“The slate business is booming,” The Granville Sentinel reported on June 13, 1890, followed a week later with the report, “There is trouble at the quarries.”Slate trimmers at eight Granville quarries were demanding a two-cent an hour wage increase, from 18 cents an hour – the equivalent $5.41 in 2021 dollars – at all but one quarry, which paid 19 cents an hour.
“The manufacturers were given until Monday to consider the proposition, when, if the demand is not acceded to, the men will quit work,” the Sentinel reported on June 20. The strike deadline was later extended for an additional week.
Owners of Owen Brothers quarry, the quarry that paid 19 cents an hour, said that they would grant the requested increase, provided other quarries in Granville did too. But other quarry owners rejected the demand, saying they had plenty of splitters that also were competent trimmers.
The Sentinel supported the workers in principle, but urged them not to strike. It had been 10 years since the most recent previous major strike in the local slate industry.
“There is no question but what the manufacturers could afford to pay the desired advance, and whether the men can force them to grant it by striking is another question of serious moment to them,” the paper editorialized. “The Sentinel’s sympathies are always with the laboring man, but strikes are to be deprecated. It is generally the striker who suffers.”
The trimmers’ strike did not materialize, but in a more far-reaching move, about 70 workers in all departments walked off the job July 1 in a general strike at three quarries – the W.H Hughes Brownell quarry, Williams & Edwards quarry, and Thomas Griffiths quarry.
“Every man from pitman to trimmer left. They demand an increase of two cents an hour in wages, and sincerely believe that the manufacturers, in view of the late advance in the price of slate, can well afford to pay it,” the Sentinel reported on July 4. “They claim that they are now receiving only starvation wages – the same as paid at a lower price.”
Some workers returned to work at the Williams & Edwards quarry July 2, but, by and large, workers remained in solidarity, and there was potential for the strike to spread. A committee of strikers met with slate workers at West Pawlet, Vt., who agreed to make the same demand for a 2-cents-an-hour wage increase.
There were also indications that the strike could be long and divisive. “Since the trouble began, a number of the younger and unmarried quarrymen have left town,” the paper said.
But the solidarity broke down quickly. “The general slate workers’ strike failed to materialize, the men nearly all returning to work Monday morning,” The Sentinel reported July 11. By the end the month, area slate dealers would ship 2,300 tons of roofing slate from the Granville train station in July alone.
A week later the labor unrest seemed all but forgotten as market conditions continued to boom. “The slate business is in a condition of unparalleled prosperity,” the Sentinel reported on July 18. “The month of August is usually regarded as a dull one for slate manufacturers, but this year promises to be the most buoyant of the season.”
A new entrepreneur had joined the local industry.
“Dennis Sullivan of this village leased twelve acres on Levi Lewis’ land on the edge of the Vermont border and has since opened a quarry of what proves to be unfading green slate, which is a scarce and valuable product worth about double the price of sea green,” the Sentinel reported on July 18.
The operation was turning out between 800- and 1,000-square feet of roofing slate of the premium shade per day, in addition to quantities of sea green and purple slate.
With labor unrest seemingly quieted, reporters turned their attention to a snake terrorizing a local quarry.
“It is said that a monster snake exists near the Brownell slate quarry. It has been seen by several sober persons at various times crossing the highway from one brush heap to another,” the Sentinel reported on July 11, 1890. “One man describes it as being as ‘large as a stovepipe and as long as David. W. Roberts’ kitchen.’”
“The snake at Brownell quarry is yet uncaptured. It is said to have formidable fangs,” the Sentinel reported on Aug. 8.”
Big business took an interest in the regional slate trade in the fall when representatives of a western syndicate successfully negotiated to buy all but two sea-green slate quarries between West Pawlett and Castleton, Vt.
“The syndicate is said to be backed by English capital, and it will endeavor to control the entire sea-green slate product of the world,” the Sentinel reported on Sept.26.
Demand for slate remained strong in November and December however. “There is less slate on hand now than at this season of the year for some time. A year ago, there was on the line some 50,000 squares of sea green, while now there are barely 20,000,” the Sentinel reported on Nov. 21.
“The slate industry was never better in this section than at present, and the indications are that the boom that began last spring will continue right along during the winter,” the Sentinel reported on Dec. 5.
At a meeting of local red slate producers, it was decided unilaterally to increase the price per square of slate, the Sentinel reported on Dec. 19, 1890.
“All of the red slate in the world is from local quarries, and the demand for the article exceeds former years.”
Photos courtesy Slate Valley Museum: Slate workers and their bosses near Granville in the early 20th century; and a slate mine near Granville in the late 19th century.