Rhiwbach Quarry is located at the head of Cwm Penmachno, and before the building of the Rhiwbach Tramway, which connected with the Ffestiniog Railway at Duffws, slate was carried by cart via Betws-y-coed to the quay at Trefriw, in the Conwy Valley. However, wharfage and storage costs were expensive at Trefriw, and from the 1830s onwards, until the opening of the Tramway in 1863, slates were carted over the hills to the small quays on the Traeth Bach along the shores of the Afon Dwyryd below Maentwrog, where they were carried by boatmen known locally as Philistines.
Quarrying began here in around 1812, on a site to the south of the remains of the main site as seen today. Quarrying moved to the main site in the 1860s, although the former site continued production until the 1880s.
Rhiwbach is on the northern side of the ridge to the east of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and connecting the quarry to the Tramway necessitated the building of an exit incline, whereby the loaded waggons were initially hauled up to the level of the Tramway. The site did not lend itself to the use of water to power the incline so a steam engine was used, a fairly unique method (only 2 quarries did this), and this was located in a large engine-house on the main mill level at the foot of the incline. The incline was therefore powered from the bottom, the haulage wire passing over a sheave at the top. This engine-house also provided power for the quarry machinery, pumps, and the underground inclines. The engine-house is notable for its tall, square chimney, which today is the subject of a preservation order.
The quarry was run by the Festiniog Slate Co. In 1883 output was 3187 tons, and 130 men were employed. There are some 8 underground levels. The quarry is also fairly unique in that it was drained by a long adit tunnel.
Due to the remote location of the quarry, it developed into a quarry village with houses, barracks, a shop, and a schoolroom which doubled as a chapel. Women and children also lived on the site. The quarry company even provided a library and a comfortable reading room "for the purpose of reading, writing and improving themselves in the various aspects of knowledge". Social activities included concerts by well-known artists, and well attended Eisteddfodau. Prior to the establishment of the schoolroom (after much pressure upon the authorities) the children used to walk to the school at Cwm Penmachno, but conditions meant that absence was frequent. The lady-teacher in the schoolroom (Kate Griffiths) travelled daily from Blaenau, being hauled up the inclines before walking along the remainder of the tramway. At the end of the day she would walk to neighbouring Graig Ddu and ride down the 3 inclines to Blaenau on the renowned car gwyllt ("wild car", plural ceir gwyllt; photos here). This method of travel on the inclines was banned in most (if not all other) quarries, and certainly was at Rhiwbach, where Rule 10 of the Conditions and Service stated that "No workman shall ride up or down any Incline or Inclines at the Quarry or on the Railway." (This is interesting in that she broke this rule, but then she was not a "workman"!) She is the only woman to have been known to have used a car gwyllt.
Much remains in the way of relics on site, and a visit is well worthwhile.
Further information, with pictures, can be found on David Sallery's Penmorfa site here
- Rhiwbach Slate Quarry - its history and development by Griff R. Jones. ISBN 0-9533692-2-6
- Quarries served by the Festiniog Railway