Camas First Friday visitors who ventured into the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s interpretive center on Sept. 1 were treated to a party, complete with cake and free goodies celebrating the mill’s 140th birthday.
“You know, we used to be the largest specialty paper mill in the world,” Ron Hawkins, a retired mill employee and current curator of the mill’s interpretive center, told the visitors.
Evidence of the mill’s heyday abounds inside the interpretive center. Glass cases contain photos of workers from the 1940s and 1950s, when the mill had already stopped manufacturing its original product — newsprint — and converted into a specialty paper mill that produced bathroom and facial tissue. A wall of photos and text details the mill’s history, from its origin in 1883 — six years before Washington became a state — when publisher Henry Pittock, through the LaCamas Colony Company, purchased 2,600 acres of land in what is now the city of Camas and built the mill to produce newsprint for The Oregonian as well as several other newspapers in the region. Camas literally grew up around the mill, with its downtown fanning outward from the mill’s location instead of being platted on a regular grid.
According to a history of the mill available at the interpretive center, by 1885, the Camas mill was producing the first wood pulp manufactured in the Pacific Northwest. Just one year later, the mill was destroyed by a fire that caused $100,000 in damage (about $3.25 million in 2023 dollars).
The mill was rebuilt in 1888, employed 65 people and had two paper machines. Less than 30 years later, in 1911, it had seven paper machines and employed 450, according to the mill’s historical fact sheet.
In 1928, it became known as the Crown Zellerbach mill, after its parent company, Crown Willamette, merged with Zellerbach Paper. By 1971, the Crown Zellerbach mill was Clark County’s largest manufacturing company, with nearly 2,700 employees. In 1986, the mill became a subsidiary of the James River Corp. In 1992, the mill completed a three-year, $80 million modernization effort designed to reduce emissions and improve its energy use.
The mill slowly downsized during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1995, it employed 1,600 people — a little more than half the number of employees the mill boasted in 1971. In 2000, Georgia-Pacific acquired Fort James and took over as the mill’s parent company. In 2005, Koch Industries purchased Georgia-Pacific. In 2018, the mill went through a major reduction — shuttering its pulp mill and all but one of its paper machines and downsizing its workforce to the roughly 150 workers present today.
Hawkins, the interpretive center’s curator, is steeped in mill history and lore. He can point visitors to a sign warning people to watch out for mules and explain that, before heavy machinery was used at the mill, the workers relied on the pack animals to help move lumber. Today, Hawkins said, the Camas mill is the only one he knows of that still refers to some of its machines as “mules” in a nod to the paper mill industry’s past.
The mill’s interpretive center, at 401 N.E. Adams St., is usually open to the public during the Downtown Camas Association’s First Friday events, held from 5 to 8 p.m. the first Friday of every month throughout downtown Camas. For more information about Camas First Friday, visit downtowncamas.com/events-and-festivals/first-fridays.