Chapter IV: Coal, Quarries and Concessions (continued)
That was almost the last of commercial marble quarrying in Newfoundland. In the 1930s, Alfred Budden of Sops Arm excavated 50 tons of local marble at the government's request for laying in the floor of the St. John's General Hospital; no one came to retrieve it. In the 1950s, the Dormston limestone quarry near Corner Brook produced marble for building the Corner Brook Memorial Hospital. These isolated instances hardly symptomize a healthy marble industry. What with the current trend toward steel and concrete monoliths, it seems unlikely that Newfoundland marble will ever be produced on a commercial basis.
Within a ten-minute drive, one can leave behind the marble mountains of the Humber River and reach roadcuts of slate bordering the Bay of Islands. The slate, like the marble, bears the scars of old quarries.
Two slate quarries once overlooked the Bay of Islands. Four more dotted the shores of Trinity Bay and another lay in Conception Bay. Some of these seven quarries contain superb slate, a fact not at all apparent from Newfoundland's meagre slate production. The west coast operations remained unproductive, and the east coast operations shipped 300,000 tons over six decades, less than some Welsh slate quarries manufactured in a single year.
The tragi-comic story of the Summerside slate quarry on the north side of the Bay of Islands began in 1900 when a major strike crippled the Welsh slate industry.(33) A group of Welsh slate merchants seeking alternative slate sources visited Newfoundland in 1901 and were impressed by the Summerside slate deposits, which belonged to the Reid Newfoundland Company. Before the group could option the deposits, however, one of their number, Owen J. Owen, approached Reid in secret and leased the property for himself.
Owen hastened back to Britain after concluding his deal and spent the 1901-02 winter writing a booklet on Newfoundland resources and floating the Bay of Islands Slate Syndicate. Despite having failed at previous slate quarrying ventures in Wales, Owen managed to raise capital and incorporate the company. He recruited eight Welsh slaters and in June 1902 departed again for Newfoundland.
That fate occasionally deals justly with dishonest men is exemplified by Owen's horrendous experience in Newfoundland. Immediately upon his arrival he received an order from Robert Reid for 30,000 slates with which to roof the railway station in St. John's. He hired Newfoundlanders to install machinery, build cutting sheds and quarry blocks of slates. These blocks the Welshmen were to square up with saws and split into slates with chisels and wooden mallets. In November, three of the Welshmen grew restless, left their jobs and were not seen again in Newfoundland. Two weeks later, the Welsh foreman accidentally ignited a supply of dynamite while warming it up; he killed himself and ruined the entire workshop area. This left Owen with four Welsh slatemakers, who complained profusely of being unable to keep pace with the Newfoundland quarrymen. He obligingly laid off the Newfoundlanders in December and in the process alienated the local villagers. Not even a special Christmas concert of Welsh songs sung by the lucky employed returned him to favour.
Worse was yet to come. Quarrying had just begun in March 1903 when the Reid Newfoundland Company received notification that the slate quarry trespassed upon land belonging to Fred Carter of Summerside and that $4000 and a prompt withdrawal would be required to make amends. Matters thereafter degenerated to the point where Owen had to transmit a plaintive telegram to his employers: "Writ for ten thousand dollars served upon me today by Carter; wire what am I to do."(34) Owen in fact did little with either Carter or the quarry. His inactivity brought him critical dispatches from the syndicate's London directors, to which he retorted: "If you knew how I have attended to my duties here many weeks, when I was tempted to give up altogether and break my heart over the whole affair, I don't think you would have written some of the letters to me that I have received."(35)
The Reid Newfoundland Company capitulated to Fred Carter in September 1903 and ordered Owen to vacate the land. The transferral of facilities to the new locale took much of the winter, but in the spring of 1904 work began once again on Reid's now long-overdue order for roofing slates. By July the order was almost ready. At this inopportune moment one of the four Welshmen married a widow 26 years his senior and refused to live with her afterwards. She threatened legal action, forcing him and another Welsh slater to run off to Cape Breton. At that, Owen's nerve broke. He fled home to Wales, leaving the slaters in utter confusion and the slate syndicate without a resident manager.
The syndicate directors, in the meantime, had fallen into financial difficulties and used Owen's departure as a chance to scupper their lease obligations to Reid. They sent out John F. Stewart as Owen's replacement, supposedly to manage the quarry. Upon his arrival they informed him that he was really there to close down the slate operation behind Reid's back. Stewart was incensed at the deception and went to work for Reid, whom he termed a "brither Scot".
The able Stewart came as fresh air after the incompetent and shifty Owen. Inspired by Stewart's energy, the men opened up six new galleries and built a pier, tramway and workshop. They manufactured and carefully stacked thousands of slates, interlayering them with wooden laths to prevent breakage. The slates were about to be shipped when a telegram arrived in July 1907 saying that Stewart's wife had suddenly taken ill. He dropped everything and returned to Britain at once. The slates remained in Summerside and the company operation collapsed into confusion from which it did not recover. This came about partly because Stewart's successor lacked his skill and determination, but more because the demand, and hence price, of slates had fallen severely since 1900.(36) By 1909 the Summerside quarry was dead.
Local children removed some of the discarded slates for school boards; the remaining ones fractured with age, grew weathered and now lie beneath a thin carpet of debris and vegetation that obscures much of the old site.
The second Bay of Islands slate quarry lay across the bay from Summerside on slate deposits near Birchy Bay (now called Curling). Before Owen J. Owen's precipitous exit from Newfoundland he had, unbeknownst to Reid or the syndicate, staked the deposits with three claims. It is doubtful that Owen intended originally to keep the property, but once in Britain he discovered that his reputation had preceded him and that to dispose of the claims would mean a return to Newfoundland.
Owen spent the 1904-05 winter in Newfoundland and in April managed to interest the Newfoundland Exploration Syndicate in his property and person: the company leased the claims and asked Owen to work them. Owen, however, lost all credibility by using a new steam drill to bore dynamite holes to fire a 21-blast salute in honour of Nelson's Day. The annoyed company directors dismissed Owen and cancelled their lease.
For all Owen's failures as a quarry operator he obviously shone as a promoter. Having exhausted his last hope of backing in Newfoundland, he sailed to England and there persuaded a group of capitalists to incorporate the Long Range (Newfoundland) Slate Quarries Limited on 16 December 1906. The company leased his claims and hired him as their resident manager.
The Birchy Bay quarry came to life in the summer of 1907. People from the area watched in excitement as train cars full of equipment arrived for the company. At the quarry site 50 men - Newfoundlanders and Welshmen - uncovered the slate beds, laid tramways and put up a huge cutting shed. A reporter from the Western Star interviewed Owen and learned that he was "sanguine of successfully conducting operations in this quarry."(37)
Had the reporter talked to the Newfoundland workers he would have found that they were less than sanguine about Owen. A week after the interview they went out on strike to protest that their daily salary of $1.10 did not equal the Welshmen's $1.25. Coinciding as it did with the decline in the slate market, the strike commanded no sympathy from the company. Relations worsened between Owen and the men throughout the winter. Owen became ill and quarrying grew increasingly desultory until, around the end of 1908, it stopped.