What plight awaits the town that relies on one central employer to sustain its economy?
Several small towns across North America know the answer to this question. They’ve experienced the years of bounty followed by the years of hardship after the company doors closed and the last whistle blew.
I recently discovered “The Last Shift” a Canadian documentary about a mill in Dalhousie, New Brunswick. In 2007, the main employer in this town of 5000, was the Abitibi-Bowater pulp and paper mill. Since its opening in 1930, the mill supplied stable employment for three generations of workers. In the early days, the promise of steady employment brought financial stability and the belief that the mill’s life expectancy was infinite. Most everyone who wanted a job had one and money flowed freely.
New businesses sprouted along the downtown core and the local economy enjoyed a vigorous health. Families accumulated more disposable income and lived increasingly affluent lifestyles. The latest cars models lined the streets. Many owned cottages and snow mobiles. As word of the good fortune spread, more and more people relocated to the town, and the company harvested the best and brightest its homegrown labour force.
Housing was provided for some company families at a very low rental fee. One couple interviewed in the documentary said that the company painted the houses’ exteriors every couple of years. The mill built an electrical grid and established a means of power generation. They maintained the utility and provided corresponding customer services to the people of Dalhousie. They also constructed a seven mile pipeline to carry drinking water from a nearby river.
The mill became a key funding source for community endeavours like the construction of a hockey rink, a curling club and a girl scout hall. The mill even outfitted town teams with jerseys. The Dalhousie youth could count on summer jobs like tree replanting to help them save for university.
When the mill closed unexpectedly in January of 2008, the town was devastated. The effect of the shutdown reached beyond the mill workers to other local industry that met the needs of the mill and its employees. Times were lean and the Dalhousie changed — businesses and young people left for opportunity elsewhere. Store windows were papered over and the streets grew quiet.
In January, 2006, consultant Brian MacLeod of Maple Ridge BC was quoted as saying that in Canada, between 2000 and 2005, 24 pulp and paper mills closed their doors permanently. There were six other indefinite or temporary closures across the country. “That’s nearly 10,000 skilled people out of work — more than double the number who lost jobs in the industry during the previous 20 years.”
The synchronicity of writing and happenstance continues to amaze me. Through my research, I learned that Abitibi also closed a mill in Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland. When we visited Newfoundland two years ago, I photographed that abandoned mill without understanding its significance. I’m referring to the photos you see in this post. The mill sits next to the river shown above. I took the photos from the bridge you see below. The buildings called out to me because I felt there was a story, an echo of history in the silence. And here I am, two years later, writing about them now — the buildings I photographed are in fact the defunct Abitibi newspaper mill, operational for nearly 100 years.