A Slate Roofer Shares Slate’s History in and Benefits for the Carolinas

Although slate had been used as ballast for ships crossing the Atlantic as early as the mid-1600s, its use was somewhat sparse in the Carolinas until after the great fire. With the Civil War in full bloom, a catastrophic fire broke out in Charleston in 1861, and the city was decimated. However, the Great Reconstruction Era (1865-77) brought shiploads of slate and bricks from North Wales. Welsh slate from the Penrhyn quarries and bricks and tiles from Flintshire and Chester made their way to nearby Liverpool, England, and ultimately to the historic Battery of Charleston.

Not to be outdone, the American quarries started to ship to the Carolinas also. New quarries opened up all along the New York and Vermont corridor, and, in the South, the Virginia Buckingham Co. started quarrying slate in 1867. Slate roofing was growing exponentially at this time, and the Carolinas were consuming it at a very rapid rate.

This dormer features Vermont Black installed in a German style.

This dormer features Vermont Black installed in a German style.

As a large port city, Charleston was able to acquire a wealth of different types of slate for its roofs: purple and gray slates from Penrhyn, Wales; Pennsylvania black slates; lustrous black Buckingham slates from Virginia; and greens, purples and reds from Vermont. Although it took more than a decade, Charleston was rebuilt in a grand manner with beautiful slate roofs as far as the eye could see.

Unfortunately, in 1989 Hurricane Hugo struck Charleston, causing nearly $6 billion in damage. The silver lining was many of these historic properties with slate roofs were 100 to 200 years old by 1989 and were in need of major restoration. From 1989-91, Charleston experienced a huge building boom with the insurance companies footing the bill for the restoration of the city. Tradespeople skilled in historic restoration were called in from all over the country and world. Among them were slate roofers hired to assess and restore the city’s slate roofs.

Learning Experience

Having only been a slate roofer for four years at the time, Charleston proved to be a great learning experience for me. Often working 12- to 15-hour days to keep up with the workload, I was able to personally observe various slating techniques from more than a century ago.

For example, still one of the most unique slate roofs I’ve encountered in my 20-plus years in slate roofing, was on a private residence on King Street. It had sustained minimal damage, and in the process of our repairs, we could see why. The entire slate roof was laid in a bed of mortar with wooden pegs where one usually finds nails. Needless to say, it was quite an adventure to restore it back to its prominence.

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About John Chan

John Chan is principal of The Durable Slate Co., New Orleans, and president of the National Slate Association, Poultney, Vt.

Comments

  1. That’s a really good article. I remember working in Charleston after Hugo, and seeing some of that old slate roofing going on. Keep up the good work!!

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