roofless quarry buildings, also built of slate and now nearly hidden behind tangled trees and vines. They might be ancient relics from a long-lost culture, like Mayan temples, overtaken by jungle. The hillside beside me, the waste tip, is a tumble of slate shards. The mine here operated for nearly a century, from the 1860s to the 1950s.
In one of the Braichgoch chambers, Mark shows us the stub of a candle set into a lump of hardened clay, left from more than a century ago. Miners had to supply their own candles, as they had to supply the chains they hung from, as they had to pay to rent their hammers and chisels from the company. (The owners were English, the workers Welsh: a history of imperialism and labor conflicts.)
Typically, only two or three candles lit a chamber in which six men worked. The men put together their own working groups—usually family members—in what was known as a bargain system. They might contract to work a single chamber for decades, using only hammers and chisels to take out tons and tons of slate.
Mark directs us to turn off our lights. The darkness is complete, so deeply black, disorienting, absent any edge or gradient or any way to define it except as absolute dark. I realize that I have never in my life been so far from a source of light.
Mark lights a candle. It casts a small, dim glow around us, barely enough to see one another’s leaning-in faces.
He says, imagine if you were working here in the 1800s and your candle went out. How you would fumble to reach for your waterproof match case, take out a match, use two hands to strike it, relight that candle. Imagine you were hanging on a wall, your leg wrapped in a chain, your hands full of chisel and hammer.
Imagine you were hanging on a wall, your leg wrapped in a chain, your hands full of chisel and hammer.
Glyn Davies pops a DVD into his player and shows me highlights. It’s a video he made, he thinks about 1995, to document the underground operation he worked in. These were the days when there was a bit of electric light in the chamber, and most of the operation was mechanized.
At the start, a power saw is cutting through slate, not quite like butter but certainly much faster than in the old hammer-and-chisel days. Water washes over the blade to keep dust out of the air and to keep it from overheating, from creating too much friction to function properly. The blade is beaded with diamonds, Davies tells me. Then there’s another saw—something called a wire saw, that cuts with an endless cord made of steel wires twisted together. Headlight beams dart around the operation.
Next we watch Davies’s old friend Phil, in heavy work clothes and white mining helmet with its attached light, crouched atop the giant cutaway block, beginning to split a smaller slice from its side. One knee is on the block, cushioned with a glove, his other bent over his black-booted foot. I can’t see his face.
Davies narrates for me: first drilling a hole and pounding into it something called a “plug-and-feather.” This, he explains, is a three-piece tool made up of a metal wedge (the plug) and shims (feathers) on either side, with their “ears” facing in the direction of the grain. Phil works down the line from there, at spaced intervals, with powerful pounds of hammer to chisel. Davies points out the very thin crack, like a thread, starting down the side of the block.
“Listen to the echo,” Davies tells me. The hammer blows ring through the chamber, out into our room.
When the crack widens and the slab begins to lean away, another man uses a crowbar to complete the job, laying the block onto a chain bridle. The next step is Davies’s usual job—winching the block, as long and wide as a full-size mattress and perhaps a foot thick—up to the tunnel. As the block lifts, we get a good look at the ladder the men climb up and down. Steam swirls upward like a dragon’s breath, disappearing into darkness.
Towards the end, we watch the slab lowered onto a flatbed on rails, and then a tractor-like vehicle begins to pull it way.
A “bargain” was three different things. It was the contract or agreement itself, between the owner of the rock or his representative and the workers. It was the group of men, most often family members, who held the contract. And it was the place where they worked; in an open quarry it was the particular rock face they worked, and underground it was a chamber. One bargain might be worked for decades, with its bargains (contracts) renewed periodically. The bargain system lasted in some quarries until the 1960s.
Another night, at the pub, the place is packed, and Tim and Annie are sitting with a group on the other side of the room from where I’m trying to follow a conversation between an artist and an art historian. When they’re about to leave, I catch them to say, “Sometime I’d like to ask you a little more about your mine.” I had walked around where I thought it might be but wasn’t sure if I was in the right area.
“You can come take a look underground if you like,” Tim says. “We have helmets with lights. Wear your wellies.” He gives me his phone number. “They say the military used to tip in there, in the 1960s.”
I’m imagining military waste being thrown into empty mine chambers. That sounds terrifying. “What kind of waste?”
“Old equipment. Junk.” Tim doesn’t seem too concerned. “Think about those miners in there, with just candles for light. They were heroes.”
One ton of dressed slate resulted in 30 tons of waste.
Clog, dock, rive, dress, whittle. I collect these simple, elegant words.
A clog was the solid block of slate hauled from the mine on wagons on wheels and later rails. Inclines built into the lay-out let gravity do some of the work, but then the empty wagons still had to be hauled back, sometimes for miles. Until the 1930s the transport was powered by people and horses.
