In the year 1899 German immigrant Eugene Meurer came west looking for a site for a paper mill. He declared: “I want my mill to be in the heart of the population center of the United States. I must have plenty of water and good transportation.” He first looked at Grand Rapids, but decided on Muskegon because of the abundance of water and its harbor. Meurer would name his mill the Central Paper Company.
Meuer purchased 15 acres on Muskegon Lake next to the Chase-Hackley Piano Company. By August of 1900 the mill was turning out 25 tons of paper a day using hemlock slabs cooked in acid to make the wood pulp. One of the mill’s first customers was the Muskegon Chronicle, which published its August 18, 1900, edition on Central paper.
So began an industry which would endure in Muskegon for more than a century. Over the years, the paper mill would prove to be one of Muskegon’s most visible manufacturers, with its familiar twin smokestacks and huge piles of logs, and at times one of controversy.
The next 15 years produced advances in paper technology. Central Paper was the first in the U.S. to use the sulfate process and the first to produce kraft paper (brown paper used for bags and wrapping). By the mid 1920s four paper machines were turning out many specialty products, often built to customer’s specifications as to weight and color. Embossing, waxing and printing had been added to the process so items like Christmas wrapping paper could be produced. Total output exceeded 100 tons per day.
Economic conditions in the 1930s forced Central Paper to shut down one its four paper machines. The company survived, however, by making a variety of products, including paper toweling, file folders, oil filter windings, stencil boards, insulating crepe, gasket stock, and plastic impregnated paper.
In 1941 the company took over the old Chase-Hackley piano building for paper storage. During World War II most of Muskegon’s industries converted to war work. There is little mention of Central Paper’s role during the war years. An annual report from that era does note that the building of a Massachusetts-class battleship required 16 tons of blueprint paper.
By the 1950s the company was moving more to the production of “printing paper”– high quality coated stock used for advertising brochures, annual reports and textbooks.
In 1953, stockholders of Central Paper voted to accept the offer of the S. D. Warren Company to purchase the mill. At that time there were about 700 employees. The new company immediately announced plans for $14,000,000 of improvements and expansion.
In 1967 S. D. Warren became a subsidiary of Scott Paper. A year later another paper making machine (the fifth and largest) was added, increasing the mill’s output of high quality coated (glossy) paper. The plant by then covered over 100 acres.
It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that the paper mill began addressing the long standing complaint of its Lakeside neighbors, namely the plant’s strong odor. Sometimes described as the smell of rotten eggs, the odor was produced by the cooking of wood chips with a mixture of chemicals. In 1975 engineers announced a process which would trap sulfur emissions, the main cause of the odor, and transport them into the boilers where they would be mostly oxidized. In 1979 the company claimed the odor had been reduced by over 90%.
Another long standing issue with the paper mill was its dumping of waste water directly into Muskegon Lake, occasionally turning part of the lake white. This was addressed in 1973-74 with the development of the Muskegon County Wastewater System, in which S. D. Warren played an instrumental role. The paper mill would be the Wastewater system’s biggest customer for the next 35 years.
Also in the 1970s the company installed an electrostatic precipitator in its main smokestack to reduce fly ash and comply with federal clean air standards.
In 1983 S.D. Warren announced a five year plan of equipment modernization costing over $200 million. At the time the plant employed 1050 workers and paid $1.3 million in local property taxes annually. The city assisted this modernization project with a partial tax abatement.
In 1986 S. D. Warren advertised to fill 23 new jobs. More than 4000 people applied, including many who already held jobs elsewhere. This was a measure of the high regard area industrial workers had for paper mill employment at the time—the jobs were considered high paying, with apparent job security.
In 1994 South Africa based Sappi Ltd bought the S. D. Warren operation from Scott Paper. Just prior to the sale, the Muskegon plant cut about 150 jobs. Union officials claimed the cuts were done to make S. D. Warren more saleable. For the next 10 years employment at Sappi-Muskegon would hold steady at about 700 workers. However, the company was facing increased world-wide competition.
As part of the paper mill’s 100thbirthday celebration in the year 2000, the plant offered tours to Lakeside residents, employees, retirees and their families. In 2002 the plant was opened to the general public for inspection. “We have a progressive strategy the last few years to be more open and understood within the Muskegon community,” said a company spokesman.
By the year 2004 foreign competitors held 50% of the U.S. paper market and new paper plants in Korea and China were soon going on-line. At the same time demand for high quality paper was dropping world-wide due to economic conditions. Sappi enacted several cost cutting measures, including the purchase of cheaper pulp wood, reducing overtime and asking for a price break on wastewater rates.
In July of 2005 Sappi decided to close down one of its two paper machines and suspend operation of the pulp mill. This eliminated 365 jobs, about 60% of the workforce.
In March of 2009 Sappi announced it would shut down all Muskegon operations for six months. Company officials cited the weak economy and a worldwide surplus of coated publishing paper. The move meant the layoff of 190 union and management workers.
Six months later, with no improvement of the economy in sight, Sappi made the shut- down permanent, ending the story of one of Muskegon’s landmark industries.
(Note: the above information was taken from local reports and newspaper articles.)
EMBA stands for Employee Mutual Benefit Association. Our goal is to do just that, benefit former Muskegon S.D. Warren/Sappi employees.