A silence, now coldly permanent, in a mill town


POSTED: Monday, August 10, 2009

AUGUSTA, Maine — One day eight years ago, the cast-iron rollers in Augusta's last paper mill stopped rolling in midrun. The absentee owners — “;from away,”; as they say here — sent word that it was merely a pause; the reassuring hum of spinning rollers would return in a few weeks.

The mill's manager, Bob Jackson, promised the 80 frantic employees that he would keep them posted. And every day, he or an assistant would visit the quieted mill to perform the hopeful act of rotating a massive paper dryer by hand to prevent warping and keep the bearings in shape. This way, it would be ready to roll at a moment's notice.

“;Paper machines are difficult to shut down and start back up,”; Jackson explained.

The word that came after a few weeks was that the mill's owner, American Tissue, had filed for bankruptcy protection. What's more, federal investigators were assembling a strong case that the company's patriarch had orchestrated a $300 million bank and securities fraud.

More time passed. The calls from employees wondering about their jobs petered out, but hopes of a new owner reopening the mill stayed faintly alive. So the daily ritual of spinning the dryer by hand continued — for years. Through the summers, when red berries dotted the encroaching green brush; through the winters, when the looming emptiness conjured Stephen King thoughts.

For a while, everything remained in place — the tools, the rolls of paper, the two trucks — as though workers were merely on an extended lunch break. But vandals and thieves grew bolder, breaking hundreds of windows, stripping copper from pipes to hock. Preferring the graveyard shift, they left behind signs of the strong work ethic they brought to looting: tools, lamps, even lunchboxes.

In May 2006, a suspicious late-night fire at the mill forced a reckoning: This once-mighty economic engine had become a skeleton of brick, filled with toxic chemicals that posed threats to the community and the river. To echo the writer John McPhee, who years earlier had witnessed the removal of Augusta's mill-empowering Edwards Dam, it was time again for this city of 20,000 to say farewell to the 19th century, and perhaps to the 20th as well.

No question, said Jackson, 62, who has spent most of his life working in paper mills around the country. “;It was never going to run,”; he said, his voice flat. “;I was basically tired of it anyway.”;

What followed was three years of preparing a body for burial, a body sprawled for nearly a mile along the banks of the Kennebec River.

Environmental officials carted away truckloads of chemicals contained in large drums and glass jars, while a city-appointed American Tissue Reuse Committee held public hearings and talked to experts — including Jackson — before making its recommendations:

Foreclose on the property. Tear down the mill. Consider replacing it with a mixed-use development that somehow celebrates the beautiful, restored river.

That became the plan. But removing a mill is neither easy nor cheap.

Bill Bridgeo, Augusta's city manager, said the loss of all those well-paying jobs had hardly been offset by many minimum-wage jobs at the nearby mall called the Marketplace at Augusta. And if you tally up the $600,000 in unpaid taxes, the costs to the state and federal governments for the cleanup, the legal fees, the planning — “;It's in the millions,”; he said.

Bridgeo and Jackson drove past the unmanned guard booth the other day and walked into a mill building's dark maw, where gray cabinets still contained nuts and bolts made for the mill's machinery. From close by came the rumble of machines, not heard on these grounds for a long time.

The two men emerged from the other side of the building and into the daylight, where they could see the source of that rumble. It was not the mill's start-up but its tear-down, as the claws of a demolition company's machinery tore through brick walls that now seemed made of marzipan.

On the ground lay the bricks to a building built in 1903, but not considered by state officials to be worthy of preservation. It was standing just yesterday.

Go back 150 years and this capital city of Maine was a mill town. And on this riverside spot, a saw mill, receiving logs floated down the Kennebec. Soon there was a mishmash of businesses here, including a power and light company, a window-sash operation, a wooden-box manufacturer and a paper mill that would come to dominate the site.

The company names would change, but the purpose remained relatively constant. Logs delivered by river and, later, by truck, would enter the mill, undergo lots of washing and cooking, rolling and steaming, and come out as newsprint or paper. It was like making bread.

The mill was like a living thing, running round the clock, emitting sulfurous aromas, even humming. “;I lived a half-mile from the mill, and you'd hear the dryer gears humming,”; recalled Stephen Dowling, 56, who worked in the mill as an electrician from 1975 to 1985. “;It would almost put you to sleep.”;

Dowling has been the plant director at the Augusta Civic Center for nearly a quarter-century, but he still remembers the mill's 4 o'clock whistle, and the hangout run by Alice, who would cash your check so you could have a beer before heading home, and the mill worker who was crushed to death while trying to loosen a log jam. “;I knew the guy who had his hand out, but he couldn't get him,”; he said.

Most of all, Dowling remembers hundreds of good-paying jobs. “;It put a lot of sneakers on a lot of kids,”; he said.

When Jackson arrived as a superintendent in 1993, the mill employed more than 500 people, all working to make tissue, towels and napkins out of recycled paper. Soon after, though, the mill closed, reopened, then closed again, as companies tried and failed.

Then, in 2000, American Tissue, a company focused on buying troubled mills at bargain prices, stepped in. Its principals, including a man named Mehdi Gabayzadeh, flew in from Long Island, N.Y., to say they would buy and reopen the mill if they could renegotiate a tax-payment schedule. City officials, of course, tried to accommodate.

The mill hummed along for more than a year — until the sudden closure. And the bankruptcy. And the unreturned telephone calls to American Tissue. And the conviction of Gabayzadeh, who is now serving a 15-year prison sentence for a fraud that caused the loss of thousands of jobs around the country. And, finally, the fire.

Bridgeo, the city manager, and Jackson, the former mill manager, continued their walk. Past the mounds of metal set aside for salvage. Past the cast-iron drums bearing dates and origins of birth (Beloit Iron Works, Beloit, Wis., 1949). Past the old signs saying that eye protection is required in this area.

But no eyes are tearing up. Before the start of demolition, the city opened the site to people wishing to pay their last respects. Jackson was there to lead tours and answer questions, but only 20 or 30 people showed up. “;Not near as many as I would have thought,”; he said.