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A Paper City Relic is Crumpled Up

Aerial of the Mechanicville Plant from the Westvaco Employee Manual
(Web Source: http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~alleghanyhighlands/westvaco2003/mechanicville/MechanicvillePlant.jpg)

Schenectady is known as the “Electric City” because of the dominance of General Electric. Troy is known as the “Collar City” and Amsterdam is known as “Carpet City” also due to their respective industrial drivers. At the same time, Mechanicville became known as the “Paper City” as home to the Westvaco Paper Plant on the Hudson River, employing as much as 1,300 workers and producing the most high grade book paper in the United States (and perhaps globally) at one time.

A view of the Westvaco Mill from North Main Street
(Courtesy: John Rinaldi)

While Westvaco left Mechanicville over 40 years ago, the most significant reminder of the Paper City era, the massive paper mill between North Main Street and the Hudson River, was methodically demolished over the last few months. In its footprint will be the “Esplanade”, a 294-unit high-end waterfront apartment complex. In the meantime, the mill’s notable absence has once again emphasized the industry’s importance to Mechanicville.

Larry Whalen worked in the Westvaco Paper Plant for five years in the late 1950s and early 1960s around enlistment in the armed forces. However, his relationship with the mill went much further back.

“My father worked there for 40 years and my grandfather helped build it,” Whalen said. “We used to make forts in the wood piles where the Price Chopper is now,” he said of his childhood in town.

At that time, Mechanicville was the epitome of a factory town. The Westvaco facility employed well over 1,000 people and, along with the railroad yards, set the rhythm of daily life in the community.

“Everyone worked shift work,” Whalen said. “Shift changes were at 7am, 3pm, and 11pm,” he said, a schedule reminiscent of today’s Momentive workers.

According to Mechanicville City Historian Paul Loatman, paper-making in Mechanicville got its start in the 1880s, capitalizing on the locality’s position as a railroad crossroads with access to major markets. The waterfront site on the Hudson River and Champlain Canal allowed for Adirondack timber to be shipped quickly and efficiently downriver to the site and the establishment of a hydro-power dam provided cheap and reliable electrical power.

As manufacturing technology advanced, so too did production and employment for the forerunner of the local industry, the Hudson River Water Power & Paper Co. (HRWP&P). Local Scottish immigrant Thomas Duncan, treasurer and superintendent at HRWP&P, oversaw the expansion of processes in the Mechanicville mill from pulp fiber production alone to combined pulp and finished paper production utilizing a revolutionary technological advancement. Sulfuric acid was used to break down timber into pulp which, in turn, could be pressed into paper in a faster and more efficient manner.

Demolition progresses on August 8, 2013.

A conglomerate, the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. (Westvaco), purchased the Duncan Company’s interest in the facility in 1904 for $3 million. It would be one of six in the Westvaco portfolio of paper mills that would compete with Corinth-based International Paper for the better part of a century. Chronic disputes with labor due to low wages and long hours would be part of the give and take between Mechanicville and the paper giant, but by the 1930s, Westvaco was the largest producer of white paper in the US.

A fascinating three-part history of the paper industry in Mechanicville was written by City Historian Paul Loatman. Links to those articles are listed below:

The Origins of the Paper City – Part I

The Rise of the Paper City – Part II

The End of an Era – The Passing of the Paper City – Part III

The mill would continue to thrive during the post-WWII economic boom, just as Whalen would enter the workforce.

“I was a nighttime electrician in the hydro-power department,” Whalen said. Whalen was rare as a young worker at the plant at that time as much of the labor force was older. “I was one of the youngest workers,” he said.

Whalen also recalls just how comprehensive the facility was.

With demolition completed, site preparation continues in late October. Construction of the Esplanade is expected to begin in spring.

“We had a chlorine plant, an alcohol plant, we made our own power,” he said. “We had fire protection on site.”

However, despite the facility being full of wood and paper, fire was less prevalent than it might seem.

“Well, all the paper was wet,” Whalen confirmed.

By the late 1960s, however, the logistical advantages of the Westvaco plant in Mechanicville began to wane. From the environmental side, over-cutting in the Adirondacks reduced the local supply of timber and the government finally refused to allow industry to use the Hudson River as a waste removal conduit. From the operations side, labor union clout and strikes would wrestle with corporate and technological advancement would put pressure on the over 80-year-old plant. In June 1971, Westvaco closed up shop at the Mechanicville site.

While some parts of the facility live on as DeCrescente Distributing Co. warehouses, the mighty mill building was dismantled over the last few months. In its place will rise a high-end residential complex which has the potential to bring increased consumer spending to the local business community. Once a payments-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement (which was passed by the Mechanicville-Stillwater IDA today) dissipates, the city could realize substantial gains in property tax revenue while gains for sewer and water coffers could be felt immediately.

However, the Esplanade not employ a significant amount of people, something a somewhat nostalgic Whalen is skeptical of.

“I’d like to see an industry locate in there again,” he said.

The Esplanade may prove to be a game-changer for Mechanicville, just as that very location proved to be for nearly a century. If nothing else, activity on North Main Street will serve as a reminder to locals of the engine that churned the Paper City economy in its glory days.

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