Camas mill celebrates its 140th birthday

Interpretive Center entertains First Friday visitors with mill history, memorabilia

Ron Hawkins, curators of the Camas paper mill's interpretive center, stands next to his collection of historical buttons Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, during a celebration of the mill's 140th anniversary. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Employee badges from the World War II era sit next to a James River hat inside the Camas paper mill's interpretive center Friday, Sept. 1, 2023. The mill celebrated its 140th year in business during the Downtown Camas Association's September First Friday event. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas First Friday visitors who ventured into the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s interpretive center on Friday, Sept. 1, were treated to a birthday 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 visitors Friday.

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. An entire wall of photos and text details the mill’s history, from its origin in 1883 — six years before Washington became a state — when Oregonian newspaper 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 his publication as well as several other newspapers in the region. The town of 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 pattern.

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 (about $3.25 million in 2023) in damages.

The mill was rebuilt in 1888, employed 65 people and had two paper machines. Less than 30 years later, in 1911, the mill had seven paper machines and employed 450 people, according to the mill’s historical fact sheet.

In 1928, the mill 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 Corporation. Soon after, 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, and never regained the number of employees it had during the early 1970s. By 1995, the mill 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. Five years later, 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, the Camas mill, Hawkins said, 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, located 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. every first Friday of the month throughout downtown Camas. For more information about Camas First Friday, visit downtownc tivals/first-fridays.