International Paper’s mill in North Tonawanda was located on Tonawanda Island in the Niagara River. Paper mills consume a huge amount of water, and its location provided ample access to water from the river. The mill was situated in the midst of the heavy industries of Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier. Hooker Chemicals, another major industry and supplier of raw materials for the mill, was less than ten miles away in the city of Niagara Falls New York.
The mill was originally built in 1923 to provide paper for the Chicago Tribune’s Liberty Magazine, and was sold to International Paper in 1929. By the 1970s, the mill was producing tablet and printing paper that would be shipped throughout the United States and worldwide.
Rail service was essential to the mill’s operation, and its original builders situated it adjacent to the New York Central’s (NYC) Niagara Branch, which also hosted the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The Erie Railroad also passed through North Tonawanda but only the NYC served the plant directly. The north end of NYC’s Niagara Branch afforded access to Canadian National Railways (CNR), Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway (TH&B), Pere Marquette (part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad), and NYC’s subsidiary Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR). The south end of the Niagara Branch connected directly with NYC’s water level route between New York and Chicago, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Wabash, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Nickel Plate Road. At the time of the mill’s construction, it was situated with direct access to the entire North American railroad network.
General Arrangement of Buildings and Operations at the Mill in the 1970s
I’m interested in the operations at the mill in the 1970s. Much of my research can be informed by historical photos, but the following two photos are the best representation of how it looked near the end of operations. To place the mill in geographical context, the first image shows the tree-lined streets of North Tonawanda along the top of the frame and Penn Central’s North Tonawanda yard and Niagara Branch run horizontally across the frame just below the trees. It’s difficult to make out in this photo, but the Erie-Lackawanna’s former Erie Railroad Niagara Falls Branch is parallel to the Penn Central and mere feet away, on the far side. River Road is generally parallel to the Niagara Branch in this scene. Wheatfield Street intersects River Road at a T-intersection about 1/3 of the way into the frame from the left. Robinson Street is T-intersection toward the right of the frame.
The International Paper mill was situated on the northern tip of Tonawanda Island. The mill’s neighbour to the south was R.T.Jones, a large lumber distributor. Lumber distribution is a major part of North Tonawanda’s history. South of R.T. Jones and just out of the frame was International Filler, another Penn Central customer that produced packaging materials.
A comment from a reader named Rick helps to put the arrangement of buildings in the plant into perspective:
Looking at the 2 colour photos I see where the Kraft Mill is located at the [north] end of the mill. Where there are a few tank cars (one on a track, then 2 on a track, then 1 on a track close to the building should be the Bleach Plant. The big tall tank would be the bleach tower where the brown stock turns to white stock.
I’ll describe the way materials were handled through the process of paper making and bring rail traffic patterns into the discussion.
Handling Wood and Woodchips
Water and wood are the materials consumed in largest quantity by a paper mill. Being situated in the Niagara River provided an ample supply of water. I’ll address water treatment in a later section. In this section, I’ll describe how the raw material for paper was handled at the mill.
Round wood was originally brought to the mill by boat. Some time after 1968, the mill was converted to receive woodchips instead of round wood. The logs would be delivered and stockpiled to the east of the mill buildings.
By the 1970s, the plant on Tonawanda Island had one of the few remaining soda-process pulp mills in the United States. This process required peeled poplar pulpwood as the starting point. During the Great Lakes shipping season, pulpwood was delivered by ship from various places on Lake Superior and the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Hardwood was also delivered by rail, and small amount of locally sourced wood was also brought in. Additionally, hardwood chips were purchased from lumber companies and brought in by boxcar and truck. The wood yard could had a capacity of 30,000 cords of wood, and typically operated with an inventory of around 20,000 cords. This inventory would last only two months if all shipments were stopped.
