Paper Making in West Linn
The Willamette Falls, where that river cascades through a narrow channel of basalt is, by volume, the second largest waterfall in the United States. And while height in a waterfall may make for spectacular postcard views, volume means power. Lots of it. The falls marked the “end” of the Oregon Trail, where weary cross-continent pioneers unhitched their wagons and began to look for a place to call home. In many ways, it is fair to say that Oregon was born at the Falls. Certainly it was where, in 1829, John McLaughlin, the “Father of Oregon,” established his home and built the first water-powered sawmill west of the Mississippi.
Waterpower brought settlement and industry. Oregon City grew from McLaughlin’s mill and soon there would be a woolen mill and other industrial development. In October 1866, the first effort at papermaking in Oregon started at Willamette Falls. That project ended in foreclosure less than year later, but an idea had been planted; Oregon was destined to make paper. The state had trees by the square mile, the raw material of a new papermaking process that replaced rags and straw. At Willamette Falls, more than 30,000 cubic feet of water flow past every second; creating massive amounts of power that could drive turbines to build the industry.
Papermaking did not return to Willamette Falls for almost two decades, when Henry Pierce and group of California and New York-based businessmen established a paper mill at West Linn. Their venture, the Willamette Falls Pulp and Paper Company made its first groundwood pulp on October 7, 1889. Soon 20 tons of pulp, produced by four water-powered grinders, was being sent downriver every day – traveling from the mill at West Linn to a sister operation, a paper mill, in Stockton, California. By January 1890, the Willamette mill was keeping twenty men busy cutting down cottonwood trees on Brown’s Island, near Salem, and rafting 250,000 feet of timber down the river to the mill daily.
Papermaking from wood pulp in the 19th century was a hard and messy business. Logs were floated to the mill where they were cut into short chunks or “bolts” and debarked. The bolts next went to the “Grinder Room,” where they were fed into a rotating sandstone grinder (later manufactured stone with embedded oxide or carbide). The bolts were literally chewed up, ground into fibers and mixed to form watery slurry that was the raw material to make paper. Grinding trees into pulp was hot, wet, and back-breaking work, with men standing over the water-powered rotating grinder and slowly feeding the bolts of wood into its maw one after another, hour after hour.
Groundwood pulp would remain part of the Willamette process for decades but, almost simultaneously with the mill’s opening in 1889, work also began on a sulfite mill - a chemical process that breaks down wood into fibers. Sulfite mills (also called “digesters,” which gives a clear visual idea of the process) require less work and produce a higher grade of fiber, which in turn allows for higher grade paper. The sulfite mill at Willamette Falls is noted as one of the first on the West Coast. Willamette Pulp and Paper Company installed its first paper machine so the mill could turn its pulp into paper on site, rather than having to ship pulp to Stockton. The mill now produced newsprint that was shipped to Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and as far away as Japan, China, New Zealand and Australia.
In November 1889, just a month after Willamette Pulp & Paper went into operation, another paper mill, the Crown Paper Company, also opened at West Linn. The Crown Paper Company mill also relied upon grinders and digesters and they produced newsprint, manila, and wrapping paper, among other products. Both the Willamette and Crown plants prospered in West Linn and these two competing paper mills grew side-by-side, each adding new paper machines and additional capacity for both groundwood and sulfite pulp. By 1898, Willamette Pulp & Paper was operating four paper machines; not only was one the fastest of its day, capable of producing 600 feet of paper per minute, but was also among the first paper machines to be operated by electricity! Another paper mill at Willamette Falls, part of what by then had become the Crown-Columbia Paper Company, produced paper that was 186 inches wide, considered the largest in the world.
In 1914, the two West Linn neighbors, Crown-Columbia Paper and Willamette Pulp and Paper, joined forces and became the Crown-Willamette Pulp and Paper Company. In 1928, the Crown-Willamette firm announced that it would merge with the San Francisco-based Zellerbach Corporation. It would take nine more years before the complex merger could be completed and newly-formed Crown-Zellerbach Paper Company emerged. Crown-Zellerbach was a mammoth enterprise, capable of producing 1,450 tons of finished paper daily, ranking second in size of all paper companies in the United States.
In 1947, Crown-Zellerbach pioneered the method for making coated paper in West Linn. This process relies upon a mixture of clay and carbonate to create a smooth paper surface that is ideal for high-quality printing. The process of coating continues to influence the paper making industry today. “Arguably, the most important technological improvement made at the West Linn mill, the one that allowed the mill to successfully transition from the 19th to the 21st century, is coating” By the 1950s, the Crown-Zellerbach mill at West Linn was among the largest employers in Oregon, with some 1400 workers operating ten paper machines, producing pulp in both groundwood and sulfite. Crown-Zellerbach’s yearly payroll was nearly $6 million, the equivalent of $82 million today. “When the readers of TIME and LIFE magazine in the western part of the United States, they hold in their hands a product of the West Linn paper mill…
In 1986, the James River Corporation purchased the West Linn mill. In 1990, the groundwood operation ended. Using outside pulp sources, the mill at West Linn continued to produce high-quality, coated papers that were marketed under the Simpson brand, but improved technology and increased competition led to significant reductions in the West Linn workforce. In 1996, the mill closed briefly but, in 1997, it reopened under new ownership as the West Linn Paper Company.
Today [In 2015], West Linn Paper Company operates three paper machines and daily produces 750 tons of high-quality, coated paper. New technology, skilled employees and continuous improvements in efficiency have allowed the mill to double its production since startup with a workforce of less than 250 employees.
As we near two centuries since Dr. John McLaughlin first cut through bedrock allowing the flow of water to power a sawmill at Willamette Falls, the West Linn Paper Company remains the primary example a long tradition of industry at the falls. The company, still making paper, is the sole survivor in a long line of paper making that began at West Linn in 1889. West Linn Paper Company operates on land, and in some cases within buildings, that have been producing paper for Oregon and the world for 125 years. That’s quite an achievement that should be recognized and celebrated. Today’s employees continue the legacy of hard work, dedication and commitment to the future that has enabled the mill to thrive. As the paper industry has evolved, so too has West Linn Paper Company. Through committed ownership, solid business strategy, dedicated employees, sustainable practices, improved technologies and efficiencies and a collaborative relationship with the community, West Linn Paper Company has made the commitment to be part of the future. West Linn Paper Company is proud of its heritage and role in the community, and the employees are the heart of the business.
Over the course of a century and quarter, thousands of employees have ground pulp, operated paper machines, shipped goods, and kept the mill at West Linn operating to supply paper to customers across the globe. The Oregonians who worked at West Linn Paper Company and its predecessors have raised their families on mill wages, sent their children to college and supported the community. Generations of mill workers continue to make paper and, all the while, the Willamette River flows by on its way to the sea, providing power, and water, and driving a tradition of papermaking quality that endures today.