At the mill, clogs were docked into smaller blocks, by more hammer and chisel in the early days and later with a saw machine. Those smaller blocks were rived—split into sheets along the grain—again by hammer and chisel. Finally, the slate was dressed, finished into its final shape with a slate knife or whittle, later by machine. Before mechanization, an experienced finisher—sometimes called a chipper—could produce between 500 and 600 roof slates in a day.
Empresses, queens, princesses, duchesses, marchionesses, countesses, viscountesses, ladies, doubles, and singles. These were the standard slate sizes from largest to smallest.
Then there is the tip. A tip is any area of land where waste is thrown out, but a tip here is the slate waste, the rubbish of discarded slate that flows down hillsides. It also fills many empty mine chambers, since it was easier and cheaper to dump it inside than to haul it out. I learn from Mark that only one-tenth of the rock cut in a mine ended up usable, with the rest being broken pieces, bits and chips, inferior rock involving quartz or other minerals: waste. Elsewhere I read that one ton of dressed slate resulted in 30 tons of waste.
Those are just the English words. There’s an enormous lexicon of Welsh words related to the slate industry. Different mines had their own, unique words for the same things. A website called Slatesite lists these: holitwr for the splitter, naddwr for the chipper, blocyn tin (bum block) for the block of wood the holitwr sat on for holiti.
A slate monument sits just off the road, along the narrow track to Aberllefenni. It is written in Welsh, but the dates tell me that it is a war memorial to locals killed in World War I. Eight men are listed. Two are Richard Roberts and Ebenezer Roberts.
Skilled miners, I later learn, were assigned to the front lines to dig trenches and lay in explosives. The death rate was high.
I come away from the mine tour with a book titled Within These Hills. It tells me how the slate workers were categorized: the unskilled laborer (probably a young person) who clears away the waste, the miner who cuts openings and prepares the chamber for the rockman, the rockman (or slate getter) who cuts the blocks of slate in the chamber, and the quarryman who splits the slate. There’s also the badrockman, who blasts or cuts away the low-quality rock to get to the good stuff.
The book lists the names of men working in the mine during different time periods. I look for the Roberts name.
Lewis Roberts is listed as an employee in 1888, having signed that he agreed to deductions made to his wages for “rent, medicine, tools, and implements” supplied by the company. In 1895 Lewis is “cutting loose end.” In 1900 he’s “blasting bad rock.” There are other Roberts men, mentioned but less defined—Griffith, John, Owen, Richard, David, Robert, Morris, Thomas, Jabheth, Naphtab, and Zabulor. In 1928, G. Roberts was working as a laborer, and R. Roberts as a rockman. Evan Jenkins Roberts, son of Robert and Catherine, started work in the mine in 1934, at the age of 15.
Rock left between chambers, to keep some integrity to the mountain and safety for the workers, was known as a pillar. Men working their bargains were said to sometimes “cheat” or “rob” the pillars, if it meant a little more carving away would add to their pay.
“Untopping” is today’s term for mining pillars from the surface, excavating that remaining slate.
Accident (death) report from the Departmental Committee upon Merionethshire Slate Mines, re: the Braichgoch Slate Quarry: “16th September 1875. Robert Roberts, slate miner, aged 17. Falling from one floor (level) to another. He was following his father, with whom he was working, along a pathway to their working place, but having turned back a few paces to give another workman a light, he inadvertently stepped aside over a precipice, which the footpath skirted.” – Within These Hills, by Sara Eade
The Quarryman (Y Chdwarelwr) was the first Welsh language film ever made, in 1935. It depicts a typical quarryman’s life, as he goes from home to work and back again and on his day off goes to chapel. It was filmed at the Liechwedd slate quarry, in the same Cwm Dyli area as Beddgelert and the hydro plant, where David and Catherine are said to have come from. Winter snow and ice in that high country made working outdoors particularly miserable.
Liechwedd today still produces a small amount of slate but is better known as a tourist attraction, with mine tours, zip lines, and underground trampolines.
Farewell Rock (FFarwel Roc) is a 1969 film that documents the work of men in another huge slate quarry in that same region. The camera follows a man and his two sons as they work the rock face in a chamber. One scene shows the men working outdoors in a pouring rain, singing in Welsh about the English failing to break the hearts of Welsh lads.
The Aberllefenni Quarry, where Glyn Davies worked, is technically not a quarry but three separate mines dug into either side of the valley and spilling long, massive slate tips. In some places, steep slate ramps cut through or beside the tips. These inclines, I’ve learned, were part of the transport system that lifted tanks or trucks of water to counterbalance the lowering of slate blocks from above.
The mining at Aberllefenni began seven centuries ago, making the mine the longest operating slate mine in the world. A sign along the road says that its mill was constructed in 1860 and used water from the stream running past to turn a pair of water wheels for powering equipment.
