1920s company town still going
2 firms built it amid trees to guarantee paper supply
Instead of taking the trees to town, The New York Times Co. and the Kimberly-Clark Corp. took a town to the trees.
In the 1920s, to ensure a steady supply of newsprint for The New York Times and business for Kimberly-Clark — makers of Kleenex — the companies dammed the Mattagami River at Smoky Falls, amid northern Ontario’s boundless ocean of black spruce, poplar, tamarack and birch trees. The companies harnessed the river’s power through four turbines, installed a 50-mile railroad track, constructed a mill and leased the cutting rights to 4,300 square miles of forest — an area twice the size of Prince Edward Island.
Their $30 million investment, or about $400 million today, did not stop there.
They developed the tiny settlement of Kapuskasing into a full-fledged company town along the radiant concentric lines of a garden city. It had a hospital and a community clubhouse, riverfront parkland, curling and skating rinks, a public school for 400 students, apartment buildings and hundreds of new houses, and paved streets. It also had power, water and sewer systems, and a hotel worthy of a princess and her prince — Elizabeth and Philip, to be exact.
“A city dropped into the midst of Canada’s north woods,” Times correspondent Russell Owen marveled in 1931. Owen had traveled across Antarctica and wasn’t easily impressed.
Thousands of tons of newsprint left Kapuskasing each year, much of it bound for the clamorous loading docks of The New York Times’ headquarters off Times Square in New York City. Each roll was capped by a label with the silhouette of a spruce branch and the name of the joint venture, Spruce Falls Power and Paper Co.
The people of Kapuskasing had a different name for the company: Uncle Spruce.
“Everybody was very happy working for Spruce Falls,” Olivier Vermette recalled. Now 83, Vermette spent almost half his life with the company. He still lives in town with his wife, Suzanne.
But 1991 was not a happy year for Vermette, who lost his job, or for the town, which faced an existential crisis when The New York Times and Kimberly-Clark pulled out, unwilling to invest the money to get the aging, standalone plant up to par. It looked as if the mill might close.
Then, against daunting odds, employees and townspeople took ownership of the plant. With an infusion of capital from the Tembec paper company of Montreal, they saved the mill and many jobs.
“There was tremendous pride in the community,” said Julie Latimer, the curator of the Ron Morel Memorial Museum and the historian of Kapuskasing. “They were proud of preventing the closure, proud of organizing the work needed to save and purchase the mill, proud of running it
themselves and proud of being successful all these years.”
A SPECK ON THE MAP
Kapuskasing was not born of high-minded principle, though. Originally a speck of a stop called MacPherson on the National Transcontinental Railway, the settlement was remote enough to have served from 1914-20 as an internment camp, first for immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire, who were presumed to be hostile in the midst of World War I, then for political radicals.
The newspapers’ appetite for newsprint was growing ravenous. And as its consumption increased, so did its vulnerability to price increases imposed by papermakers.
When Kimberly-Clark raised the prospect of a partnership in its Ontario operation, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, a vice president of The New
York Times, was receptive. In 1924, he and James C. Kimberly canoed together down the Kapuskasing and Mattagami rivers, all the way to Moose Factory on James Bay.
They bonded. So did their companies.
Their plans fit splendidly with those of George Howard Ferguson, the premier of Ontario at the time, who envisioned the northern part of the province as a cradle of industry and employment.
Spruce Falls was to build a mill capable of producing 550 tons of newsprint daily. As the majority partner, KimberlyClark named one of its top executives, Frank J. Sensenbrenner, as the president of the joint venture. (In one of history’s fine twists, his greatgrandson, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., is a longtime Republican representative from Wisconsin with whom The
Times’ editorial board has frequently quarreled.)
Joint ventures were usually anathema to Adolph S. Ochs, who was then the publisher of
The New York Times. Spruce Falls, however, offered a useful hedge. When newsprint was abundant and cheap, the newspaper would profit. When newsprint was scarce and expensive, Spruce Falls would profit.
