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From grain elevator to sulphite mill: The transformation of OC's Mill C

Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project -


(Second of a two-part history of Mill C. For Part 1, seeMill’s riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” Aug. 5.)

In its first-ever issue of Oct. 27, 1866, the Oregon City Enterprise ran a story on the Pioneer Paper mill, the first-ever in the Pacific Northwest. The article detailed the machinery and processes for making paper from that era’s primary input, rags, and a few weeks later the Enterprise even had a snippet about the ship named Pacific delivering “a considerable number of bales of rags, cordage, old sails, etc., for the Oregon City paper mills.”The end of that first article hinted at a new papermaking era on the horizon. The increasing scarcity of rags was leading paper-makers to seek other suitable paper stock, and, “it seems that for the future the main source of supply will be the forest.”

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - 1892: 1883 grain elevator and 1880 wheat warehouse (with inclining flour conveyor); Imperial Mills.Rags are soft. Wood is hard. Over time paper-makers devised two primary methods to reduce wood to a pulp of soft cellulose fiber. The first was mechanical: grinding wood into “ground-wood” pulp. While inexpensive, this process created short fibers and correspondingly weak paper, appropriate for end products like newsprint. Alternatively, and more expensively, chemical processes dissolved matter between the cellulose fibers, leaving a pulp with longer fibers. This pulp resulted in stronger paper, for such end products as bags or fruit wrap.

Sulphite milling emerged as the most common chemical process. The 1920 edition of “Modern Pulp and Paper Making” by G.S. Witham describes the typical sulphite mill of the era. The milling entailed placing wood chips into the domed top of a cylindrical two-to-three-story “digester,” assembled from steel plates and giant rivets. A “liquor” of sulphurous acid filled the digester. Steam heat and pressure “cooked” the chips until the latter broke down into the cellulose fibers. A valve in the conical bottom of the digester opened and the accumulated pressure forced the pulp out — an event known colorfully as “blowing the digester” — and into a vat, or “blow pit.” The sulphite pulp was then washed, processed, and manufactured into paper elsewhere in the mill.

In a sulphite mill’s “digester house,” a conveyor dropped chips into a chip bin that, in turn, deposited the chips into the digesters. The liquor corroded steel digester plates, so manufacturers developed acid-resistant brick interior linings. Exterior painting of the digesters ensured the detection of incipient defects before they could become dangerous. Sulphite mills often had on-site an “acid plant” for the manufacture of the liquor, and a boiler plant to generate the steam for the cook.

Hawley’s sulphite mill

Willard P. Hawley’s deep sulphite milling experience included two digester patents: for an improved process, and for a thermometer less prone to breaking. Heading the Crown paper mill beginning in 1892, he converted that mill from straw input to wood pulp. “I installed the chemical process,” he told the historian Fred Lockley. One of Crown’s new installations in 1900 led to some “digester humor” from the Democratic-leaning Oregon City Courier-Herald directed towards a Republican-leaning rival:

“We read that ‘The Crown Paper Company is putting in the machinery for a new digester, just received from the East, that will double its output of pulp. The new digester will fill a space 13x34 feet.’ If that machine doesn’t work, we advise them to try half a dozen Republican readers of the Oregonian. They can digest anything.”

Hawley Pulp & Paper Co.’s 1908 launch included installation of No. 1 Paper machine in a new annex to the Imperial Mills, now Mill B, and a sulphite mill in the Imperial Mills’ 1880 wheat warehouse and 1883 grain elevator, now Mill C.

The grain elevator “will be used for a digestor room,” reported the Jan. 28, 1908, Courier. “The building is exceedingly well constructed, and so solid in its nature that little change will be required.” The April 3, 1908, Enterprise updated, “there will be two digesters, 12x25 and the necessary equipment, for producing capacity of 25 tons daily.” Trains delivered wood blocks from Hawley’s sawmill in Milwaukie, known as Mill E,” and the wood blocks will be thrown from the cars at the sulphide mill directly into the choppers. ”In May, Oregon City sold an adjacent parcel for the boiler house.

Also in May, Oregon City allowed Hawley to construct rail sidetracks to his mill buildings, one of which entered right into the south wall of the newly renamed Warehouse No. 1. Hawley removed its elevated iron wheat conveyor and inclined covered flour conveyor over Main Street, but in July 1908 Oregon City allowed him to build a new bridge in order to truck pulp above Main Street across to Mill B.

