Paper City - Part I of III

The Origins of "The Paper City" Part I of III

Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman

City Historian


The recent announcement that Westvaco has been involved in a $10 billion dollar merger with the Mead Corporation caught the attention of many retired papermakers here. Where younger residents see a mall when they drive past PC Plaza, older residents still hold visions of 50 foot high woodpiles there, waiting to be rolled into the sluiceway where they would be cut into chips to make wood pulp and paper. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 356 days a year-that’s the way it had always been and, it seemed, that’s the way it would always be. Even for those who did not work there, the rhythm of the community was established by the wail of the 7, 3, and 11 o’clock mill whistles signaling shift changes each day. For many residents, these were the sounds and images with which they were born and died. But it all came to an end thirty years ago when Westvaco shut down operations here, ending a thriving economic activity dating back to 1882, an activity which had earned the community its title as "The Paper City" while dictating the fortunes of generations of local residents.

Mechanicville’s economy revolved around the production of sash, blinds, linen thread, and the associated mercantile activity necessary for its 1,200 residents to sustain everyday life in the decades following its incorporation as a village in 1859. However, beginning in 1882, significant changes were afoot which would open new possibilities for growth. Following its successful tunneling through the Hoosac mountains in the 1870’s, the Boston, Hoosac Tunnel, and Western Railway began laying the basis for future rail expansion by initiating freight yard activity here. This not only created new job opportunities for trackmen and other railroaders; more importantly, it gave Mechanicville connections to New York and other large markets, making it an attractive site for industrial expansion.

Almost simultaneously with the BHT & W expansion, a group of New England investors received permission from the state legislature to erect the largest dam site on the Hudson here in 1882. The group had more than one fish to fry, as the awkward name of the new corporation implied (The Hudson River Water Power and Paper Co.): sell power to other businesses attracted to the 200 acres the company owned on both sides of the Hudson, while initiating paper production here to take advantage of Mechanicville’s closer proximity to New York City publishers than older, established New England paper companies. However, poor planning, Mother Nature, and economic hard times complicated the achievement of these goals. Early on, the papermaking contingent among investors took a back-seat to water power interests when an an Irish textile mill employing 3,000 hands expressed interest in relocating here. But, a recession put business expansion plans everywhere on hold, while Mother Nature dealt them the added insult of unleashing huge ice flows against the newly erected HRWP & P dam during some of the worst flooding seen in decades. Power interests were not to be discouraged, however, by either poor economic prospects or bad weather; keeping an eye on the emerging electrical industry in Schenectady’s Edison Co. as a prospective customer. And, when former President Benjamin Harrison’s son-in-law arrived in town to scout out the possibility of building another dam a mile below the original site, the hydropower interests seemed to have gained supremacy in the corporation. Yet, all was not lost for those investors who realized that by introducing the newly-refined sulphite process here, they could revolutionize paper making, and they meant to direct the HRWP & P fortunes along those lines.

Prior to the late 19th Century, high quality paper was made from rags in small mills like that of the Saratoga Paper Co. located at a dam site just north of Mechanicville, an operation purchased by HRWP & P Co. in 1882. Rag papermaking was expensive, time-consuming, and limited in its ability to meet the demand created by an increasingly literate society’s thirst for daily newspapers, "dime novels," and weekly magazines. Following the Civil War, ground pulp had become the predominant source for paper production, but quickly, the superiority of the sulphite process which dissolved the intercellular matter of wood with sulphuric acid established itself as the premier method of making book papers.

As early as 1883, the HRWP & P Co. was producing 25 tons of chemical pulp fiber, a cotton-like substance readily turned into high grade papers. Initially, this product was sold to other mills which produced the paper, but from the beginning, plans were in the works to combine pulp fiber and paper production processes here. However, it would take a few years and strong leadership in the corporation before these plans came to fruition. The man behind this move was Thomas Duncan, the son of a small farmer born in Scotland who learned paper making at age 12 in 1844, and who worked his way up the ladder in the industry after migrating to the US in 1853. First investing in the HRWP & P Co. in 1885, later becoming its treasurer and superintendent, the Scotsman oversaw such dramatic changes here that the corporation changed its name to the Duncan Co. in 1895. An 1896 article in The Paper World succinctly noted: "the Duncan Mill’s last decade saw the triumph of wood pulp over rags and small mills. The Duncan continuing process [of production] is a model of a modern mill." The company’s twenty-building complex here was described further in the article as a city of industry "combined to form an imposing, harmonious whole of almost bewildering proportions." Sulphite fiber and paper making processes were introduced in 1890 when a two-machine paper mill was erected; two more machines went on line in March, 1895, permitting the company to turn out 40 tons of book paper daily, much of it used to print church hymnals. The 475 employees here turned around over 300-400 tons of freight daily, bringing in wood from company lots in the Adirondacks on canal boats floated to its docks near the current overpass, while shipping out its finished products by rail. The significance of these achievements was reflected in the fact that Duncan and fellow corporate executive, A.G. Blaine, were named President and Vice-President of the American Paper Manufacturer’s Association, while their four-machine plant here was described as the largest papermaking company in the country in 1896. Quickly emerging as a leader in the field, the company established offices in Hartford and New York City. When Duncan’s son, John, joined the firm following ten years of studying papermaking in Europe, the company was able to draw upon the collective expertise of producers worldwide. Operating as a cutting-edge innovator, the Duncan mill was turning out a large volume of book paper daily, while simultaneously leasing buildings and hydro power to subsidiaries like the Empire State Co. located on its site. It had come a long way from that day in 1885 when the local press wondered if the investors would ever be able to "overcome the many embarrassments connected with the planting of this immense business." The largest employer of local labor by far, its chief executives lived in the community, took direct interest in its affairs, while promoting the welfare of the workforce manning its operations around the clock seven days a week.

Mechanicville’s doubling of population in the last fifteen years of the 19th Century can be attributed primarily to the establishment of paper production here. For most of the next century this industry would dominate the local economy. Yet, no sooner had it established itself here, but the Duncan company would be confronted with the forces of change which challenged the entire industry. What all of this would mean for the community of Mechanicville will be taken up in the next installment.