Champion Paper, which later became Champion International Paper, International Paper and then Smart Papers, is a former paper mill in Hamilton, Ohio. It operated along the banks of the Great Miami River between 1894 and 2012. Portions of the complex have been razed.
At its height, Champion Paper was part of “The Paper Valley,” aptly named due to the concentration of paper mills along the Great Miami River and the Miami & Erie Canal.4 Mills existed at Crescentville, Port Union, Rialto, Hamilton, Woodsdale, Rockdale, Excello, Middletown, Franklin, Miamisburg, West Carrollton and Dayton. There were thirty separate mills that operated generally between 1890 and 1930, dipping to the low 20’s during the 1960’s and only a handful by the 21st century.
Peter G. Thomson came to Hamilton in the early 1890’s with the intention to construct houses. 4 In 1891, he acquired 187 acres of land west of the Great Miami River to develop into subdivisions but a national recession led Thomson to table the idea. Instead, Thomson constructed a small mill on Seven Mile Pike (today’s North B Street) to coat paper made by other paper facilities in the city. The Champion Coated Paper Company was incorporated on November 2, 1893 and production began with just nine employees on April 1, 1894. 2 The first coated paper was shipped on May 4.
Much of the equipment for the plant was sourced from Black & Clawson at North Second and Vine streets. 4 What began as a machine shop in 1873 by Frank X. Black and Linus P. Clawson grew into a paper machine fabricating plant by the 1890’s. Machines could be built up to 750 feet in length. By 1900, the machines were being shipped worldwide, which enabled the company to expand outside of Hamilton by 1926. The Hamilton operations lasted until the early 1970’s.
Thomson foresaw the demand for coated paper. With recent improvements in photography and the development of halftone printing, he surmised that coated paper demand would only increase. In 1897, Thomson acquired the Eagle Paper Company in Franklin and began the manufacture of paper. 2 That Christmas, the company closed on a deal to purchase a glue plant in St. Charles, Illinois.
A flood along the Great Miami River in late March 1898 damaged the mill’s equipment and stopped production for several months. 2 A contract was signed on August 3 to have the Belt Line Railroad, later part of the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad, 5 receive raw materials and ship finished goods by rail. A line was hastily constructed and service began on November 25.
A new office building was completed on October 1, 1899. 2 It was followed by the announcement on December 4, 1900 that a new paper manufacturing mill would be constructed in Hamilton. Out of the 21 paper-coating mills in the nation, Champion was the largest and was twice as big as its competitor.
Employment stood at 410 in early 1901. 4
A fire destroyed the coating mill on December 22, 1901 but was rebuilt and opened on June 7, 1902. 2 The new paper mill was opened on the same date.
On January 6, 1906, Thomson’s son-in-law, Reuben B. Robertson, Sr., founded the Champion Fibre Company in Canton, North Carolina to supply the Hamilton mills with wood pulp. 2 6 Champion Fibre acquired over 50,000 acres of forest in the state for raw material. 5 The company also built a second paper manufacturing mill in Hamilton dedicated solely to uncoated papers. By 1910, the Champion facilities in Hamilton was the largest in the world and had a daily capacity of 525,000 pounds of finished paper.
Another flood along the Great Miami River on March 25, 1913 did considerable damage to the Hamilton facilities. 2 A fire on the following day destroyed the coating plant. It was swiftly rebuilt by June 15 and by the end of the year, the factory employed about 1,000. 4 The coating line was expanded, and ten additional double coating machines were installed, adding 50 tons to the daily capacity of coated paper. 5 During World War I, nearly 1,500 worked the lines, providing paper for the military for eventual use as maps.
Thomson was regarded as an innovator in employee relations. 4 A full-time physician was brought on in 1916. Additionally, employees were able to select group insurance coverage for themselves and their dependents beginning in 1917. Workers at the B Street plant were also able to purchase home necessities at the Champion Company Store between 1917 and 1934.