When I walk up to the mill, I first see a yard full of slate slabs and rusting vehicles closed off behind fencing, then the long building with many garage-style doors and clear roof panels for lighting. Some of the doorways are open, and a man inside one extends a measuring tape over what I assume is a slab of slate. The sign reads Wincilate Ltd. Slate Specialists.
Rhys (pronounced “reese”) is the name for the heavy wooden hammer used to cut long slate blocks into shorter lengths, before that task was taken over by saws. According to Welsh Slate, by David Gwyn, this “required both skill and brute force” and was the part of the process that “depended most on luck as well as judgment and was the one that led to the greatest number of uncontrollable losses.” The rhys, named for its inventor, was made of African oak, with an ash handle.
Rhys is a common name among the Welsh, for both first and last names. There are several in my family’s genealogy. My cousin is Rhys.
Glyn Davies wasn’t always a miner. First, he worked as a slaughterman and butcher, when Corris had two butcher shops on the main street. Before that his family farmed in the area.
Why the mine? “You had to work somewhere,” he says. “It was either the quarry or the forestry commission.” What he liked about the mine was the camaraderie, working with the other men, the fun they had together. Together we watch the video of Phil and his other friend—the one who “didn’t want to be on TV”—as they move so nimbly on and around the slate blocks and hammer away. He says again, “They’re all dead now. Everyone but me.”
The Welsh slate industry began to collapse after 1900 because of competition from France and other nations and with the rise of the tile industry. World War I cut exports to Germany, previously a major market. The Great Depression caused a further decline in demand. Tariffs and labor disputes interfered. After that, it was a slow slide to closures and the emptying of towns like Corris.
The small amount of slate production in Wales today largely consists of reworking what was previously discarded, making waste into into floor tiling, road aggregate, garden chips, nameplates, plaques, and souvenirs for tourists. At the shop where I scheduled my mine tour, I could have purchased plaques with “Home Sweet Home” and “Beware of the Dog” inscribed or painted on pieces of rough-edged slate. Other items included picture frames and coasters.
Slate production seemed to be one more British industry that had failed to adapt to a long-drawn-out decline in demand and that had not modernized or had done so too late. Its principal legacy was sub-standard housing, poor labor relations, and work-related sickness, above all the crippling effects of silicosis, which left men breathless and in pain from their exposure to slate dust. – Welsh Slate: Archeology and History of an Industry, by David Gwyn
At Aberllefenni, I walk a path past massive tips, the most obvious, starkest alterations to the landscape. They rise steeply on both sides of me and feel vaguely threatening, as though a good shake could send them, all smooth bottoms and sharp edges, sliding down. A few shrubs and spindly birch trees struggle amongst them.
In places, the tips are interrupted with walls of stacked slate. These were the edges from which more slate waste was dumped, or they help stabilize the tips, or both. A couple of steep ramps, the counterbalance inclines, climb through the rubble.
There are also, among the tips, a number of small slate shelters. These, I’ve learned, were where a subgroup of workers once scavenged from the tips the most usable slate to split and dress.
A cold wind blows through the narrow valley, colder yet where the slate wastelands block the sun.
I’m trying to understand the rock. I understand the way slate splits into sheets, but my reading tells me there’s more to it than that. Slate actually has three planes of fracture, which is what allows it to be extracted in blocks before being split into sheets.
Slaty cleavage is the name for the obvious plane.
The second is the grain or pillaring line. (Pillaring in this sense is not to be confused with pillars, rock left between chambers.) In Glyn Davies’s video, the men break a block along the pillaring line.
The third is called the foot-joint, which crosses the cleavage plane and provides a snap point.
Geologic processes, when ideal, result in creating these multiple orientations. The skilled slate worker sees exactly how the rock lies and how best to take it apart. The splitting on the slaty cleavage is still done today by hand; no machine has yet been invented to do a better job.
Skilled miners, I later learn, were assigned to the front lines to dig trenches and lay in explosives. The death rate was high.
At the Aberllefenni mill, where the sign reads Slate Specialists, a friendly man waves me into the yard, says it’s fine to look around, to come right into the mill. He is just back from lunch and not in a rush to get to work.
The large but cluttered room beyond the open doorway is slightly medieval-looking, with slotted lay-out tables, hoses, measuring tools, pieces of slate including a wagonload of scrap, and circular saws of a size to feature in a horror movie.
We talk out in the yard, among slate stock sorted by kind and size. Darren, who has an open, weathered face and the type of earring that fills rather than pierces an ear lobe, has been working at the quarry since 1988, when he began at age 17. He tells me he started by operating planing and polishing equipment in the mill, but he did get a little underground work, too. “I quite enjoyed it,” he says, “though it was a bit of a trek in.”
