For over a century, the whistle of the AbitibiBowater paper mill would blow at 8 a.m. and then again at 4 p.m. Its sound was known to reverberate through the whole town of Grand Falls-Windsor, marking the start and end of each work day.
On Feb. 12, 2009, the mill permanently shut down production and that whistle made its final call.
It’s now 10 years since the AbitibiBowater paper mill closed its doors, and while the site now remains barren and inactive, former employees say its legacy is still felt in the community.
For Ron Smith, who spent 20 years as an employee of the mill and another 20 years as a national union representative for mill employees and loggers, so much of the rich history and continued growth of Grand Falls-Windsor is owed to that mill.
“If you look at the contribution that mill made, it’s tremendous,” Smith said. “It was one of the first attempts by Britain to industrialize and modernize the colony. People don’t stop to think about it – when people in Newfoundland never dreamt of having a road in their town, Grand Falls had all paved streets. When water and sewer was something that could never happen, Grand Falls already had it.
“I remember as a little kid being able to play in tennis courts provided by the mill company. Back then tennis courts were as scarce as hen’s teeth in this province.”
Mayor Barry Manuel has spent his life in Grand Falls-Windsor. He says the sound of the mill whistle was a constant reminder of home, and a reminder of how vital the mill was to the town.
“For decades the mill was everything to the community, ever since it opened in the early 1900s,” Manuel said. “It was an industry that gave big wages and allowed people to stay home and grow the local economy. Most people had family members that worked for the mill in some fashion. It really was the heartbeat of the community.”
While 2019 will mark 10 years since the mill brought any direct employment or revenue to residents, Manuel says it’s important that the town find ways to keep the memory of the mill going.
“It’s such a big part of our history and always will be,” he said. “We certainly hope that as time goes on we can find ways to celebrate that history, because it is a unique story.”
Through the years
After four years of clearing the area for the selected site and building the facility, the mill began production in 1909.
At a time when fishing was the dominant industry for the island, Manuel says it was the first time in Newfoundland an industry was established inland.
Because the fishery at this time was run through a merchants’ bartering system, the mill brought some of the first physical money into people’s pockets.
“In Grand Falls they actually put cash in brown envelopes and gave it to the employees,” said Smith. “People were paid in cash when many fishermen never saw money in their lives.”
It was this valuable employment and contributed to the modernization of Grand Falls that brought many people from surrounding communities and across the province in search of work.
“A lot of people came from isolated areas all over to work. It was a modern community in a colony that could hardly support itself,” Smith said.
“At that time a lot of people got out of high school and went to the mill because they were always hiring on and the money was good. You didn’t have to leave home, you didn’t have to go to university, you could make a wonderful living at it.”
Joe Tremblett worked at the mill for 37 years, beginning in 1972 and working right up until the day the mill closed down. Starting out as a paper maker, Tremblett says there was around 2,000 employees at the time and he made about $3.85 an hour.
“At that time a lot of people got out of high school and went to the mill because they were always hiring on and the money was good,” he said. “You didn’t have to leave home, you didn’t have to go to university, you could make a wonderful living at it.”
Smith and Tremblett witnessed a variety of industry changes through the years, from the logs being transported down the river to the adoption of a transport trucking system, the closure of the Newfoundland railway system, and the replacement of a grinding room with a mechanical pumping system to create pulp.
Decline and closure
The decline in newsprint brought on by the growing market for digital media was also a major change for the industry — one that eventually played a key role in the mill’s demise.
Tremblett says in those final years it was becoming increasingly clear that the mill’s future was uncertain.
“Every couple years then you’d see they’d be cutting back and the workforce was getting smaller,” he said. “They did away with the paper inspector job and then they’d get rid of someone else and you’d have more duties to perform.”
According to Smith, a lack of investment in repairing the mill’s century-old infrastructure played an equal role in the mill’s closure.
“As much as a decline in production there was a decline in the conditions of the mill,” he said. “You could watch the facility itself deteriorate. Machine seven needed a complete rebuild and it got nothing – it just got older and more troublesome. Machine three needed an electrical drive but it was delayed too late.
“When it went from Abitibi Consolidated to AbitibiBowater, the mill was one of 19 others. Grand Falls-Windsor had a full slate of customers right up until the shutdown, but it was decided to keep other mills open and those customers were spread around.”
As a national representative up until his retirement in 2008, Smith says the union did a lot of work with the provincial government to ensure machine seven was kept open as long as possible. This way, when the mill did close, more employees would be eligible for their pension.
In 2008, the announcement came that Abitibi was going to shut down the Grand Falls-Windsor mill as well as a second mill in the United States.
"That main industry was going to be lost and there was some trepidation for what was going to be happen next. When you lose an industry that’s been in your community for over 100 years it’s definitely going to have a major impact.”
-Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor, Barry Manuel
With the decline in newsprint demand across the board, the closure did not come as a shock to many. But for Manuel, even though it was not a surprise, the loss of a 100-year-old landmark and economic resource was still devastating news.
“It was a sad time for everybody. That main industry was going to be lost and there was some trepidation for what was going to be happen next,” said Manuel. “When you lose an industry that’s been in your community for over 100 years it’s definitely going to have a major impact.”
At the time of the closure, Smith and Tremblett say the average age of the employees was around 55. Because many of the workers were eligible for a pension, the economic impact was lessened.
“Most of them got at least a year’s severance and then they qualified for a year’s unemployment,” said Smith. “Some of the younger workers went to work elsewhere locally but many went to Alberta, particularly the tradespeople.”
At the time, about 450 people worked at the mill, and many loggers who depended on the mill also lost their jobs.
Tremblett received his pension and retired with the shutdown. Because the deal had been worked out to ensure severance and a year’s unemployment for the workers, he says in those initial two years the economic loss that could have resulted was greatly diminished.
The town today
At a population today of 14,171, Grand Falls-Windsor still remains one of the larger communities in the province. Manuel says people moving on to work in tech, Nalcor, mining and the oil rigs of Alberta all played a significant role in sustaining the community. Now, health care is the main source of employment for Grand Falls-Windsor.
“The major industry right now is healthcare; the hospital employs the bulk of people in the area,” he said. “We’ve got multiple clinics in town as well – physiotherapists, chiropractors, home care facilities, a new seniors’ home in the works.”
“That increase in population is bucking the trend elsewhere in Newfoundland and Labrador. It still shows future promise for the community." — Grand Falls-Windsor Mayor Barry Manuel
According to Statistics Canada, the population of Grand Falls-Windsor has only risen since the closure of the mill. The 2006 census recorded a population of 13,558, followed by a 1.2 per cent increase to 13,725 in the 2011 census.
The town’s assessed land and property value for 2013 was $853,050 and is now $1,120,133.
For the future, Manuel hopes to see new investments in the mining sector and to grow the town’s role in the tourism industry.
“That increase in population is bucking the trend elsewhere in Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Manuel. “It still shows future promise for the community. We have sustained ourselves quite well.”
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