Engraving of a Slate Quarry

Note: This is far from my best writing, but I still felt this was good enough to be on the site. Enjoy.

I had been warned when I began training to become an engraver, that by the time I had grown to master the art that it would be outdated, replaced entirely by photography and other means of image making.

There were few professional engravers left by the time I had entered the marketplace, and those who remained were either masters who commanded high prices, or newcomers such as I who worked cheap to compensate for the lack of experience.

Though I was new to the field and had been turned down on several occasions, I convinced myself to send samples out and hope for the best. One of these somehow found its way to the directors of a slate company in Wales that had just gone public and wanted an engraving of a scene at their quarry to be featured on their stock certificates.

No photographs were ready for me to base my engraving on, so the directors invited me to see the quarry in person. So, I scooped up my supplies and caught the next train to the place of interest.

The journey was fairly short one in terms of distance, and I aimed to arrive at the quarry as early as possible so I could spend the day crafting the drawing I would work from when I returned home to etch the final plate.

The first train left a quarter after Five in the morning and made good time to arrive by Nine at a junction where I was to transfer to another line which would take me directly to the quarry itself.

As the train neared the station, the guard checked my ticket and warned me that only the last carriage would be stopping at my station and that I’d miss my stop unless I moved to the rear immediately.

I had heard of smaller stations with short platforms in which only the front or rear carriages would actually halt within the station proper, so I made my way to the back of the train.

“I’m getting off at the next station, is this coach going to platform there?” I asked the guard. He examined at my ticket and looked at me oddly.

“Yes, it is, though not many people stop there on the first train of the day.” Said the guard as he returned my ticket. “Well you’ll find you have quite a choice in compartments, they are nearly all empty. We will be arriving within the hour I expect.”

I walked down the isle and found that I was the only passenger abroad the coach that morning. There wasn’t even a drunkard in the rear compartment as I heard was sometimes the case in the rear coaches of early morning trains.

If we had known earlier that I’d need to be in the rear coach and that we would have had it it all to ourselves, we would have taken it from the beginning. The compartments towards the front of the train were all packed, and I lacked even the elbow room to take out my notebook and sketch the scenery the window seat provided.

I thought that perhaps I should take this trip again some time for the sole purpose of practicing landscape drawings, as many of the scenes would have made great subjects for picture postcards.

The rocking of the train had just barely lulled us both to sleep when a bell sounded and a heavy thump rattled us awake as the brakes were applied and the train drifted into the station.

As the train lurched to a complete stop I was on my feet, case in hand, and ready to disembark. The guard came out of his from his little booth at the head of the coach and opened the door for me, and as I stepped onto the platform I was surprised to see charging the track at full speed into the distance the remainder of my train.

The operation of detaching coaches without stopping the train was a new idea to me, though it made sense. Why stop the train for the dozens on board when only one passenger actually wanted to stop somewhere?

This station was on a hilltop, and I could see the town proper below. It would have been a reasonable walk if that was where I was heading, but my journey wasn’t over yet and I had another train to catch.

“When is the train to the quarry supposed to leave?” I asked the guard.

“The quarry line? I don’t know it’s schedule. It comes in on the other side of the platform, all I can say is to just wait for it, It will come sooner or later.

All alone aside from the guard, I wandered to the other opposite side of the platform, which was quite lower to the ground and connected by a small flight of stairs. I could see that the tracks were of a narrow gauge, the difference in track size apparently being the reason I was forced to change trains.

I had heard of these little tramways before, but I had never before thought of them as proper railways, like the one I had ridden to this point. The empty trucks on the siding looked almost like soap crates on wheels which I thought could easily be pushed along the rails by a person of average strength.

I glanced to the main line platform at the solitary coach I had arrived in. It was at least sixty feet long and about five feet in breadth. I could only imagine how a whole train full of people could comfortably ride on a train whose tracks were clearly less than an arm’s length apart.

