After 164 years, papermaking ended in Hamilton

Hamilton in 2012 became a city without a paper mill for the first time since 1848. For at least 164 years paper has been a vital industry, employing thousands, contributing to a stable city tax base and, through its executives and workers, providing immeasurable leadership to the community.

Corporations that have been operating what once were the Champion and Beckett mills both announced in October 2011 they planned to cease operations in Hamilton.

SMART Papers has operated the former Champion complex on North B Street since 2001. In May 2000, International Paper acquired all Champion International assets. June 21, 2000, International assumed ownership of the Hamilton plant and its 800 employees. Less than six months later, Jan. 8, 2001, International announced the sale of the local mill to a Florida merchant banking firm, Smart Paper LLC.

Champion founder capitalized on change

The Champion Coated Paper Co. — the first of several name variations — opened in Hamilton in 1894 — 46 years after Beckett had started paper production.

When Peter G. Thomson came to Hamilton in the early 1890s, he intended to build houses, not a paper mill. In 1891, he bought 187 acres west of the Great Miami River to develop into subdivisions. His plan fizzled when a national recession led to a local housing slump. Instead of residences, Thomson erected a small mill that coated paper made by other paper companies in Hamilton.

There were only nine employees April 15, 1894, when coated paper production began on a modest scale in the plant on Seven Mile Pike (now North B Street).

Experienced as a bookseller and publisher in Cincinnati, Thomson believed paper demand and manufacturing was changing. Recent improvements in photography and development of halftone printing, he surmised, would increase the demand for coated paper. Advertising, catalog and magazine publishing would demand smoother printing surfaces instead of rougher grades. Thomson was correct.

He noted that the demand for coated paper “is increasing constantly, printers having found that no other paper will give such excellent results.” He chose Hamilton, he said, because of “the purity of its water, its proximity to numerous paper mills in the Miami Valley, its central location and nearness to the principal dealers, and the excellence of its shipping facilities.”

By 1900, the Champion Coated Paper Co. had doubled the capacity of the original plant five times. In June 1902 the company manufactured paper for the first time in Hamilton, opening a new paper mill simultaneously with a rebuilt coating plant. By 1910, the mill was regarded as the largest coated-paper mill in the world.

During its first 20 years, the mill survived two floods (March 1898 and March 1913), two fires (December 1901 and March 1913), several business cycles, numerous technological advances and constant market changes.

For its employee base, Champion management welcomed transplanted Appalachians, especially Kentuckians. Thomson said he hired people from the hills and hollows because they tended to be loyal, adaptable, hard-working and ingenious at fixing machinery problems.

Thomson was regarded as an innovator in papermaking and employee relations. B Street workers were able to save at an in-plant company store from 1917 to 1934, and had group insurance coverage for themselves and dependents from 1917. He provided a full-time industrial physician after 1916, added an advertising department in 1924 and built a research facility in 1926.

Thomson — whose philanthropy and civic leadership aided all Hamiltonians — directed the mill and the company until his death July 10, 1931.

In the 1930s, when the Great Depression idled many local factories, production at the B Street mill shifted to plain grades of paper that were in demand and a “work-for-all policy” was implemented. Instead of devastating layoffs, most of Champion’s 4,000 or more coaters, millwrights, pipe fitters, sorters and other employees worked five or six days a week, a one or two-day reduction from the boom years of the 1920s.

When the U. S. entered World War II in 1941, the demand for paper soared. The private sector, the government and the military needed paper for everything from patriotic posters, ration stamps and war bonds to maps — and, of course, thousands of applications, forms and required records.

Examples: Champion shipped 95 tons of paper that became 4.5 million maps for army maneuvers in the Carolinas in 1942. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Champion supplied 6,000 tons of paper for maps used by U. S. forces.

The war also brought more females into the mill, mostly to replace 676 employees who entered the armed forces. They supplemented the 200 to 400 women who had been employed on the sorting lines during much of the mill’s existence.

Until August 1961, corporate headquarters were on North B Street. That month, administrative offices moved to Knightsbridge elsewhere in Hamilton. After a 1967 merger, corporate leaders relocated in New York City and later shifted to Stamford, Conn.

Employment totals are seldom released by business and industry. But Champion figures were reported periodically, starting with its original nine workers in 1894.

Other milestones were 410 people in 1901; about 1,000 in 1913, the year of the flood; 1,500 in 1918 during World War I; more than 4,000 at the start of the Great Depression; 2,600 on the eve of World War II; 3,300 in 1961; about 1,500 when the plant’s 100th anniversary was observed in 1994; and 800 employees when acquired by International Paper in 2000.

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