Industrial behemoth

Mill C commenced operations on Saturday, March 7, 1909. From that moment, Mill C began to transmogrify into an industrial behemoth that bore little resemblance to the original wheat warehouse and grain elevator, and whose influence extended throughout the paper mill. In late May, 1909, the Enterprise reported, “The Hawley Pulp and Paper company is about to add two stories to Mill C of its plant, each story to be used as ware rooms.” The article added, “The company has purchased the property alongside the track, and behind Cliff House, and is tearing down the buildings to make way for a large warehouse.”Warehouse No. 2, known today as No. 4 Paper Machine warehouse, stored sulphur, and a plank walkway led from it to Mill C.

The 1911 Sanborn map diagrams the inner workings of early Mill C. Two digesters stood under a chip bin in the front of the former grain elevator. The rear, towards the railroad, housed the wood chipper and the rudimentary acid plant, including “magnesite grinding” and a lime vat. Outside, on the north side and along the railroad, a sulphur burning house generated the sulphur dioxide gas that, reacting with either lime or magnesia, formed the liquor.Between the sulphur burning house and Mill C were two acid storage tanks. On the second floor, also in the rear, “pulp washing and pressing” operations refined the cooked pulp — likely by “wet machines” that, according to Witham, created sheets folded into “laps”— and a doorway led to the warehouse for storage of the laps before transport across the elevated truckway to Mill B.

Hawley added new digesters with new paper machines. A third digester, installed in 1913 along with the construction of No. 3 Paper Machine, increased sulphite pulp production capacity to 35 tons per day. As part of his massive plant expansion in 1916, including the huge new No. 4 Paper Machine, Hawley anticipated “an increase of... 20 tons of sulphite in the sulphite mill” — but his plans expanded “so that at any time we may add a second additional 20 tons of sulphite to our sulphite mill...” The 1925 Sanborn map shows six digesters. Unfortunately, available sources do not reveal the manufacturer.

“Sulphite Plant of Hawley Mill Being Greatly Increased,” headlined the Morning Enterprise of June 22, 1916. “Additional wet machines and other pulp making machinery will be installed.” And, raising the question if water power had been the first power mechanism for, say, raising chips up to the chip bins, the article reported, “Electric elevators will be put in as the building is several stories high and concrete footings will be put in place.” Also in 1916, in the 30-by-60-foot space between Mill C and the No. 4 Paper Machine, Hawley built an enormous new boiler plant to serve — and whose smokestacks towered over — both buildings. Photos taken over these years show other changes as part of Mill C’s evolution: new pop-out elevator cupolas, and extensions towards Main Street.

Hawley kept up with acid plant technology. In late 1915, he installed the “milk-of-lime” system developed by the E.R. Barker company of Boston: sulphur dioxide gas rose up through, and reacted with, lime dissolved in a single stack of narrow, short cylindrical water tank chambers, to create the liquor. Hawley replaced his Barker system in 1919, when the Hurley-Mason Co. built one of the strangest, most fascinating structures ever to stand within the Blue Heron site: an acid tower remarkably like that described in Witham as designed by the G.D. Jenssen Co. of New York. Hollow reinforced concrete towers, lined with acid-resistant tile, were filled with chunks of limestone that rested upon a vertical series of grates. Water cascaded down from the top, and the sulphur dioxide rose from the bottom, and the reaction with the limestone created the liquor. The 1925 Sanborn map denotes on top of the towers a “rock storage house,” which replenished the limestone as it dissolved within the towers. The 1925 Sanborn map also shows that Warehouse No. 1 housed “pulp vats,” namely the blow pits. To this day, large cylindrical pulp vats can be seen in the basement of Mill C from the sidewalk along McLoughlin Boulevard. Post-1925 photos show two enormous blow pit smokestacks emerging through the north roof of this Warehouse No. 1. The map also shows a small new triangular laboratory jutting out from its south wall.

Mill C had survived the 1890 flood; it also survived the fire that destroyed Mill B:

“For a time it appeared certain that the flames would jump Main street and catch the digestor plant, another frame building opposite [from Mill B]. Centralization of the firefighting apparatus of the Hawley mills on this building, however, saved it, though it was on fire innumerable times...” wrote the Enterprise on Oct. 9, 1923.