Some information about the configuration of the buildings in the mill was provided a reader named Rick:
Looking at the black and white photo of the I.P. Paper Mill looking west, there is the large stock pile of logs about center of photo. To the left of the retaining wall holding the logs from spilling over is a pipe stand rising up from the bottom of the photo to about mid way. On the pipe stand is a pipe pointing towards some parked cars. I believe this to be a “Blower Pipe” that blows wood chips onto a storage pile. There looks to be a small pile of wood chips there. I see to the left of the chip pile and close to the left edge of the photo a “Gas Shovel” on tracks. This unit would be used to scoop up the chips and drop them on the conveyor running from the left edge of the photo to where the blower pipe starts. By 1974 [the approximate era I’m modelling-ed.] the mill could be using a 960 Cat front end loader to scoop up chips from the pile and dump onto the conveyor. I believe the logs travel along the top part of the conveyor and under that conveyor is a chip conveyor transporting the chips along to the Kraft Mill Digesters which should be on the right hand side off of this photo. To the right of the log pile about center on the right edge I can see a crane used to lift logs and drop them onto the conveyor that should run to a chipper.
Behind the parked cars, I see what looks like the Paper Mill offices. The building behind the Office has rail cars just to the left and a door big enough for rail cars to enter. That building should be the Warehouse and Shipping department where the finished product (rolls of paper) leaves the Paper Mill to the customers. I believe they would take the rail cars inside to load out of the weather. I also see on the right side of this building is a truck and trailer backed up to a doorway. No doubt they had local customers or customers without rail service so trucks would be used to deliver paper.
The long building with the sign on top should be the “Machine Room” or Paper Machine Hall.” The right end of the building would be the “Wet End” where the stock is pumped onto the “wire” and the de-watering takes place as the water is first drained out then pressed out and finally dried by steam in the driers. In the left end of the building, after the driers, would be the Calendar Stacks and “Reel building” then the” Winder” (where the rolls are produced to customer requirements). This would be followed by the “Capping line” or “Wrapping Line” Finishing Line” (all the same thing just different names by different Companies). This would be followed by a “Scale and Label” operation to record the roll and mark information on roll for shipping and customer. The rolls then need to go downstairs as the rolls are produced on the second floor of the Machine Room.
Going back outside ,between the pile of logs and against the Machine Room is a long narrow building(s) with a line of box cars in front. This could be the “Raw Material Warehouse” where chemicals, dyes, inks and other products used in this Mill are unloaded from rail cars and stored until needed in the Mill. I see one door into this building and there could be another behind a box car.
The reader who provided the above description was deducing this from his lifetime career in paper mills, but had never worked at the mill on Tonawanda Island. The information he proved has been confirmed by a primary source who worked in the mill.
The digester at the mill was designed to work with 5/8″ size chips. Prior to 1968, the mill operated a chipper in the wood room so that the round wood had to be converted into chips. Logs were moved by conveyor from the wood yard to the wood room. A 10-blade chipper in the wood room reduced the logs to the necessary chip size and the chips were blown into two chip bins above the building. The wood room operated 16 hours each day in order to supply the digester with enough chips for 24 hours.
I’m interested in the operation after the plant converted to using wood chips instead of round wood. By that time, the soda mill was using a mix of 50% hardwood and 50% hardwood and 50% poplar chips. This is only relevant because it might impact rail traffic flow such that chips would come from different operations depending on the type of type of trees in forest the wood was extracted from. If the mill was using round wood from operations in Northern Ontario and Quebec, it’s reasonable to assume that wood chips might have been sources from some of the same places.
From the two wood chip bins, the chips would be blown into four 2800 cu.ft. digesters. My modern standards, these were relatively small digesters. The cook would take about five hours, and ingredients included white liquor, lime, and sodium carbonate. The digesters would produce a total of 17 cooks each day, resulting in 140 tons of soda pulp.
The output from the digesters went through process of removing the liquid (black liquor) from the stock, washing, then screening. From there, the stock went to the bleach plant. This is a simplification of the process, but that’s the gist of it.
A three-stage process was used to bleach the stock. The first stage involves mixing the stock with gaseous chlorine in a chlorinating tower for a couple of hours. The bleach tower is the large cylindrical tower on the west side of the mill near the bleach plant. From there, the pulp is washed and placed in five bleaching towers with a mix of sodium hydroxide and calcium hypochlorite. After another wash, the pulp is blended and refined before being sent to the paper machine.
The mill used steam for nearly every aspect of its operation. Various sources report that around 150 tons of coal were consumed by the powerhouse daily. In order to keep the boilers supplied with coal, the company would stockpile coal on the sound end of the property. The powerhouse was on the west side of the mill, adjacent to the water treatment building on the Niagara River side of the island.