I slumped into a bench on the platform and stared at the tracks for a long while waiting for the train to arrive.

After some time I picked up my case from the ground, unfastened the clasps and opened it up. There was a change of clothes shoved in one corner, the smallest I could fit in a case this size, and my art supplies, which had been scrambled into a mess in the chaos of commuting.

And the I considered that whenever during a wait I had done something to occupy myself, like reading or drawing or doing puzzles, that the awaited event would sneak up and attack before I could properly engage myself in the entertaining activity.

So reluctantly I closed up the case and went back to staring at the track, waiting for something to happen.

After some time, the little train had arrived, its engine creeping quietly into the yard cab-first towing a row trucks filled to the brim with slates, three empty coaches, and a guard’s van. The locomotive was surely small enough to fit on board the coach I had rode in on with space to spare.

Though little, the engine must have been strong, as the loaded trucks looked quite heavy when filled with stone. I was reminded of little working dogs like terriers which had been bred for strength beyond what their size would indicate.

Two men hopped out of the guard’s van as the driver positioned the train on an elevated platform suspended above a stretch of standard gauge track, which I later learned was for dumping stone from their little trains into a lager one which would take it across the country to wherever it was needed.

While the workmen bothered with the slate trucks, the driver built a new train, taking along a rake of empty trucks with the passenger coaches at the rear, and finally pulled up to the platform to pick take on its lone passenger and head back up the line.

The guard sold me a ticket from a little window in the guard’s van and I took a seat in the rear carriage.

Though quite tiny in comparison to my previous train, the carriages were much more spacious than I had imagined, as I failed to consider that the coaches could be wider than the rails they sat upon. The coaches all appeared to be identical in size and accommodation, and I supposed they could easily fit between ten and twenty people each.

The layout of the carriages was unusual to me, as they lacked corridors and so were isolated from each other. Each coach was divided into open compartments of bare board benches, and though I could have easily seen, spoken to and shaken hands with riders in the neighboring compartments, there was no way to move between them save for exiting the coach and re-entering through a different door, or simply clambering over the benches, which I could never dare try myself.

The trucks and carriages surged into each other as they accelerated out of the station, the buffers sending the bucks and bounces of the engine back through the train and creating a rough jerking motion as we climbed up the hill into the first station in the middle of the town which I had spied from the station.

The journey was slow, but steady. The ten mile journey to the top station took just under an hour. It was then that I realized that there was no knob or latch within the coach with which to open the door and that I seemed to be trapped within my compartment, until I realized that I had to reach through the window and open it from the outside.

I found myself in a station in the middle of a forest. There was a lake about quarter mile’s walk away which the remaining passengers all seemed to have come to visit by train for a day out.

Sal and I immediately began scanning the platform for my employer, Mr. Lethbridge, who was supposed to be waiting for me here.

“Ah ha! You must be Jasper!” Mr. Lethbridge barked jovially he noticed me and shook my hand. He had a deep, powerful voice like how I imagined Saint Nicholas sounding. Though he wasn’t fat at all, nor exceptionally large, he seemed to me the type who would have done well working as a carpenter or a plate layer or something like that.

“How was your journey here boy? Did you find your way alright?”

“It went well, my train out of the city was crowded, but it was at least on time. The country out here is beautiful though, I must say.” I glanced up at the forest canopy as I spoke and realized that the treetops were so thick that everything around was almost completely in shade.

“So, what do you think of railway? Good isn’t it?” He asked proudly.

“Yes. It’s the smallest I have ever seen, but it’s nice.” I of course wouldn’t have spoken poorly of the place I had been invited to work right in the man’s face, but I was being earnest, it was a truly nice place to be, and I already had plans to return to do some drawings of it for an album or calendar.