The 1930s and 1940s brought more changes to Mill C. Warehouse No. 2 had extended Mill C’s influence northward; the 1944 construction of Mill E in the basin extended it southward. This new sawmill replaced the original Mill E in Milwaukie, which burned in 1933. By 1947 a conveyor carried wood chips from Mill E to the top of a new chip silo. A second conveyor rose from the silo’s base to a monitor roof atop Mill C,where a magnet removed nails and such before yet another conveyor deposited the chips into the bin above the digesters. By 1950, the Sanborn map showed the small laboratory replaced by a globe-shaped acid tank: the “sulphite sphere” prominent within the Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) as a “second-tier” historic structure. The most dramatic transformation occurred in 1956 under Publishers Paper, when Hoffman Construction Co. reconstructed Mill C completely around the digesters. As early as 1928, Hawley had announced plans — perhaps interrupted by the Great Depression — to replace Mill C with a new concrete sulphite mill. A 1956 photo suggests that Mill C operated even while under reconstruction: emissions still emerge out of an expanded acid tower. According to retired mill worker Vern Buttolph, who started working at the mill in 1948, the contractors cut holes in the original wooden structure and inserted the new steel beams before removing the wood. Transite, an asbestos cement panel, covered the new structure’s exterior.

It would be interesting to know what elements other than the digesters pre-date the 1956 modernization. Remnants of the original 1880 and 1883 foundations? The wood floor panels that surround the digesters? The chip bin and chip conveyor? The blow pits? Regardless, when finished, Mill C was the picture of an industrial powerhouse: an economic engine that embodied an era of paper-mill prosperity in Oregon City and family-wage jobs for employees like Buttolph — who could move up from the McLoughlin neighborhood to the affluent Rivercrest neighborhood where he lives today — and members of the Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers. It was an extraordinary evolution from a single, humble wheat railroad warehouse in 1880.

Historic pollution

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: OLDOREGONPHOTOS.COM - Likely 1909: Imperial Mills is now Hawley Mill B; addition of two stories to 1880 warehouse, right.But, pollution of “historic” proportions accompanied this progress: Mill C’s air and particularly water pollution contributed, with those of other pulp and paper mills, to 20th-century environmentalism, and even to the election of Gov. Tom McCall.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Early 1920s prior to Mill B fire. New Jenssen-type acid tower is at right. The pungent smell of sulphur was a defining characteristic of Oregon City. Early on, in 1913, a committee from the Commercial Club approached the paper mills:

“A communication sent to the three paper mills in regard to the possible elimination of sulphurous vapors from the atmosphere, elicited replies from the Willamette Pulp and Paper Co. and from the Hawley Mills. Both of these represent that they have gone to considerable expense and effort to modify the discharge of these vapors but that the only way to completely eliminate the odor would be to do away with the mills and by inference do away with the town. The committee has no recommendations to make as to further action along this line.

In a 1920 front-page article, the Enterprise lamented that “there are more than $5,000 per day floating down the Willamette River into the Columbia and out to the sea every day,” and challenged the Hawley Co. to make use of the mill’s “sulphite water” to manufacture products like wood alcohol, as was being done at a Wisconsin mill. A 1921 complaint to the state game commission against the Oregon City paper mills for polluting the rivers by the famed naturalist William L. Finley was a precursor to his later citizen activism. Finley, who at the time lived along the Willamette River in Jennings lodge, and who now has a National Wildlife Refuge south of Corvallis named after him, later became one of the key original organizers of the Oregon Stream Purification League, the group that organizedthe successful statewide citizen initiative that enacted Oregon’s water quality law

in 1938.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - 1947: New chip conveyor (left) rises to Mill C. It would reach the ski jump-like structure, far right.The law created the State Sanitary Authority (SSA), which struggled to regulate the rich and politically powerful paper industry. In January 1948 the SSA ordered paper mills to “show cause” why their actions in dumping waste sulphite liquor “should not be adjudged a public nuisance.” The mills acknowledged the problem but claimed no solution existed. The “black liquor” was not toxic, however it depleted oxygen in the river so was deadly to fish, particularly during the Willamette’s low summer flows; and its sugars spurred the growth of sphaerotilus, a brown goop that fouled anglers’ nets and lines.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: CCHS - 1956: Reconstruction of Mill C, expanded acid tower.Under SSA oversight, Publishers in 1952 began giving Clackamas County black liquor as a “roadbinder” to control dust on unpaved county roads. In 1953, apparently following the adage “the solution to pollution is dilution,” the company began barging the liquor for untreated discharge into the deeper Columbia River. A striking photo of two gigantic 60,000-gallon wooden tanks on a barge, pushed by a tugboat with Willamette Falls in the background, appeared on the front page of the July 22, 1953, Oregonian. They also appeared in Tom McCall’s 1962 documentary “Pollution in Paradise.” He narrated:

