hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News October 2021


Quarry laborer became nation’s ‘slate king’

Maury Thompson


The Gospel of John asks the rhetorical question, “Can any good come out of Nazareth?”
In the 19th century, many people around Washington County, N.Y., and Rutland County, Vt., would have answered in the affirmative, providing the question referred to the hamlet of Nazareth in the Nantlle Valley in Gwynedd, Wales.

That’s where Hugh W. Hughes, the “Slate King of America,” was born in 1836, fittingly for the metaphor on Christmas Day.

By the time of his death in 1890 in Granville, N.Y., Hughes owned the largest conglomerate of slate manufacturing and distribution operations in America, The New York Sun reported on Feb. 12 of that year.

“He came to this town a poor man and dug all his fortune from the Granville quarries,” The Argus of Albany reported from Granville on Feb. 18, 1890.

Hughes was 53 when he died at 11:10 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1890, and had been ill for a while, The Granville Sentinel reported on Feb. 14.

His family paid Excelsior Granite Co. $8,000 -- the equivalent of more than $240,000 today -- to create an elaborate, 25-foot-tall monument to mark his grave at Elmwood Cemetery in Granville, where he had been influential as a businessman, a leader in local Republican politics and president of Granville National Bank.

The Sentinel reported that Hughes left assets of between $100,000 and $150,000 (the equivalent of $3 million to $4.5 million today) to his family, primarily his son, as well as a $15,000 life insurance policy.

The closing stanza of a poem “In Memoriam to Hugh W. Hughes,” which Mrs. L.B. Case wrote to honor his passing, shows the respect Granville residents had for him.

“Peace to his ashes, peace to the dust; peace to the dust that is covered with the emblem of the just,” Case wrote in her tribute, which was published March 19, 1890, in The Granville Sentinel. “May the sun in its radiance shine upon his grave, while we lament our loss, and our sons strive to say.”

About 800 people lined up to console Hughes’ family at the wake, and Granville businesses closed for two hours during his funeral.
Hughes earned his wealth by a combination of the sweat of his brow and the brilliance of his investments.

“His career is an illustration of … of what is called a ‘self-made man,’ of one, who without any assistance but his own strong will and determined efforts, conquered success and made for himself place and influence,” the Sentinel wrote.

Hughes came to the United States when he was 21 and found work as a common laborer in lead mines at Dodgeville, Wis. He later moved to the Granville area, where many Welsh immigrants lived, and worked at slate quarries at Fair Haven, Vt., and Hampton, N.Y.

“Here he toiled as a laborer and managed to save up a small amount of money,” the Sentinel reported. “But his ambition was not satisfied, and he saw better wages in the coal mines of Georgia.”

When the Civil War broke out, Hughes and William Jones, also from the Granville area and later a New York City hotel owner, were drafted into the Confederate Army. Rather that fight against the Union, they dodged the draft and hopped a train for the North.

Hughes worked in copper mines along Lake Superior before returning to Hampton, where he worked again in local slate businesses. For a time he also worked in the slate industry in Pennsylvania.

Eventually he began buying and selling slate quarries and setting up distribution operations.
By mid-1888, Hughes was distributing all of the red slate quarried in the Granville area, shipping product as far as Australia.
“As there are not red slate quarries in the world except in this vicinity, Mr. Hughes now virtually controls every red slate manufactured on the face of the earth,” the Sentinel reported on May 25, 1888. “In other words, he doesn’t only control a big corner of the fruitcake, but the whole business, and can put prices where he wants.”

His wealth afforded him such luxuries as an English oak-case piano purchased for $1,000 (the equivalent of $28,800 today), the Sentinel reported on June 21, 1888. The paper said the piano was placed in his “magnificently furnished residence.”

Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.