“Good, glad to hear it.” He patted my back as my uncle used to when he visited on Christmas, nearly winding me as he walked me up the platform towards the middle of the train. “Back in the day, the newspapers used to call us a toy railway, but now they know that we mean serious business. The line is a hit with tourists in the spring and summer, and we get good business from the farmers to get their produce down to the markets in town, but as you can see our real work is moving slate from the quarry to the main line.” He motioned to the string of empty trucks between the carriages and the engine, which was taking on water from a stand pipe.

“I’m charged with controlling the railway, and Mr. Heathcliff is the director of operations at the quarry. Both of these enterprises were built with the intention of providing business to one another, so it was only natural that the companies joined together shortly before the war, and now we’re going public, and we need you to give us a pretty picture to put on our stock certificates.”

The doors of the guard’s van were left open wide. Mr. Lethbridge climbed inside. Though invited aboard, something about the guard’s van triggered an “off limits” reflex in my mind and I hesitated slightly.

“Come on in Jasper, don’t be shy.” So I followed him in and looked around.

The van was uniform in size to the coaches behind it, but with no compartments or isles it was far more spacious. The guard’s bicycle was leaning against one wall in the rear, and on side opposite the door was a long, ebony bench, which unlike the ones in the coaches was padded with cushions and far more comfortable.

I took a seat in the corner opposite Mr. Lethbridge and set my case on the floor of the van, which needed badly to be swept. I noticed a broom and a dustpan stowed away with shovels and some other tools beneath the bench opposite mine, I felt like I was inside a little garden shed on wheels. The guard joined us soon after and the train rolled out of the station with little effort. I could see through the rear facing window that we had left the coaches behind at the station, and that the caboose I was riding in was now the tail of the train.

The quarry yard was only a few hundred feet beyond the top station.

Mr. Lethbridge pointed out different machines and facilities to me as we rolled past them. There were large open sheds filled with workbenches that had tools and utensils laid around everywhere, and elevated flumes moving water around to water wheels that powered grinders and hand drills and other machines.

The facility looked much more like an art studio than a dreary mine, as I had imagined it. I always had a strange affinity with productive endeavors like carpentry, sculpting and engineering, and seeing the yard elevated my enjoyment of this job beyond the amusement of getting out of the city for a day or two. I liked this place a lot already.

The train stopped on some side track and Mr. Lethbridge helped me to the ground and lead me about while the guard and the engine’s crew tended to the train.

“So, you’ve got everything you need to do this work right? This drawing?” Mr. Lethbridge asked as I caught myself from tripping over a felled post which had been left in the gravel of the yard, which was crunchy with slate shards.

“Yes, I’m quite ready. What is it exactly I’ll be drawing?” As I looked around I could see many potential subjects all about the yard which would have communicated the idea of a quarry quite clearly.

“I’d like you to capture that scene over there.” Mr. Lethbridge pointed to a steep, narrow hill lined with twin railway tracks. Over the crest I could see the roof of what looked like a shack or a stable, but nothing beyond that.

“That incline there is our train elevator. It’s the link between the quarry and the railway. The men working in the quarry fill the trucks with slate, and a network of cables drags them to the winding house at the top of the hill there.”

As he explained this operation, another engine came along pushed a line of empty trucks to the foot of the hill and an engineer attached the rake to a steel rope.

“Ah, we came just in time for a demonstration.” He said excitedly. “See that cable there he’s attaching to that line of empties? Well, that cable goes up the tracks to the winding house and the other end is hitched to a train of loaded trucks. The loaded trucks run down the incline by gravity to the empty ones to the top.”

I watched as the system went into play, the loaded trucks crept slowly down the hill as the empty train was elevated to the top to be filled with stone to repeat the cycle. The driver scrambled his engine around some points to be ready on the other track to pick up the loaded train. A workman unfastened the cable, attached the front truck to the locomotive, and without delay the train snaked across the yard past where we had been standing and back down the line from which we came.

“See, it’s ingenious and really efficient, and we’ve decided it will make the perfect scene for the stock certificates. We want the final engraving to look real good like you see, like something you’d see on a bank note or something like that. You can do that for me right?”

