Blaenau Ffestiniog town is set in an elevated natural bowl, between the Manod and Moelwyn Mountains on the southern fringes of Snowdonia. Slate brought wealth to Snowdonia in the 19th century and Blaenau Ffestiniog was the centre of the industry The scale of operations was vast and even today the grey slate waste tips that surround Blaenau Ffestiniog have prevented it from being officially included in the Snowdonia National Park. The smaller village of Ffestiniog is nearby.
The town is at the centre of a network of slate quarry and mine workings, waste tips and associated buildings, all linked by a transport system of inclines and railways. The whole landscape developed in about a hundred years and today the sites are largely derelict. The quarries have included
The first quarry to be worked in the area was Diphwys which was established in 1765, and later bought up by William Turner and the Cassons. English capital was largely responsible for the development of the industry, and increasing demand for roofing slates as a result of the Industrial Revolution, both played a major part in developing the industry. By 1873, Blaenau Ffestiniog was described as the 'City of Slates'.
The other principal feature of the area is the transport system which moved the slate out. Originally slate was exported by pack animals to slate quays on the River Dwyryd, until the Ffestiniog Railway was opened in 1836. The surrounding valleys each have their own impressive transportation systems, such as the Cwmorthin tramway of 1850, later extended to the Conglog quarry, the Rhiwbach tramroad of 1863.
With Blaenau Ffestiniog at its centre, the Ffestiniog slate range stretches some 20km east-west by 7km north-south of the town. Slate blocks were obtained from five beds or veins, each with its own characteristics, with the Old Vein perhaps being the most important.
Much attention concentrated on improving techniques for mining slate, because the dip of the slate beds meant that slate had to be mined underground. Increasing mechanization led to the establishment of centralised mills served by railways in the early 1850s, replacing the rows of small huts previously used for dressing, with water power driving the machinery, and providing balances for operating the inclines.
During 1860/70, demand exceeded supply as there were increased trading opportunities brought about by the national expansion of the railway system and the development of harbours. Up to 30% of the area's output was sold to foreign markets at this time. There were about 25 mines in operation, spread over a wide area of the Manod and Moelwyn uplands, although the eight largest and most productive mines were still located within a one to two kilometer radius of the centre of Blaenau Ffestiniog, where the best quality slate reserves were located. Most of the smaller concerns such as Moelwyn, Conglog and Cwt-y-Bugail were at higher altitudes, on the margins of the reserves, where the slate beds thinned out and transport was a problem. A protracted period of uncertainty and decline set in after 1878, and intense contraction occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, accompanied by serious depopulation culminating in the First World War, after which the industry never really recovered.
Welsh Slate Quarries