“One of the Oregon City mills barges its waste liquors to a rendez-vous with the diluting waters of the Columbia. The company got a ‘temporary’ permit to do this in 1953, nine years ago. The operation is

expensive, but the company has found no other more economical

way of trying to keep its waste out of the Willamette.”

Substantial progress abating waste discharges occurred after McCall became governor. Publishers built the clarifier in 1967. In 1970,

further extending Mill C’s zone of influence within the plant, Publishers completed the $4.2 million Mill G recovery boiler, which reduced Mill C’s black liquor discharges by 90 percent by recovering magnesium and sulphur compounds for re-use; in a way putting into practice the Enterprise’s recommendation of half a century earlier. Mill C thereafter fell under the permitting provisions of the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Ultimately, not environmental regulation but obsolescence led to Mill C’s closure. By the latter half of the 20th century, technological improvements in other types of pulping processes — “kraft” pulping, for example, which produced a paper even stronger than sulphite pulping— ended new sulphite mill construction. In June 1983, a full century after completion of the original grain elevator, Publishers announced the closure of Mill C in favor of a new “thermo-mechanical pulping line” and expanded de-inking of recycled newsprint. Mill C has been mothballed since then; its acid tower and conveyor from the chip silo long since removed.

The future

Photo Credit: PHOTO BY: JAMES NICITA - Mill C today: 'Sulphite sphere' is at left. Roof indentation marks former location of chip conveyor.  Digester house is at right, with monitor roof. Acid tower has long since been removed. 
Aside from Mill No. 1, no other standing building within Blue Heron embodies and concentrates as much of the site’s legacy as Mill C, whose story touches upon Native American-pioneer conflict, railroad development, global flour trade, paper milling, water power and water rights, floods and fires, industrial might and industrial pollution. The good and the bad. Mill C merits a primary role in the future of the WFLP.

Mill C faces challenges in finding that role.

The discussion must begin with the environmental challenges, principally the residue of 75 years of sulphite liquor manufacture and use on the site. That residue, however, must be addressed whether Mill C stays or goes. The WFLP should make history with the thoroughness and completeness of brownfield abatement. The transite asbestos exterior panels must be removed, but that opens up the opportunity for a new glass exterior that could reveal newly polished and painted digesters — genuine machine artifacts of the paper-making era that escaped the trustee’s salvage process — to the public. One might even be cut open to reveal the fire brick inside, as Vern Buttolph has proposed. Necessary seismic upgrades will involve no small cost.

This past May 15, Blue Heron’s developer George Heidgerken issued a press release with two local governments, the Port of Olympia, the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, and three colleges committing to explore public-private partnerships to create a Craft Brewing and Distilling Center out of the historic Tumwater Brewery. That might be a model for Mill C. Through such a partnership, Mill C might also find new life as a funky Amtrak station, welcoming distant tourists to Willamette Falls. A bar in the monitor roof would have an amazing view of the basin and the upper Willamette. Evoking its grain elevator past, Mill C might support a new elevator to the McLoughlin Promenade: in the digester house, the 1947 chip silo, or in a new design based on the former acid tower.

The WFLP draft framework master plan includes both the digesters and the sulphite sphere as “second tier” historic artifacts meriting preservation. But Mill C is so much more than these two artifacts. The digesters, chip bin and the conveyor within the monitor roof make up the full context: a 20th century digester house. Two of the WFLP’s graphic scenarios show the taller north half of Mill C, the digester house, retained, with the shorter south half removed to accommodate a traffic circle with the sulphite sphere as its centerpiece. Ideally, a slight reconfiguration would also retain at least some of the southern half of Mill C, to guard the 131 year-old basic form and proportions that began with the shorter 1880 warehouse and the taller 1883 grain elevator.

That, under the WFLP’s own core value, would be true “historic interpretation.”

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner. The author wishes to thank Vern Buttolph, and Karin Morey and Adrien Wegner of Clackamas County Historical Society, for their contributions to this piece. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are solely those of the author.




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