“Well - “

“Of course I know you can, I’ve seen your work and you’re a real genius at art, you know that? Who am I to worry if you can do it or not? I know you’re good for it. Now come along and I’ll show you the spot we set up for you.”

Mr. Lethbridge had a workspace ready for me, a drawing board with a table to lean on complete with a box of pencils, quills, compasses, rulers and ink pots. I would never had needed any of these things, but the thought that they had been laid out for me made me feel welcome and comfortable.

It was the perfect spot to view the incline, close enough to get the detail, but the right distance to get the surroundings down as well. I was then fully confident that this would turn out great.

The little engine I had ridden behind, Number 2, had been posed at the bottom of the incline waiting to receive a train of loaded trucks from the elevator. The train of empties it had hauled was hitched to the elevator cable, and the train was halted by the breaks in the winding house when the loaded train had descended about a third of the way down the hill.

I was to draw this scene to capture the image of the quarry in action, and Mr. Lethbridge left me alone to go about my work.

Normally I would have started with the scenery and added in the details of the incline towards the end, but since the subject had been prepared exactly as they had wanted it, and I didn’t want to hold up their work for too long, I started drawing the train elevator immediately.

The engine had turned out rather well considering how little experience I had with drawing machines, and with the most difficult part out of the way the rest of the scene would be be simple to finish.

I blew the loose dust off the tip of my pencil and went to work drawing finished the two trains suspended on the elevator, and with the most important part of the scene committed to paper, I glanced between my drawing and the real life before me several times. I knew before that I could do a good job capturing it, but I had impressed myself with how good the incline had come out.

It was clear that there was no real reason to keep the train waiting any longer, since now I could focus on getting down the static details of the quarry scene, but as I started sketching in the suspended water flumes and the surrounding greenery, I started to feel anxious.

Why should I let the train sit on the hill like that now that I was done drawing it? Was the cable meant to bear that load for as long I had been at work? Perhaps I should go over and tell them to carry on.”

But no, not now. I was coming along too nicely to stop now.” I paused for a moment, glancing at the incline. They strong brakes in the winding house and was sure they can wait just a little longer.

It was soon after that my concentration was ruined by a jarring crack like nearby thunder or the breaking of a violin string. It happened so quickly that when I finally noticed the train of loaded trucks careening down the incline that I hadn’t even a moment to shout a warning.

The crash was tremendous. The frontmost trucks had dissolved into a cascade of splinters and twisted iron frames as they collided with the locomotive, shoving it several feet back and knocking it free of the rails. The trucks in the middle buckled and collapsed into a heap of wood and shattered slates, burying the front end of the engine, and the trucks in the rear were launched into the air like toys, one smashing through a water flume as it flew, instantly drenching the crash scene in water.

The line of empty trucks rolled down the hill too, the lead car derailing in the debris, but adding little to the existing damage.

I perhaps shouldn’t have ran straight at the wreck, as the busted up locomotive was leaking steam rapidly and could have exploded, but I was acting too quickly to consider that danger as I ran behind her to help the driver and fireman.

The engine was buried up to the cab in debris, and though derailed, it remained upright. Its smokestack had been sheared clean off, and the water tank severely dented. I feared the worst, but as I approached both the driver and fireman stumbled out of the cab, shaken and covered in a muddy mixture of slate dust and flume water, but both unharmed, or at least able to walk away unassisted.

“Are you all right?” I shouted.

“As all right as we could hope to be, or at least I am.” The driver said.

“I’m fine as well, don’t worry about me.” He panted as he struggled for his breath.

Mr. Lethbridge seemed to come out of nowhere and demanded both men to lay down on a weathered picnic bench like they were about to be carried off to hospital.

“Are both of you okay? What happened? Does anyone here know first aid?” Mr. Lethbridge asked in a panic as thought there were anyone present besides myself and the two men laying on the table. If there had been serious injuries I would have been useless, for I knew no cures except for splashing water on fainted people, and both men were already well soaked and wide awake.

