The Ontario Paper Company Ltd.

The Ontario Paper Company provincial plaque was unveiled by the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Ontario Paper Thorold Foundation on Thursday, September 5, 2013. It was later installed at the Thorold Tourism Centre by the Welland Canal Trail.

The plaque reads as follows:


    In 1912, the Ontario Paper Company was incorporated as a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune newspaper under the direction of publisher Robert McCormick. A paper mill was constructed south of here on the banks of the Welland Canal. On September 5, 1913, its No.1 Paper Machine began producing newsprint for the Tribune. Without sufficient timber in southern Ontario, pulp wood was shipped here by water from Lake Superior and Quebec's North Shore. The mill, designed and managed by engineer Warren Curtis Jr., was an innovative combined pulp and paper operation that used hydroelectricity from Niagara Falls. Some early mill employees formed Local 101, International Brotherhood of Paper Makers, the first papermakers' union in Canada. In 1980, the company built a new mill at Thorold and the company was sold in 1996. The Ontario Paper Company Ltd. was committed to its employees and community, and was a technological leader. It pioneered modern operational practices, including the production of valuable chemical byproducts.

Historical background


The Ontario Paper Company was incorporated in 1912 as a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune newspaper to produce newsprint exclusively for its needs.1 The Tribune was established in 1847 by a group of entrepreneurs that included Joseph Medill. In 1910, two of Medill’s grandsons, Robert R. McCormick and Joseph M. Patterson, rejoined the family enterprise when they learned that its directors were planning to sell the paper.2 To revitalize the Tribune, McCormick persuaded its board to allot $1 million for the construction of a newsprint mill that would assure a reliable source of paper for the Chicago Tribune.

The Thorold mill

Robert McCormick and paper mill engineer Warren Curtis Jr. visited several prospective sites before McCormick chose Thorold, Ontario. This location had a number of advantages. It was on the Welland Canal, and just 10 miles from the hydroelectric power of Niagara Falls. It was also connected to Chicago by nearby railway lines. In addition, the area was home to a number of paper mills of various types, dating back to the 1860s and 1870s, that could provide the new endeavour with skilled labour.3 What Thorold did not have was pulp wood, the raw material that was required to supply the mill. At a time when mills produced either wood pulp or paper, Curtis convinced McCormick to erect a combined wood pulp and newsprint paper mill. Many in the industry considered this a risky venture; it was, indeed, the first combined mill of this type to operate in Canada. It also meant that sawn pulp wood would have to be brought to Thorold from distant timber limits.4

First years

Pulp wood was mechanically ground at the new mill using 24 wood grinders that Curtis decided to operate with electricity rather than water power, something that was common at that time. This was also an uncertain but ultimately successful innovation. He imported two special 2,800-horsepower electric motors from Sweden that were able to accommodate the 12,000 volts of electricity that came directly from the Niagara Falls Power Company generators. This meant that step-down transformers were not needed to lower the available power in order to reduce the voltage required by more standardized machines.5 The mill used sulfite to dissolve or break down the lignin (the natural polymer in wood that makes it rigid), which held the wood together. The process resulted in longer, and therefore stronger, wood fibres for paper making than that which could be obtained from a strictly mechanical pulping process. The sulfite technique was more expensive, so initially the mill purchased small quantities of chemical pulp to mix with the mechanically ground pulp to give the paper the requisite strength. In 1917, Curtis established a sulfite digester to make the mill more self-sufficient.6

Originally two paper-making machines were purchased from the American paper machine manufacturers Pusey and Jones Corporation. Each machine was 202 inches wide, the largest in Canada at that time. The Thorold mill produced its first newsprint on September 5, 1913.7 In the following year, the mill produced 31,707 tons of newsprint, almost the entire annual requirement of the Tribune. By 1919, and with another two machines in operation, the mill’s annual production rose to 63,985 tons. In 1921, a fifth machine was added and the yearly output rose to 81,140 tons.8 While pulp wood came to the mill by water, most of the finished newsprint was shipped to Chicago by rail during the early years of operation. When rail fees rose in the late 1920s, McCormick invested in vessels designed specifically to carry newsprint and switched to water transportation. Both rail and water systems were used during the second half of the 20th century.

Ontario Transportation and Pulp Company

McCormick turned to the Ontario government, without success, for a source of pulp wood. He then approached Quebec, where the mill first obtained its wood from Anticosti Island and then, beginning in 1915, from its own leased timber limits on the rugged north shore of the lower St. Lawrence River. Rather than depend on commercial shipping, McCormick incorporated the Ontario Pulp and Transportation Company in 1914 to lease or purchase vessels to haul pulp wood to Thorold, another example of the self-contained, vertically integrated enterprise he was creating. Later renamed the Quebec and Ontario Transportation Company, it eventually grew to 17 vessels before shutting down in 1984.9 Its ships supplied pulp wood to the Thorold mill and newsprint to the Tribune and, beginning in 1919, to the newly established New York News.