Now, though, Darren is one of only three employed in the operation, and most of the work is making headstones, though they also make fireplace enclosures and mantles, kitchen tops, monuments, decorative pieces, anything a customer orders. Business is good, he says.
The slate used in the mill comes from mines still working to the north, along with the odd block picked up from the company, a little farther up the valley, that grinds scrap slate for road aggregate.
I’d read somewhere that Darren’s company was now importing slate from China. True?
Darren takes me over to a particular pile. This was some Chinese slate they’d brought in a few years back. He points at it with a look of disgust, as though to touch it would dirty him. He says something about the grain and impurities. With my untrained eyes, I can’t say that I see any difference from the other gray slate all around it. Aberllefenni slate, I hear again, is the finest in the world.
Darren has lived his whole life in this valley. His mother lives nearby, and his grandfather worked in the mine.
I tell him my ancestors came from North Wales and that they were named Roberts.
His mother, he says, is a Roberts.
My grandmother was named Kate—“just Kate” she liked to tell us—after her grandmother Catherine. My father was named Robert, I presume after the Roberts surname although I never asked.
Everywhere I go, I see men who remind me of my father. Not as the old, shuffling man he was at the end, but as he remains in my memory, in tennis whites or lifting his binoculars to the cry of a loon. I see again his broad cheeks, the curl of his hair, that wry smile. My grandmother floats back to me, too—not in the appearance of the older women who greet me on the street but simply as moments of soft embrace, something felt rather than seen. We called her Naina, and it’s only in Wales that I learn that Nain is Welsh for “grandmother.” I picture Naina’s deep, serious brown eyes, and I remember a print on the wall in her house, of a forested glen with women bathing by a waterfall. I wonder now if the scene is from Wales and what significance it might have held for her.
When at last we’re on a level surface again and I see light, literally at the tunnel’s end, I want to run to it.
On a misty Sunday morning, Tim and Annie turn their Land Rover off a main road onto a leaf-covered track, through a locked gate announcing Gaewern Mine, Private Property, and up a very steep hill with multiple switchbacks. Beside a giant slate structure—a drum house—still rigged with its winch and remnants of cable, our group of five gears up with climbing harnesses and helmets. Tim leads us up a tip of loose and slippery slate. We’re soon high onto the mountain where we negotiate a narrow ledge to enter an adit, a mine entrance. I try not to look down. Despite Annie’s assurances that we won’t be coming back the same way, I’m not so sure I want to be on either a mountainside or inside a hollowed-out mountain, a space that hasn’t been worked as a mine since sometime in the 1960s.
We turn on our lights and for the next three hours creep through tunnels and around corners, wading through water, stepping over waste slate, ducking under rock, clipping to and unclipping from cables secured to the walls. Calcite dripping from ceilings forms pale stalactites, and spikes and nails and wooden braces hold up what might be sections of unstable slate. The walls are scarred with grooves where gunpowder charges were laid for opening the tunnels, with chisel marks, and with painted symbols that directed what work was to be done where. The floor is furrowed where oak sleepers, now rotted or removed, had supported the rails on which the slate wagons rolled. Some of the old, rusting rail, pushed aside, appears in our headlights like the skeletal remains of ancient cave creatures.
I try to imagine working in such a place, from early dark to late dark and all the darkness in between, only seeing the light of day on Sundays. The cold, the damp, water dripping, the dust, banging at rock faces, hanging from ceilings, clearing rubble. The darkness barely beaten back by a pale, flickering candle flame. I try to imagine being a child laborer, lifting and lugging pieces of broken slate, pushing out the heavy carts, pushing them back in again. Or one of those women, substituting for a horse, hauling a slate-filled cart 15 miles to the coast.
We gradually make our way downwards, once clutching a knotted rope and another time scooting on our rears, trying not to dislodge loose slate. We peer over drop-offs and into chambers where chains still hang from ceilings. At one point, water reaches the tops of our boots. Ahead, we see that a new cave-in—new since Tim and Annie were last there—has blocked the path. We backtrack to a different tunnel.
When at last we’re on a level surface again and I see light, literally at the tunnel’s end, I want to run to it. The dark, the damp, the weight of all that mountain and its history of labor I never would have been capable of and can barely consider that persons related to me once were—these nearly flatten me. Outside, I fill my lungs with wind-freshened air, my eyes with the green and yellow brilliance of trees, grasses, the meadows with sheep below us in the valley. I float on down the old trolley track, built on slate, next to slate, overlooking slate, in the shiny world of slate.
Nancy Lord, a former Alaska State Writer Laureate (2008–2010), is the author of three short story collections, five books of literary nonfiction including Beluga Days and Early Warming, and the 2017 novel pH. Her writing focuses mainly on northern environmental and marine issues. She also edited the anthology Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from the Salmon Project, teaches science writing for Johns Hopkins University, and is a regular book reviewer for the Anchorage Daily News.