An advertising department was added in 1924 and a research facility was constructed in 1926. 4 Not long after its founding, the technical research division solved a lingering problem: problems with the alum that was used to make the coating on the paper. 6 Champion had hired a chemist from Du Pont who, within a week, had developed a cheap additive to the alum that solved the problem. Within a year years, Champion employed 40 chemists.
Later, Champion opened a new mill in Houston, Texas to process southern pine, which was plentiful and cheap. 6
Thomson continued to direct the mill and all of its operations until his death on July 10, 1931. 4
Great Depression & Post World War II Growth
During the Great Depression, which idled many local factories, production at Champion shifted to plain grades of paper to save costs and to reduce prices, and a “work-for-all” policy was adopted. 4 Instead of layoffs, most of Champion’s 4,000 employees worked five or six days a week, a reduction from six or seven days a week.
The economic depression left many manufacturers bankrupt or significantly smaller, but Champion took advantage of the weak markets to plan future markets and factories. The company expanded with a new plant in Sandersville, Georgia on December 1, 1938. 2 It was well timed, as demand for paper soared during World War II. 4 The company, with its 2,600 employees, shipped 95 tons of paper that became 4.5 million maps for military maneuvers in the Carolinas in 1942 and 6,000 tons of paper for maps used by Allied forces on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Additionally, to counteract the loss of 676 men in the workforce, Champion hired female replacements, which supplemented the 200 to 400 women who were already employed on the sorting lines. 4
The years after the conclusion of the war were not so quiet for the company. Champion diversified into bag paper, cardboard and carton manufacture and began to implement vertical integration by purchasing timberland for raw material and paper-marketing stores to capture sales of finished goods. 6 But the 1950’s saw little growth in the paper industry and profits were slim. By the end of fiscal year 1959, net income had fallen to $8 million, nearly half of what it was just two years prior. Sales continued to struggle into 1960.
On August 2, 1960, Champion acquired the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton facilities on North Third Street across the Great Miami River. 2 On August 7, 1961, after more than three years of planning and construction, the administrative offices for Champion relocated from North B Street to Knightsbridge Drive. Champion boasted more than 3,300 employees and was one of the largest paper companies in the world. 4
In March 1960, Champion’s president, Reuben B. Robertson, Jr., died. 6 For the first time in the company’s history, a person outside of the Thomson family was tapped for the top seat at Champion: Karl Bendetsen. Within a year of taking office, Bendetsen fired 20% of Champion’s workforce and reorganized the corporation’s management in a bid to cut costs. Additionally, Champion had been manufacturing more than 100 different grades of paper, but within a year, all but the top 20 were dropped from production. The company’s fleet of seven private jets were eliminated. By 1967, the company’s profits had jumped 41% and it was ranked one of the best managed companies in the world.
Champion Papers merged with the U.S. Plywood Corporation on February 28, 1967 to form the U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers Inc. with a combined 31,000 employees and 130 factories with its headquarters in New York City and later Stamford, Connecticut. 2 4 The Knightsbridge offices were converted into regional offices. The merger was seen as a way to combine shared resources and to better withstand volatility in their respective markets. 6 In July, planning began for a $100 million pulp and paper mill on 1,800 acres along the Tennessee River near Courtland, Alabama. Ground was broken in April 1968.
The plywood market fared much worse during the first year of the merger and within three years, most of the executives from U.S. Plywood had resigned from the combined company. 6 Shareholders approved renaming the merged company to Champion International on May 11, 1972. 2 Profits rose but the threat of slumping sales did nothing to aid the company out of stagnation. 6
In 1977, the Hoerner Waldorf Corporation, a paperboard and corrugated-box manufacturer, merged with Champion. 6 This allowed Champion to strengthen its assets in the paper market, but it required reinvestment in existing facilities and in new mills. Profits were fairly low, although consistent, well into the 1980’s.
