Apart from the towering smokestack along the corner of Fairview Street and Massachusetts Avenue, antique postcards offer the most vivid memory of the long-vacant Columbian Paper Mill in Bristol, Virginia.
The University of Tennessee’s Volunteer Voices Statewide Digitization Project features a 1931 postcard published by the Kelly and Green Co. showing the mill during its heyday in the Twin City. The postcard is now owned by the Bristol Historical Association, according to the project’s digital library.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the development of pulp and paper mills enabled the timber industry to make profits off the cutting of smaller trees.
The pulp mill opened in the early 1900s as part of a project with local entrepreneur James Barker, and it had a sister pulp and paper mill in Buena Vista, Virginia. Both were owned by the Columbian Paper Co. under the leadership of then-company President Thomas Bohannon.
The facility was located next to the Dixie Tannery, which opened a few years earlier and was another one of Barker’s many business ventures in Bristol.
The city’s mill was one of the only sites in the country responsible for the production of soda pulp, a chemical process of making wood pulp with sodium hydroxide, during its early years. However, the market for soda pulp was on the decline because the product was weaker than newer pulp materials that hit the market in the late 19th century.
As time went on, workers at the mill unionized and joined the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulfite and Paper Mill Workers.
In the October-November 1917 edition of the union’s publication “The Journal,” a correspondent submitted a letter detailing a Labor Day parade held in the city by mill workers.
The letter printed in the pamphlet said, “[The parade] was a success and seemed to set the Labor Spirit on fire in Bristol for there has been one more labor organization added to Bristol since that time and we are looking forward to see every plant in Bristol organized.”
The mill’s correspondent also documented a visit from the union’s vice president, which was an unusual trip because the Bristol chapter of the union was several hundred miles away from other chapters.
In the early 1930s, a railroad access ramp was added to the facility at the end of a spur. The ramp is still visible on the property today.
The mill was purchased by the Meade Paper Co. in 1946 and was later consolidated with the Williwright Co. before the facility stopped producing pulp altogether in the late 1940s. The building eventually became storage for the Tenneva Food Co. in the 1950s.
The site became a danger to the environment after it fell into disrepair in the 1980s.
In 1986, an oily residue was found floating on nearby sections of Beaver Creek, downstream from the site, according to a report. That portion of the site was cleaned up in 1995.
Years later in March 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency completed a $1.7 million Superfund cleanup of “thousands” of automotive, motorcycle and industrial batteries on the site.
“It was very common in the 1960s and 1970s for these types of dumps, before the EPA was established,” EPA coordinator Bob Kelly told the Herald Courier in 2010.
Today, the mill is partially owned by Michael Stramiello. He has invested in the property for more than a decade and has looked into several projects at the site, including building an apartment complex.
“People are the greatest resource you can have, and I try to help them,” he told the newspaper in a 2009 interview. “It kills me to see people’s families splitting up and moving away just because they can’t get jobs in their hometown. Then you don’t get to see your children and grandchildren grow up. That’s why I’m doing this. I want these good families to be able to stay here.”
Nothing substantial has been done with the property to date.
This article has been updated to include the correct location of the vacant Columbian Paper Mill.