Establishment of Baie-Comeau

In the mid-1930s, and despite the Great Depression that was stifling business growth, McCormick looked forward to a brighter future and determined to erect a new state-of-the-art pulp and paper mill at the company’s north shore timber limits. By this time, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News needed almost twice the newsprint that the Thorold mill was able to produce; this also influenced his decision. Work began in 1936 and the mill was operational in 1938. The effort also included the creation of a community for the mill workers and their families. Baie-Comeau was incorporated as a town in May 1937. Journalist Carl Wiegman effectively outlined the enormity of this effort:

    All through 1935 the Company’s staff at Thorold worked at top speed preparing the plans for the mill buildings, the town, the railroad to the wharf, the water supply, the power house at the Outardes River, the power transmission line, seventy-two miles of roads, river improvements for logging operations, and fourteen miles of flumes to carry pulpwood to the mill. At the same time, specifications had to be drawn for all equipment — the paper machines, ground wood mill, sulphite digesters, steam plant and other machinery. Altogether, there were eight hundred major items to be planned through the designing, purchasing, transportation and construction programs.10

Innovation over the years

From its earliest beginnings, the Ontario Paper Company experimented with innovations and new techniques. The decision to combine the production of wood pulp and newsprint in one combined mill was perhaps the first such gamble, along with the use of hydroelectric rather than waterpower to operate its wood grinders. Over time, the company improved its production of chemical-based or sulphite pulp, which ensured the development of high-grade paper for newsprint. The company played a significant role in the activities of the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association’s Technical Section during the Depression with two of its chemists serving as section chairs.11 During the Second World War, it developed the commercial production of alcohol from waste material to be used in the making of synthetic rubber. After the war, it pioneered a technique to produce vanillin, a product used in a number of industrial processes, from the mill’s sulphite waste materials.12 Throughout the years, a constant effort was also made to improve the speed and productivity of the company’s paper-making machines.

Major figures in growth of the Ontario Paper Company

Robert R. McCormick (1880-1955) was the driving force of the Chicago Tribune and the Ontario Paper Company from 1910 until his death in 1955.13 A man of many contradictions and a larger-than-life figure, McCormick was particularly attracted to massive engineering projects and revelled in the challenges faced first by the Thorold mill and later by those inherent in creating a massive paper mill and a fully developed town on the remote and rugged Quebec north shore. He retained strong control of his enterprises, but also had a remarkable ability to recognize talent in his subordinates and to delegate authority to them.

Warren Curtis Jr. (d. 1930) was a talented paper-mill owner and designer who, under McCormick’s direction, built the Ontario Paper Company mill at Thorold. He was made president of the company in 1913 and managed the mill’s development until his death in 1930. Many of the innovations and new techniques employed at the Thorold mill were directly attributable to his insight and expertise.

Arthur A. Schmon (d. 1964) was McCormick’s adjutant during the First World War and joined the Chicago Tribune organization in 1919 as manager of the pulp-wood operations on the north shore. When Curtis died in 1930, McCormick put Schmon in charge of both the Thorold mill and the Quebec operations. He modernized the former and directed the establishment of the Baie-Comeau mill and town. Schmon was also instrumental in the creation of Brock University, serving on its Founding Committee. When he died in 1964, he was succeeded by his son, Robert M. Schmon, as chairman of the Ontario Paper Company and the Quebec North Shore Paper Company.

Later developments

The original Thorold mill continued with production until 1982 when a new facility, begun in 1980, went into operation. In the 1990s, the Canadian paper industry underwent a series of amalgamations, including, in 1997, the combination of Abitibi-Price and Stone-Consolidated to form Abitibi-Consolidated, into which The Ontario Paper Company Ltd. was absorbed. The company became AbitibiBowater following another merger in 2007 and is now known as Resolute Forest Products. In 2007, the mill’s 395 employees were producing 420,000 metric tons of newsprint per annum.14 In 2013, the Thorold mill continues to make newsprint for a variety of newspapers in Canada and the United States.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Robert J. Burns in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2013

1 Carl Wiegman, Trees to News: a Chronicle of the Ontario Paper Company’s Origin and Development (McClelland & Stewart Limited: Toronto, 1953), pp. 10-15; hereafter Wiegman, Trees to News.

2 Richard Norton Smith, The Colonel: the Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880-1955 (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1997), pp. 126-30; hereafter Smith, The Colonel.

3 Wiegman, Trees to News, pp. 15-22.

4 Timber limits were portions of forested Crown land, usually large areas that the provincial governments leased to timber cutters. The cutters paid an amount to lease each limit and a stumpage fee for what they culled. They then had exclusive access to the forest resources of the defined area. They could make improvements such as building logging roads, slides and dams to help move cut timber out of the bush. They had no other rights to the land, such as mineral resources or settlement rights.

5 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 16.

6 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 41. “In the sulphite process of making pulp, wood chips are cooked at high temperature and pressure in an acid liquor derived from a chemical combination of sulphur, limestone and water. This cooking is done in a digester, a cylinder about 15 feet in diameter and 48 feet high made of heavy steel plate, lined inside with porcelain brick. The chips, prepared on a machine with high-speed rotating knives, are dropped into the top of the digester. The digester is then closed and hot ‘cooking acid’ is pumped in while steam is injected to raise the temperature to 300-325 degrees and the pressure to 70 pounds per square inch. During about seven hours of cooking the bonding materials in the wood are dissolved, leaving the long, strong wood fibers undamaged. These fibers are the sulphite pulp. The dissolved materials are drained off and the pulp is washed, then sent to storage tanks to await mixing with groundwood.”

7 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 19.

8 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 351.

9 Al Sypes and Skip Gillham, Pulp and Paper Fleet: a History of the Quebec and Ontario Transportation Company (Stonehouse Publications: St. Catharines, ON, 1988), pp. 19-21.

10 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 162.

11 Wiegman, Trees to News, p. 137.

12 Wiegman, Trees to News, pp. 312-15.

13 Smith, The Colonel, p. 40.

14 Zsolt Patakfalvi, “Papermaking at Abitibi-Consolidated’s Thorold Division,” Pulp and Paper Canada, June 2007.