Grand Falls-Windsor hasn’t died yet. It has been ten years since the cloud that had been looming over the town for years finally broke. But the sky never fell.
I have a list of all of the contractor-foremen working for the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company from back in 1947. This was during a time of peak employment in the woods and mills. There are well over fifty names on the list. Each one of those names would have been in charge of a camp or a crew that would have on average numbered around forty men. I have done my best to match up the names with the places where they were from, the crews usually came from the same areas as the foremen. The crews came from all over the island to the depots and down into the camps.
That period of time shortly after World War Two was the peak for employment in Newfoundland’s forest industries. It was a booming time for the pulp and paper industry. Had the mill closed during this time period, the fallout would have been felt hundreds of miles from the epicenter. Many communities, not just Grand Falls and the “communities within the orbit of the A.N.D Company”, would have had both their primary and secondary source of employment taken away. And there would have been nothing to fill the void. It would have been a major issue in at least 10 of the present provincial electoral districts from where the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company’s workforce was drawn.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s there was probably a permanent workforce at the mill of well over 1000, with about five hundred or more during the summer, a few hundred at Botwood, about 70 with the Company Railroad and 3000+ on the woods payroll for varied amounts of time throughout the year. A few years later in 1951 it was reported that there were about 4,700 people on the payroll (mill, woods, transportation and shipping) over the course of the year.
Sixty years later the importance of forestry work and forest industries to the economy had diminished to an extent that, despite all the hotheaded blustering and the misguided blunderous expropriation, the closure of the Grand Falls mill was more of a dull thud than a bang.
The 1960’s saw changes in the way logging was done that caused that industry to decline in its importance to many Newfoundland communities. The astronomical scale of mechanization during that decade cut the woods labor force to a fraction of what it had been. Loggers could make much more money than they once could, but there were far fewer. By the time the mill closed in 2009 the total number working in the woods as probably about the same as the woods supervisory staff in 1947.
1968 heralded in the installation of the Moby Joe paper machine. A few years before it was installed the Company figured that they would require 500,000 cords of wood a year to feed all the machines at Grand Falls. They ended up producing about the same amount of paper with fewer machines. The average cut in the woods was around 300,000 cord per year. As time went on cords were converted into cubic meters and wood would be referred to as fiber. Abitibi would buy the boondoggle that was the Linerboard Mill in Stephenville, convert it into a paper mill and end up trying to feed it from the same wood supply that was supposed to meet the needs of Grand Falls in perpetuity.
Hindsight is 20/20 when you look at the last forty years of the Grand Falls mill. Far from a crown jewel for a small company, it would end up buried in the annual reports along with all the other mills owned by a huge company, and the company kept getting bigger. The share in Buchans went from a windfall to a liability. Machines were shutdown in 1989 and 1994 people lost their jobs.
You can feel the change if you have ever looked at all of the employee newsletters. Grand Falls was now a part of Abitibi’s Newfoundland Business Unit. The newsletters became all about finding efficiencies, environmental concerns and what sacrifices workers may have to make in order to remain profitable in an increasingly bad market for newsprint. The ever increasingly poor newsprint market can be seen even in the days before the internet came into everybody’s home, let alone pockets. Insects were eating the trees and there was never enough wood for Stephenville. Yet some major investments were made into the old mill in those last decades, while others were put off.
Then came the world wide downturn in the newsprint industry just after the turn of the century. First Stephenville closed, then one of the two machines at Grand Falls, then the entire Grand Falls operation. Built by a determined British press baron to supply his papers in perpetuity. Then owned by a Quebec firm and shipping its last product to Egypt.
The blow was softened to some by the age of the workforce at the plant and the relatively small number that remained, a grand total in all operations of around 700. There were only 450 working at the mill at the time. The average age of the workers was fairly high. Many of those who were not old enough to take early retirement were able to hook into to the booming Alberta economy, new and bigger houses sprung up around town, despite the closure of the beast that ate the trees.
It took the better part of then years to resolve all the issues and tear down the mill, and the issues have yet to be all resolved. In the woods the trees still grow, the fabled 40 millionth on the Sandy Badger Road is probably too big to be a Christmas tree now. Too many trees have gone to saws in the east and in roundabout ways to paper machines in the west. Schemes for the forest’s exploitation and development have come and gone and gone again. Our location more of an isolation from North America than a forward position to European markets as it was when the mill was built.
But still the town of Grand Falls-Windsor has grown, no doubt because of its role as a regional service center, partly the expense of smaller communities in the area. But, the population is aging, and one can’t wonder that if the mill had survived in some new or diversified form, that most everybody there in 2009 would have been retired by now. Perhaps there would be more young families in town supported by good, steady, industrial jobs. But of my generation, there are few that remain. Even a number of years ago it was said that Grand Falls-Windsor had a reputation for producing some very talented and educated people and sending them elsewhere. Though the population is bigger, in some ways it is a much smaller place than it was 50 or more years ago.
Ten years ago the machines that had been started with such ceremony stopped. The whistles were sounded like those of a great sinking battleship.
When interviewed by CBC, retired millwright Bob Hedges noted that: “I just couldn’t see Grand Falls being Grand Falls without a paper mill.”
Without the paper mill there would have been no Grand Falls.