CAMAS — It was only a generation ago that life in Camas seemed to revolve around its paper mill.
The towering mill employed thousands of people and local government was filled with active or retired papermakers. It supplied Camas with 70 percent of its property tax revenues, bankrolling the city’s police force, parks and its now-vaunted schools.
The way former Mayor Nan Henriksen saw it, that couldn’t last. In the 1970s, mill owner Crown Zellerbach considered closing the mill and moving operations to a newer facility. It compromised by automating some work. Laborers went on strike and ground the city to a halt.
“That was the real wake-up call. At any time, the mill could do another analysis and decide to close it,” said Henriksen, a lifelong Camas resident and mayor from 1983 to 1992.
Most of the mill is going away now. Georgia-Pacific, which bought the mill in 2000, announced plans this month to shut down major divisions and lay off hundreds of workers in the process. Up to 140 employees could remain, but many view the mill as on its last leg.
Camas mill timeline
1883: Henry Pittock’s LaCamas Colony Co. bought 2,600 acres to build a paper mill to supply newsprint for The Oregonian.
1884: The Columbia River Paper Company was formed.
1885: The mill began producing wood pulp.
1905: Columbia River Paper merged with Crown Paper Co. of Oregon City, Ore., to form the Crown Columbia Paper Co.
1911: The mill’s 450 employees earned $300,000 in wages.
1913: The mill converted from steam to electric power.
1914: Crown Columbia merged with Willamette Paper to form Crown Willamette Paper Co.
1928: Crown Willamette merged with Zellerbach Paper to form Crown Zellerbach Corp., the largest paper company on the West Coast.
1930: The mill stopped making newsprint and began producing specialty paper; the mill began producing Zee bath tissue.
1941: To support the war effort, machine shops were converted to manufacture shipyard parts.
1950: Facial folded napkins were made for the first time.
1971: Crown Zellerbach was the county’s biggest manufacturing employer with 2,643 workers.
1984: A three-year, $425 million mill modernization included a new machine to make communication papers for copiers and printing.
1986: Crown Zellerbach’s mills were sold to James River Corp.
1993: The mill installed and started up a facility dedicated to communication papers.
1995: After 10 years of job attrition, the mill employed about 1,600.
1997: James River Corp. merged with Fort Howard Corp. to form Fort James Corp.
2000: Current mill owner Georgia-Pacific acquired Fort James.
2005: Georgia-Pacific became a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.
2017: The Georgia-Pacific mill had Clark County’s biggest property tax bill, $1.77 million.
2018: The mill’s communication papers machine, fine paper converting assets, pulping operations and related equipment slated to shut down.
Camas is poised to weather that blow. When Interstate 205 opened up and the city annexed new industrial land, it brought in Sharp Electronics — and eventually WaferTech and Fisher Investments — to share the city’s economic load.
Still, despite losing jobs, the mill may still have more to give to Camas.
Milling about the future
Though the next steps remain unclear, many are already looking ahead to a future Camas without a paper mill.
Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries since 2005, reiterated Tuesday that it has no plans to sell its buildings or land holdings. But how much property is in the cards?
According to records provided by Camas administrators, Georgia-Pacific owns 923 acres in Camas, scattered across some green spaces, buildings, some ditches and a dam. The land is worth $25.1 million. That doesn’t count building values, which combine for $125.1 million in assessed value.
Its marquee property is the 189-acre plant property between downtown Camas and the Camas Slough. But it also owns 476-acre Lady Island and a smaller island in the Washougal River, as well as a chunk of land east of the Washougal River Greenway Trail.
Those properties could eventually be available for the first time since 1883.
Mayor Scott Higgins said the mill’s future has been fodder for conversation for years, but most energy now is going to be spent on dealing with the loss of jobs. But he said those properties’ futures will come up sooner or later.
“It’s kind of a crystal ball question,” Higgins said. “I certainly think people are always attracted to water, and right now Camas has zero connection to the Columbia River. The entire Port of Camas-Washougal is in Washougal, and everything else is privately held.”
