Papertown and the Dirty Bird known as the Pigeon River
Published 3:25 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2023
BY KATIE MYERS
For The Daily Yonder
Beyond the forested banks of the Pigeon River, the Smoky Mountains rise from either side of a steep gorge that leads to the town of Hartford, Tennessee. The river runs through the gorge from North Carolina, parallel to Interstate 40, before widening into a series of shallow, shining, and swift ripples and runs. Lining the shores on both sides are 11 or 12 rafting companies, one right after the other. The guides weren’t very busy on this April day early in the rafting season, so they had taken to the rapids in bright blue boats to enjoy the afternoon. When Jamie Brown was younger, back in the 1980s and ’90s, she never would have dreamed of doing such a thing.
“The smell was horrendous,” she says of the river. “And it was black.”
Brown is old enough to remember when Hartford was known as Widowville. An unusually high number of people died of cancer here over the years. Once, her father drove her to the headwaters of the Pigeon, where it ran clean and clear, then followed it to the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina, just over the state line from Hartford. He showed her where, below the mill, the river began to turn dark and foul. “My experience was understanding the headwaters, what it could be, and how vile it was, [and] what had been done to our community,” she says.
The paper mill has been a mainstay of Canton since 1908, a thriving part of what was once a burgeoning lumber and paper industry in western North Carolina. Around it sprang up the town. For now, the mill employs 1,100 people in well-paying, union jobs, though it once employed more than 2,000. It was called Champion then, for the company that owned it. Champion pulled out in 1999 after a series of environmental lawsuits blaming it for the pollution and economic harm on Tennessee’s side of the river, and employees bought the mill to keep it running. Today it’s owned by an international food and beverage packaging conglomerate called Pactiv Evergreen.
On March 6, Pactiv Evergreen abruptly announced the paper mill will close in June due to rising inflation and corporate restructuring. The news has been emotional on both sides of the river, with some in Hartford celebrating as Canton’s families mourn. In the minds of many Hartford residents, Canton’s prosperity had come at their expense; now, the closure may bring a measure of environmental justice and economic growth to Hartford even as Canton faces an uncertain future. But the region, home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is immensely popular with visitors, and a growing tourism industry has both communities wondering whether they will be able to ford the rising tide of development. Though new employers are desperately needed, people in both towns fear the rush for revenue and jobs will forever change their communities.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Brown says.
The mill has long been the lifeblood of Canton. People wear shirts that declare they are “Mill Town Proud.” The coffee shop is called Papertown Coffee, and patrons park next to a mural that reads “Papertown.” Some communities hide their factories at the edge of town, but here it proudly stands in the center of everything, visible from every vantage point. Downtown is vibrant and alive, and mill workers fill local businesses at breakfast, lunch, and during shift changes. At noon, they order sandwiches with iced tea and pie at Black Bear Cafe, an old-school lunch counter tucked away from the bustle of downtown Canton. They’re all regulars, known by name. Black-and-white pictures of good days line walls, and the hum of conversation fills the air. Many of its employees have family working in the mill.
The mill created quite a different feeling in Hartford, where many considered it an inescapable shadow over their lives. Some old-timers remember companies looking to set up shop in the area, only to pass it by, with the water quality as the suspected but unspoken reason. The water stank, and just as people came to call the town Widowville, the river — named for the passenger pigeons that once migrated through the area — acquired its own nicknames: the Dirty Bird and the Dead Pigeon.
Tensions between the two towns, which sit about 40 miles apart, go back decades. Brown joined an activist group called the Dead Pigeon River Council in the 1980s. For years, the organization protested Champion Paper and attended hearings to demand the mill clean up its operations and stop contaminating the river. The fight for the river led to a lawsuit as scientists uncovered the harmful effects of PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” found in paper mill effluent. Eventually, Champion agreed to make almost $300 million worth of upgrades, and the river’s color and smell improved. But even after modernization, the employee buyout, and the switch to Pactiv Evergreen, the mill has logged violations of state environmental laws and sought waste discharge permissions that have concerned environmental advocates, and there’s no removing the dioxin that’s long since settled into the river bottom.
It is against that backdrop that people in Hartford cheered Evergreen’s announcement. “I called our oldest member still living to tell him that they were closing the plant, and we cried together,” Brown says.
Canton has faced its own consequences from the mill. In November, a mysterious white dust, like ash, fell from the stacks and settled over town. Below the mill, the Pigeon still runs darker than above it. And pungent smoke blankets the valley. But mill worker’s families say you can get used to anything if it’s how you make your living.
“My uncle used to say it smelled like money,” says one longtime resident who didn’t want to be identified. Like many people in Canton, her life teems with mill workers. Many of the men in her family have spent most of their working lives there. That’s typical of families here; the mill is the largest employer in Haywood County. It seems everyone knows someone who will lose their job come June.
“It’s affected a lot of our family,” she says, holding back tears.
Mill workers, too, are equally tight-lipped to avoid any misunderstandings from an already fractured community. “The morale is down,” says one worker in his 60s. He’s lived here all his life and, like other families, doesn’t plan on leaving. Despite the changes in its leadership, he still feels connected to the mill.
“I haven’t said anything bad about the company, have I?” he says, winking. “That’s right.”
The mill was hard work, but with overtime, a mill worker could make $82,000 per year, in a county with a per-capita income of $31,200. Everyone belonged to United Steelworkers, Smoky Mountain Local 507, which provided a measure of security and fair treatment. The local has been dissolved, which is standard procedure in a case like this, but union reps from Pittsburgh are working to maximize severance and ensure Pactiv Evergreen honors its contract requirements to the very end.
