Implosion rekindles sadness at mill's demise

MILLERSBURG — Leo May of Albany was on hand for the birth of the No. 4 boiler at the former Albany Paper Mill about 42 years ago. He wasn’t about to miss its death.

“I used to take my lunch break, sit in the window of No. 3 recovery boiler and watch them build this thing,” said May, who worked for the paper mill from 1968 to 1996 and helped to keep No. 4 running.

“I watched it go up,” he said. “I’m going to watch it come down.”

May had plenty of company. Hundreds of people crowded Century Drive on Sunday morning, their cars lining the road, the adjacent roads and at least one harvested field, to get a good view of the vacant mill across the freeway, roughly 700 yards away.

Cameras, tripods, smart phones and video recorders at the ready, they waited to document the implosion of the 175-foot boiler. Some said they’d scoped out sites the day before. One man said he staked out a spot shortly after 4 a.m.

“I’m so excited!” said Hannah Lemly, 11, of Eugene, jumping up and down in the back of her father’s pickup. “It’s a good way to start the day, and I love to see stuff blow up!”

International Paper announced July 18 its plans to bring down the structure, which has been idle for a decade, and send the scrap metal for reclamation.

Oregon State Troopers and crews with the Oregon Department of Transportation shut down Interstate 5 for roughly five minutes in both directions just before the demolition. The crowds picked up the five-second countdown from a police car radio at 8:07 a.m.

The blast slapped eardrums and thumped ribcages as the building folded sideways from its western foundations and collapsed. Plumes of dust rose as high as the former structure.

Scattered applause and a few cheers accompanied the blast, but mostly, people just shared memories of the 54-year-old mill, a place that had been a traveler's icon, a town's identity and a symbol for a relatively comfortable living.

"It was how you remembered you were back in Albany, after leaving," said Tara Webster, who brought her daughter Maddie, 5. "The smell."

"Smelled like money," countered May, who worked with crew members who commuted nearly an hour each way to keep their jobs. For decades, they were the highest-paid jobs around.

International Paper bought the mill March 2008 as part of its $6 billion purchase of Weyerhaeuser's containerboard division. The company shut the doors the following December, citing the recession, overcapacity and the plunge in demand. The closure eliminated about 270 jobs and dropped Millersburg's tax value by more than 17 percent.

IP hasn't found a buyer for the site, but Sunday's demolition is expected to help make that an easier task.

Small consolation, said former workers. 

“This is sad, to me,” one woman, who asked not to be named, said quietly as the cheers died away.

The woman said she joined the mill in 1975, the third woman to be hired there. It wasn’t easy joining what had been an all-male crew, she said, and she got plenty of comments along the lines of, “You’re taking a man’s job.”

“I used to tell them, ‘Any time you want to support me in the style I’m accustomed to, go right ahead. I got other things to do,’” she said, laughing.

Her husband, who also worked there, recalled the time he and a few buddies climbed the boiler about 3:30 a.m. and sailed a massive paper airplane from the roof. They never did learn where it landed.

Robert Taylor, who joined the mill in 1980, was one of the last to leave when International Paper shut down the business. Most of the crew were fired in late 2009, but as an electrician, he stayed on a little longer.

Taylor was angry about the closure, but philosophical about Sunday’s demolition.

“Life goes on,” he said. “They’re not going to use it for a paper mill. Sell it, and hopefully get some good jobs.”


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