When it comes to business, time is money, and therefore only a photographer employed by the Maine Slate Company of Monson could have gotten these six quarry workers to pause from their labor to pose for this chilly scene around the turn of the twentieth century. The men have placed their wooden ladder onto the snowy ledge at lower left, having already used it to reach the horizontal seam above their heads. There they affixed scaffolding to the walls and used small explosive charges and the massive pry-bars behind them to peel away in sheets the vertically striated black slate. While some pieces are small enough to hand-carry down to the bucket and cable-hoist barely visible at bottom center, others will need to be split with hammer and chisel before they can be raised up to the yard crew waiting above. This slate pit, believed to be the Burmah Quarry in west Monson, was just a few hundred feet deep, but other slate pits in the area descended more than a thousand feet and had to be prevented from collapsing by placing massive wooden cross-timbers between the walls.
Dozens of quarries were excavated in the years after Welsh immigrant William Griffith Jones discovered Monson's remarkable slate bands in 1870, as entrepreneurs hired Welshmen, Swedes, and Finnish immigrants for the backbreaking work of mining the durable material that was then turned into roofing shingles, headstones, and even ice boxes and sinks. (The fellow in the fur coat, at center, is likely a foreman or manager and looks as though he could have just arrived from Lapland.) By the time this photograph was made, the elaborate Hebron Hotel, a narrow-gauge railroad, and a community of more than 1,400 souls had sprung up around the Monson quarries. But the invention of asbestos shingles, modern refrigeration, and an increase in overseas competition would see most of the slate pits abandoned by the start of World War II.
The strength of Monson's natural resource has proven lasting, however. Today the Sheldon Slate Company, formerly the Portland-Monson Slate Company, still extracts slate from Monson and has used the stone to create such honors as the headstones of President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. While the company's five-person staff now uses heavy machinery and works from open-pit mines rather than the narrow crevices shown here, it continues to produce riprap for streambeds, tiles for walkways, and kitchen countertops and sinks. "This slate really does have a national reputation for being superior to the material coming in from overseas," explains Sheldon Slate owner John Tatko, III. "I'd love to say that it's something that we do to it, but it's all a fact of Mother Nature."