The success of the venture helped cement Sulzberger’s claim as Ochs’ successor.
Though capable of ruthlessness, Ochs prided himself on his benevolent paternalism. Meyer Berger wrote in The Story of The New York Times, 1851-1951 that Ochs was specially interested in Spruce Fall’s generous benefits program, “believing it paid off in employee loyalty.”
In the Kapuskasing history museum are many 25-year service watches, and 25-, 30- and 40-year service pins. They attest to the Ochs philosophy, Latimer said.
BUILDINGS GO UP
A hospital was the most critical amenity for a mill where a single misstep could be fatal. The four-story Sensenbrenner Hospital opened in 1929 with 40 beds, an operating room and an X-ray department. Its halftimbered facade lent a picturesque, if incongruous, Tudor touch to the utilitarian structure.
Other civic buildings developed by Spruce Falls were in the same style. The clubhouse, which opened in 1929, had a 500-seat auditorium “with two modern projection machines for motion pictures”, a library, four bowling lanes, men’s and women’s lounges, a gym and a snack bar.
The 90-room Kapuskasing Inn, also in vaguely Tudor style, opened in 1928. It was the pride of town, never more so than on Oct. 15, 1951, when Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip spent the night there, four months before she became queen.
Chester W. Boast, the chief engineer at Spruce Falls, accompanied Philip on his tour of the plant. The two men were so engrossed in technical discussions, his son, Keith E. Boast, later wrote, that “the princess would, on occasion, have to call them to heel.”
That year, Vermette joined Spruce Falls. He started as a tallyman, making $5.95 a day for tallying the lumber output from the loggers. Soon, he was promoted to log scaler, with a 10-cent raise. He assessed exactly how much lumber had been produced by each logger. “Guys were getting paid by the cord,” Vermette said, “so we had to measure each piece to find out how many cords they had cut.”
By 1951, the population of Kapuskasing had reached 5,000. Spruce Falls employed 1,500 workers and produced 750 tons of newsprint daily, half of which was consumed by The New York Times, the rest sold to other consumers/ costumers. The company’s cutting rights had expanded to 6,360 square miles.
By the 1970s, as many as 12,500 people lived in Kapuskasing. Vermette had been promoted to foreman of road construction and then to a supervisor of cutters, but he found that scaling was his first love. Not that his work was easy. A journey from town to one of the remote cutting camps could sometimes take most of a day.
“One could fly over the area in a helicopter and see nothing but trees,” said Stephen Golden, a former president of The New York Times’ forest products group. “Most of the logging work was done in winters because the ground would be hard enough to support the heavy trucks and the freezing temperatures would sustain ice bridges across the river.”
Kapuskasing’s frigid winters attracted General Motors, which opened a cold weather testing center in 1973. Other employers include the local government and schools, the Detour Lake gold mine, and Sensenbrenner Hospital, which moved out of its original Tudor-style home in the 1980s. Johanne Theberge, one of Vermettes’ two daughters, works at the hospital. Their son, Don, has worked at the mill for nearly as long as his father.
The old hospital has been transformed into low-income housing, under the name Drury Place. The community clubhouse now serves as Kapuskasing’s civic center. The Kap Inn, as it was fondly known, burned down in 2007 and was demolished the next year.
The population is now about 8,000. Tembec announced last month that it would be acquired by Rayonier Advanced Materials of Jacksonville, Fla. A news release noted Rayonier’s commitment to “continue all Tembec operations.”
One customer, however, will not be holding its breath.
The last shipment of newsprint bound for The New York
Times left Kapuskasing 14 years ago.
An employee passes though the Tembec newsprint and sawmill recently in Kapuskasing, Ontario. Employees of the previous owners and townspeople bought the property in 1991.
Traffic moves along a street leading to the center of Kapuskasing last month in Ontario, Canada. In the 1920s, two firms developed the town deep in the Canadian wilderness and built a paper mill.