Champion acquired St. Regis Corporation, a magazine paper and newsprint producer, for $1.8 billion in 1984. 6 The hastily made deal rescued St. Regis from a hostile takeover by Rupert Murdoch. The purchase allowed Champion to double its land holdings, making it one of the largest private landowners in the nation. To prevent Champion from being vulnerable to takeovers, the company instituted a steep debt reduction plan. Seven wood-product plants were closed in the western United States, and assets were sold in the packaging and building supply divisions. The product scope was narrowed to newsprint and white coated papers, and subsidiaries in brown paper packaging, boxes and wood products were sold. In 1987, two mills in Texas were sold, followed by a specialty paper plant in Columbus a year later.
Net income rose in the late 1980’s before diving in 1989. 6 Profits began to tank in 1990 and reached a net loss of $156 million in 1993. Instead of weathering the downturn by cutting costs, Champion invested in capital improvements, spending $5.5 billion to add capacity company-wide and to conduct environmental overhauls of its mills. To generate needed cash, Champion began selling off a large portion of its timber holdings, starting with California and Oregon in 1991 and 867,000 acres for $260 million in Montana in 1992.
In 1991, the Knightsbridge offices were expanded at a cost of $45 million. 2 At the time, the Hamilton facilities employed 1,500 with 1,345,000 square-feet on 45 acres.1 But by October 1997, Champion announced corporate restructuring plans with the intention to sell the Hamilton facilities.
The investments and land scales paid off. The year 1995 was Champion’s best ever, when the company posted net sales of $6.97 billion and net income of $772 million. 6
Merger & Downsizing
Finland-based UPM-Kymmene, Europe’s largest forest products company, announced its merger with Champion on February 17, 2000. 2 After the talks stalled, International Paper announced their intentions to merge on May 12 with a proposed transaction value of $7.3 billion. On June 21, International Paper assumed control of Champion’s operations and its 800 employees and the Champion name was removed from all products. 2 4 At the time, employment was at 820 for the mill and 560 for the Knightsbridge offices, and an additional 220 at the former Beckett Paper Company (400 Dayton Street), which International Paper acquired in 1986. 2 4 The Beckett Paper Company had become part of Hammermill Paper Company in May 1959. 4
International Paper announced plans to phase out the offices at Knightsbridge on September 5, 2000 and on January 8, 2001, the sale of the B Street facilities to a Florida merchant banking firm that would operate the plant as SMART Papers. 2 4 The Beckett Paper facility was also absorbed by Smart Paper. 4
Miami University approved the purchase of the former purchasing and engineering building, part of the Knightsbridge facility, from International Paper for $650,000 in February 2002. 2 The remainder was sold to Harry T. Wilks of Hamilton in April 2004 for $3.5 million. Wilks purchase was then acquired by Mahendra Vora and Timothy B. Matthews for $6 million on January 20, 2005 and renamed the Vora Technology Park at a dedication ceremony on March 25.
In 2009, SMART sold part of its production lines to Mohawk Papers and a significant number of employees were laid off. 7 Operations were reduced to one active paper machine. SMART announced the sale or closure of the B Street mill on October 13, 2011. 4 7 The company cited the expansion of lower-priced products from Asian corporations, raw material and chemical cost increases and environmental legislation. 7
Partial Demolition & Reuse
In March 2012, the Smart Papers closed the B Street mill and the remaining 200 employees were laid off. 4 The remaining structures, some of which had been vacant for some period, were acquired by the city for $403,000. 1 The city sold Mill 1 that December to Green Reclamation Group for redevelopment with a plan to convert the site into light industrial and office use for $4.5 million. Mill 2 remained under city ownership.
Approximately half of Mill 1, which was built for specific paper-making machinery, 3 was demolished while the remainder was saved for reuse. The office building was rehabilitated and upgraded for new office tenants. Nearly $2.1 million was expended for asbestos abatement and partial demolition of Mill 1, and another $2.3 million was spent to rehabilitate the remaining buildings.
Zumbiel Packaging and NewPage announced that they would be leasing space in Mill 1, which was re-branded as the Champion Mill Business Park. 3