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Then & Now

A Blondin carrying workers in Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen, Scotland.
A Blondin carrying workers in Rubislaw Quarry, Aberdeen, Scotland.

The inspiring heights of yesteryear

Before modern day quarries conceived of loaders to carry tonnes of crushed rock from place to place, there was the Blondin.

This high-wire contraption was a type of aerial ropeway used in open pit quarries in Wales and Scotland to lift and transport wagonloads of rock, typically from one hard to reach area to another.

The Blondin operated by suspending a cable over an open quarry and attaching a crane pulley, which could be run back and forth across the cable. The pulley would be run out to the rock pile, lowered so the rock could be loaded, and then lifted and run to where the rock needed to be dropped off.

The first recorded use of a Blondin in the quarry industry was at Penrhyn Quarry, in north Wales, where the invention was installed in 1913. Penrhyn was based around a large pit some 120 metres deep and worked in a series of terraces. Quarry operators at Penrhyn employed a variety of means to transport slate from the terraces to the processing mills. Since many of the terraces were connected via inclines, Blondins were developed to connect the more remote terraces directly to the mills.

"Blondins were developed to connect the more remote terraces directly to the mills."

But where did the name “Blondin” come from?

Well, that would be from Charles “The Great” Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker from the 19th century. His death-defying feats inspired the quarry industry to adopt its own specific technique.

Known for his grace and agility, Blondin owed much of his celebrity to crossing Niagara Falls at the US-Canadian border on a tightrope 340m long and eight centimetres in diameter, suspended 50m above the water.

He first accomplished the feat in 1859, but he made many subsequent trips, sometimes blindfolded and at other times pushing a wheelbarrow. He once crossed on stilts and once with his manager on his back! On another occasion he even sat down midway across the tightrope, cooked an omelette and ate it!

Perhaps surprisingly, Blondin died of diabetes at the age of 73 at his home in London, England. His legacy was so synonymous with tightrope walking that many performers after him used his name to describe their own acts.

In fact, just before the US presidential election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln compared himself to “Blondin on the tightrope, with all that was valuable to America in the wheelbarrow he was pushing before him”.

While the Blondin was decommissioned long ago, Penrhyn Quarry today still pays homage to the device. The Blondin Restaurant trades as part of the three-storey Adventure Terminal building occupied by outdoor adventure operator Zip World, which manages one of the fastest zip lines (or flying foxes) in the world, and one of the longest in Europe at Penrhyn Quarry. The 150 cover restaurant features an outdoor terrace with views across the Penrhyn lake and mine.

Jean-Paul Small

Jean-Paul Small is the editor of Solid Ground, a publication of
Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology

Thursday, 18 October, 2018 05:30am
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