If recent trends hold up, Camas could join cities like Ridgefield and Vancouver in trying to redevelop their waterfronts. But it is not only time consuming to decommission mills and tear them down; environmental hazards can linger.
For example, the Port of Ridgefield spent years reclaiming 41 acres of riverfront property from the contamination of an old wood-processing plant.
At The Waterfront Vancouver, it took a dozen years for developers to break ground. Boise Cascade first had to remove its paper mill, then clean up contaminated soils. Investors had to be corralled, permits navigated and infrastructure improvements untangled.
“It’s all complicated, and you can’t know for sure all the things you’re going to have to deal with. I sure didn’t,” said Barry Cain, president of Gramor Development, the Tualatin, Ore., company overseeing the waterfront redevelopment.
But, he added, it’s worth fighting for riverfront property.
“Hell, it’s the Columbia River. It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s by far the best property in this area. I think it’s hard for a town to feel complete when the best property they have is not usable.”
Even if the mill disappears, the city’s appreciation for it will linger, Higgins said.
“It’s too ingrained in our culture,” said Higgins, a Camas High School graduate whose office in City Hall doubles as a shrine to Papermaker history. “It’s been fun as someone who grew up here to watch new people who have no connection to the mill embrace the concept of a papermaker.”
The mill is so embedded in Camas that residents have been known to take old mill parts home for display. Some of the most popular items at Camas Antiques are wooden molds used to make mill machine parts, which people have repurposed into clocks, lamps and tabletops.
“A lot of people bought them because they came from the mill,” said Clark Crawford, supervisor of the store. “Some say ‘Camas, Wa.,’ on them and people were excited about that.”
Likewise, Melissa McCusker made sure she had old parts of the mill as decor when she opened Feast 316 two years ago.
“We wanted to make sure we felt like a part of Camas,” she said.
She added she hoped to honor the mill and its roots in the city.
“I’ll always remember how much they gave to education,” she said. “They really invested in the children. This is the end of an era.”
It could be an entirely new city for the senses, too. One of the mill’s doomed machines is the pulp-processing plant, which gives Camas its sulphurous smell. Strange as it sounds, Higgins said people will have to get used to the cleaner air.
“Senses are strange things,” he said. “When you hear a certain song, it instantly takes you to a memory. You smell a certain food, it might take you to your childhood. My guess is that smell probably takes certain people to certain places in their life and it might be a little nostalgic to them.”
Partnership with city
For those who remember its heyday, or for those who simply know where to look, the mill has left many hallmarks in Camas.
A large portion of the city’s green spaces today have come through transactions with Crown Zellerbach, according to Higgins, including parts of Lacamas Lake Park, Camp Currie and all of Fallen Leaf Lake Park.
“That was real valuable park and open space land transferred to the city,” said Lloyd Halverson, who said the mill gave or sold 200 acres to the city during his tenure as city administrator from 1989 to 2013. “It helped us with our overall land-use plans and park plans.”
The mill was open to giving land to the city because the mill wanted to be a good neighbor, according to Jim Cadd, mill manager from 1999-2002. Cadd said the higher-ups weren’t always in favor of the mill handing over, or even selling, land to the city.
“They wanted to take this property and have commercial development,” Cadd said. “It was lucrative property. It wasn’t the right thing to do. The city needs that to enhance the city and what the city can provide.”
Even though he was there for just three years, Cadd had the kind of close ties many Camas residents have with the mill. His father was a financial analyst for Crown Zellerbach, and his grandfather worked in the mill. By the time Cadd came out of retirement to run the mill, some of his high school classmates were still working there nearly 40 years later, he said.
Before he retired, he saw how devastating it was to close a major mill. A mill he managed in Carthage, N.Y., closed after a corporate merger and the town was devastated.
“That was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” Cadd said. “You think about the Northeast, and up there, we were 30 minutes from the Canadian border. Everything revolved around the paper mill there.”
Cadd said he never even thought of the concept of Camas without the mill while growing up.
“The paper mill was the foundation for Camas,” he said. “I never thought the paper mill wouldn’t be there. It was huge and offered all kinds of products. You grew up and took it for granted. That’s the mill, and this is Camas. This is why they’re called the papermakers.”