The driver sat up on the table and said, “This is nothing too serious, second or third aid will do.”, and we all laughed, though we were still very unnerved by it all.

The brakeman then came scrambling down the incline to help and apologized to his friends profusely as they composed themselves, though neither of them seemed too upset at him.

“Don’t worry yourself Malcolm, it’s fate is all. We all do what we can, but accidents will happen.” They comforted.

“I feel like I’m partially at fault.” I admitted shamefully. “It seemed like something was wrong but I didn’t listen to her.”

“And I warned you not to park the engine right at the bottom of the incline. I told you something like this would happen some day.” The brakeman admonished. “And told you a thousand times that we should have changed that rusty old…” and silenced himself.

We waited for the steam to finish leaking from the crippled engine so we could approach safely to inspect the damage. By then however, the water from the collapsed flume had flooded the wreck site and some of the slates had dissolved into a gritty mud.

I helped the quarrymen to clean the mess, though I was never asked to. It took all afternoon to clear the tracks, and the brakeman climbed back up the incline and got to work installing a fresh cable to replace the broken one.

Mr. Lethbridge helped clean up as well, and he ended up as dirty as the rest of us. I found the frayed remains of the cable that had failed. I didn’t know much about quarry equipment, but just looking at the rope I could see that the steel had been badly rusted, probably unserviceable long before I had arrived.

More than any of us Mr. Lethbridge kept staring at the broken cable, almost entranced by it. He said nothing, but it seemed to me that he felt deeply responsible and humbled by what had been allowed to happen on his watch. I never realized until later what a rare trait that was for a manager or owner of a workplace to possess at the time.

As the evening set in, we all took quick showers in the waters of the flume to wash the muck off our clothes and then dried off as best we could. My drawing and supplies were waiting for me where I left them, and I packed them up, careful not to drip water on them and spoil my work. I had drawn enough to be able to finish the picture from memory later.

I didn’t think then how ironic it was that I had been destined to capture such an ideal scene to represent the quarry just moments before that scene erupted into near disaster.

The last train of the day, a rake of five coaches clattered into the yard to take the quarrymen back home to their families. No tickets were checked, and the couple dozen workers all climbed aboard while the engine ran around to pull the train home.

Mr. Lethbridge stopped me as I prepared to hop on board.

“Hey Jasper, I would just like to say how sorry I am that things turned out the way they did today while you were here, and to thank you for helping out the way you did. For now I must stay here tonight with the foreman and try to have the elevator ready for work before the start of the day tomorrow, but trust me, you will be be compensated handsomely for your work today.”

Mr. Lethbridge shook my hand fit to rip it from my arm and I sidled into my seat and shut the door as the whistle blew and the train pulled out of the quarry yard and back onto the line.

As I stared out into the forest I could already hear the story being spread between the men in my carriage. The incident would become a local legend for many decades afterwards.

After a stay in a bread and breakfast in the town near the bottom station, we returned home and completed the final engraving of the scene soon after. Mr. Lethbridge did indeed pay me well for my work, much more than I would have dared to expect. The engraving was used in newspaper articles reporting on the incident and I received a healthy income of royalties from it for the next few weeks.

I appreciated the money, but the real wealth I had garnered that day was the lesson that in all affairs, one should never second guess themselves.

Unfortunately the quarry company didn’t survive long after going public. The slate industry bottomed out after the war and the quarry site is now abandoned, but the little railway survives today as a tourist attraction.

Incidentally, the locomotive involved in the accident was repaired soon after, and at ninety years of age still takes part in day to day operations pulling trains there.

To submit feedback, please use the site guestbook or email the author at,

This work is the intellectual property of Super Train Station H and is registered and protected under US Copyright.
Use of it by third parties is bound by Copyright law and the terms defined in this site's Terms of Use Agreement.

<<<< Back to STSH - Creations