Champion Paper
Hamilton, OH

The fresh snow mixed indistinguishably from the ashes of the half-demolished power plant. This wasn’t the rust belt, this was the pulp belt, and one by one its giant chimneys were running out of smoke.

Ohio’s Biggest—Ohio’s Emptiest

My mother always said the most beautiful thing in the world is a blank piece of paper; before we fill them with words, paper is infinite in the universes it can transmit from infinite authors to infinite readers. That’s what makes closed paper mills infinitely sad places.

Part of an ongoing series on found American flags in shuttered factories.

Exploring the shell of Champion Paper was like being a child at an open casket funeral. I didn’t know where I should be looking, or how, so I followed ques from my surroundings… Doors with American flags taped on them, stacked against a concrete wall with faded auction tickets slapped on their handles. A cramped warehouse with wood floors and slow ceilings, where the only colors are splashes of yellow caution tape wrapped around dry fire sprinklers and rust-red valves. A staircase to the third floor jammed with bricks formerly known as the third floor.

I wanted to see the third floor to get a better view, but the third floor had already been demolished. The old walls had cascaded down the staircases. This building is gone, now, as you can expect.

A stiff winter breeze from the Great Miami River blows more snow into mill with a faint whistle. It which stands out from the muffled sounds of traffic driving through the middle of the plant. I wonder what it’s like to drive on B Street through a canyon of red brick and block glass, knowing it would be abandoned until it was demolished. I have a feeling that few people see it.

History of Hamilton’s Mill

Champion Paper was founded on November 2nd, 1893. It began by coating paper produced by other mills in Hamilton, of which there were many, but by 1902 it was making its own. It quickly grew to be the biggest factory of its kind in the world, comprising 27 acres by 1910. Through the 1910s and 1920s, more buildings were added, including office space for an advertising department (1924) and a handsome research and development building (1926). The plant stretched out along the river that gave it the water and electricity it needed.

The world’s biggest paper machine was installed here about a century before this photo was taken. The orange in the windows is the brick building across the street–the new part of the plant.

Through the Great Depression, Champion’s 4,000 workers took turns at the plant to prevent mass layoffs, and in 1931 the company sold 90,000 acres of forest land to the government for $3 million to create the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. The cash infusion and labor cuts helped the mill weather the economic hardships that sank so many competitors. By the end of the crisis, it was the state’s largest paper mill and was known for being the first mill to make two-sided coated paper, like the kind you saw in magazines, when there were magazines.

After a burst of energy during World War II, the domestic paper business began to slide. In March of 1961, one third of plant employees were laid off, a harbinger of a string of mergers and buyouts that followed. By 1997, the 1,500 workers in the Hamilton mill heard the news that the company was looking to sell out. It would be the beginning of the end. By the time International Papers bought all of Champion’s assets in 2000, only 800 workers remained. The deal was valued at $7.3 billion. International Papers flipped the mill to Smart Papers in 2001.

A whiteboard in the quiet turbine room lays it all out… you should sell.

In 2011, when Smart Papers announced it was going to shut down, only 200 workers clocked-in on B street, which covered almost 50 acres. Compare that figure to roughly 4,000 workers in 1910 on ‘just’ 27 acres. At the end, it must have been a skeleton crew in a ghost town, but according to news reports, they “worked up to the last hour”. The last Hamiltonians clocked-out in March 2012, and since then about a third of the plant has been demolished. There are plans to build a sports complex in Champion’s footprint.