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Slate history trail

01/03/03 12:00AM By Alan Boye
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(Host) Recently commentator Alan Boye took a walk through a Vermont ghost town - a site that was once part of a thriving slate industry.

(Boye) Today I am taking a stroll through the village of West Castleton. The only trouble is - there is no such town anymore. I am walking on what is known as the Slate History Trail - a mile of easy gravel road that passes by the crumbling remains of what was once the West Castleton Slate Company.

I pass three marvelous homes built entirely from stacked slate. The walls look a little like the walls of an igloo, only these buildings are square and made of shiny smooth stone. Carved inside the greenish gray blocks of one house is an alcove. Inside the stone alcove hangs a large, ancient bell. In the 1880's this bell rang to signal the start of each long and difficult day of the hard labor of mining slate.

I walk up into an open, snow-crusted field to what at first looks like an ordinary small Vermont pond. This was a quarry. Day after day men hauled huge, dangerous blocks of slate from this pit. The stone was used for building houses, hearths and tombstones. Then a man named Alonson Allen started using thin slabs of slate as roofing shingles. Soon the West Castleton Slate Company was a boomtown.

Once the slate boom began, this place flooded with Welsh, French, Irish and Slavic immigrants many of whom died doing the brutal work in these quarries. I search in the snow until I find the stone outline of what had been a tiny two-room row house that long ago housed a worker and his family.

The West Castleton Slate Company controlled almost everything in the workers' lives. The people who lived and died here worshiped at the company church; they sent their children to the company school; and they bought their food and clothing on credit from the company store. The men labored in the slate quarries and credited this week's food against next month's wages.

I follow a faint trail down to Little Hazard Brook. I push aside a tangle of branches and before me are remains of a mill where a waterwheel powered the saws that cut and polished the slate into billiard tables, sinks and bathtubs.

Much of the stone mill building has fallen, but the wall in front of me is still mostly intact. Slender, flat slabs of slate, finished to an ornate polished beauty, frame what was once the main entrance to the mill. Directly above the large opening that once served as the main door, a finely finished slab of slate serves as a capstone. The year 1868 is beautifully carved into the smooth surface.

I turn my back and walk out of the woods, away from the ruins that recall the hard lives of men and women who - for a short time in the economic history of the world - carved their thin existence in slate, in a place called Vermont, far from their native homes.

This is Alan Boye just walking the hills of Vermont.

Alan Boye teaches at Lyndon State College.
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