Unlike so many other industrial towns, Canton had been insulated from the ravages of globalization. Its public works still gleam, its people remain comfortable. The mill paid for the baseball field, the park, the YMCA. It runs the town’s water and sewer plants. A less charitable interpretation would be to say it’s a company town. But many here, like local historian and archivist Caroline Ponton, see it as a generosity, an indicator of Champion’s investment in its workers. But Champion hasn’t run the mill in 20 years.
“As management is further away, it’s … a different chemistry,” Ponton says. And regardless, when Evergreen pulls out, there’s a real question of where the money to continue paying for those things will come from.
Such questions come up in any rural community that depends upon one or two industries for their economic survival and watches them leave. Brandon Dennison, the CEO of the West Virginia nonprofit Coalfield Development and a Grist 50 honoree, calls them “mono-economies” and says they create economic fragility. “The more diversified the local economy, the less catastrophic a single plant or mine closure is,” he says.
Mayor Zeb Smathers has been turning those questions over in his mind constantly ever since he heard, by text message, that Evergreen executives had opted to close the mill. “It felt like a death in the family,” he says. Smathers, whose father was mayor from 1999 until 2011, hopes Canton can ride the coming wave of rapid economic transition, rather than find itself subsumed by it.
Much of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee are booming, in no small part due to the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains and its waterways. Smathers is proud of the mill’s modernization efforts over the years, even if he acknowledges that it’s been imperfect progress. “We have the best water in western Carolina,” he says, adding that he expects rafting to grow more popular around Canton after the mill closes.
He has reason to be hopeful. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, long the nation’s most popular park, draws about 14 million visitors each year, and more than 200,000 people came to Cocke County in 2020 to ride the Pigeon River. But a recreational economy won’t feed everyone, particularly the old-timers who’ve been in the mill for decades. “You can’t make bubbas into baristas,” Smathers says. The town has been hosting regular job fairs, with a focus on manufacturing, health care, law enforcement, technical jobs, and other higher-paying professional work. Recently, the city government launched milltownstrong.com, a resource for workers as they make their next move.
Smathers often finds himself in meetings with real estate developers and other investors, many of whom he says are practically knocking down his door to get into Canton. They see an opportunity to invest in real estate, open businesses, and spark the town’s boom as a tourist destination. Smathers has asked them to slow down a little as he gathers his thoughts and leads his community through June. There is a sense among locals that they aren’t about to be left behind by this transition, but overrun by it. Smathers sees the economies of east Tennessee and North Carolina growing, but he also knows that the resulting increase in the cost of living has tightly squeezed the area’s working class.
“I think the die has been cast with how expensive it is to live in both respective places,” Smathers says. “It’s not slowing down. But that adds another layer of challenges to this. Because I want the people here to continue to live here and continue to contribute. But if you can’t, if it’s too expensive to live here, well, then that’s going to result in a net loss, not just [of] people, but [of] culture and place and history. It’s one of those things I do lose sleep over.”
Folks in Hartford say that, although they feel for the workers, the paper mill closure can only help bring revenue to this cash-strapped side of the Smokies. Cocke County’s per-capita income is just under $24,000, and one in five residents live in poverty. Hartford doesn’t even have a sewer system, as small as it is. Rafting is the county’s second-largest source of revenue, after property taxes, and the number of people coming to ride the river has exploded since the pandemic. These days, Hartford buzzes with rumors of expanding development, a possible new resort that nobody knows much about, increasingly large rafting companies, and construction all along the river road.
Such things bring both trepidation and excitement. And many in Hartford believe Canton has a strong economic base to stand on, and that its high homeownership, pretty downtown, and company-paid parks and other amenities will ease it past this difficult moment into a brighter future.
Brown has long since passed the baton of activism to a younger generation, many of whom, under the banner of newer organizations, continue organizing for environmental and economic justice. Amelia Taylor, who joined the Dead Pigeon River Council as a kid, now works as a guide on the river and remains politically engaged in her community. She wants to see Cocke County prosper, but she doesn’t want to see her home become like Gatlinburg, the glitzy tourist town down the road in Sevier County, Tennessee, where workers live in motels to make ends meet. “Let’s not pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” Taylor says. “They need to create good-paying service jobs, not low-paying service jobs.”
Taylor is unapologetically elated by the mill’s closure and plans to throw a party to celebrate it this summer. But she also feels for the workers, some of whom expressed sympathy for Hartford’s plight over the years and fought from inside to bring the mill up to environmental standards. Other workers reacted angrily to protests with threats and shouting, but their ire didn’t change the eventual outcome. In the end, she says, the workers were bound to be sacrificed in the same way Hartford was. ”It’s interesting that the mill created such a sense of pride in Canton, yet now the mill is abandoning them in the name of profits,” she says. “Evergreen never cared about the workers. They were practicing business till it no longer became profitable for them.”
Even as she hopes for the best, Taylor fears that the resort and the tourism industry rapidly expanding in this corner of the Smoky Mountains, may be much like the paper mill — just another business looking to exploit the environment and those it employs, even as local leaders celebrate it for the jobs and revenue it brings. Such concerns are compounded by the feeling among many in this end of Tennessee that visitors are drawn not just by the natural beauty of the landscape, but by a curated rural mystique, a moonshine-drinking, truck-driving, deer-hunting caricature of mountain people like them. In that way, the people of Hartford and Canton face their uncertain future in tandem, once again brought together by circumstances, and by the river that connects them.
Katie Myers is a writer with Grist, a nonprofit, independent media organization that focuses on climate solutions.