On Nov. 7, 1905, The Asheville Citizen reported that the Ohio-based company Champion Fibre had plans to open a second plant in Western North Carolina. Owner Peter Gibson Thomson (which the paper frequently misspelled as Thompson), selected the small town of Canton because of its proximity to timberland, as well its location along the pristine Pigeon River.
“The short distance of Canton from Asheville makes this great enterprise and the great sums of money it will put in circulation tributary to Asheville,” the paper declared.
By the start of 1906, as the prospect of 1,000 new manufacturing jobs sank in, the city of Asheville determined proximity to riches wasn’t enough. And so began the city’s failed attempt at the world’s greatest paper heist.
“That there is a prospect of so great an enterprise as the Thompson pulp mill coming to Asheville seems beyond one’s comprehension, yet stranger things than that have been brought to pass by concerted action and determination,” The Asheville Citizen proclaimed in a Jan. 7, 1906, editorial. “It is indeed an occasion for quick action, if the greatest opportunity which ever knocked at the gates of our city is to be taken advantage of.”
A public meeting was planned for the coming Tuesday. Turnout to such gatherings was typically dismal, the paper reported. To encourage attendance The Asheville Citizen asked readers, “Will you not take the present matter under serious consideration and ask yourself if you have enough civic pride to prompt you to turn out Tuesday night and assist in capturing for your city one of the richest industries in America?”
Despite the buildup, the meeting was deferred. According to a Jan. 9 article, Champion’s superintendent, S. Montgomery Smith, was in the process of scouting additional locations. But until inspections were carried out, no amount of civic pride or persuasion would matter to the company.
Nevertheless, daily editorials continued to encourage Asheville residents to voice their interest in the plant. “Don’t forget that pulp mill,” the paper wrote on Jan. 11. “Keep on pegging for it and, ‘mebbe’ something will really drop.”
By Jan. 30, new developments created further hope for Asheville. Upset by the mill’s plan to reroute portions of the town’s road, Canton residents insisted Champion pay landowners for the required acquisitions. Meanwhile, the paper also reported that residents living downstream of the planned site intended to pursue lawsuits against the company “to prevent the dumping of debris in the stream.”
On Feb. 18, The Asheville Citizen ran a letter Smith wrote to Waynesville resident S.A. Jones. (The article does not indicate how the paper came into possession of the missive). In it, Smith laments Canton’s current holdup “instituted by a few selfish people who think they see a chance to get something for nothing.” Later in the note, Smith adds, “The local problems of Canton have been enough to cause the most serious consideration of a change of location[.]”
Asheville’s high hopes were quickly grounded, though. In March, Thomson settled on Canton once and for all. The decision was unceremoniously announced on page five in the March 6, 1906, edition of The Asheville Citizen.
Of course, Asheville was not alone in its disappointment. In his 2018 book, Thomson’s Pulp Mill, writer Carroll C. Jones notes that Waynesville, Clyde, Sylva, Bryson City, Andrews, Murphy and Newport, Tenn., were also bidding for the plant. (For more on Jones’ book, visit avl.mx/6e0.)
Once the sting of rejection settled, enthusiasm for the project and its overall economic impact on the region returned. “The company is guaranteed 50 cars a day by the Southern [Railway], and the company agrees to furnish that many cars of freight per day,” The Asheville Citizen boasted on March 11, 1906. “It is expected that it will require nearly two years to construct the buildings and place the machinery.”
By January 1908, part of the factory was up and running. The following month, The Asheville Citizen continued to muse over the implication of Champion’s arrival in Canton. “An inland town surrounded by mountains of Western North Carolina, is now the home of one of the most striking examples of the phenomenal industrial growth of the south,” the paper declared. “The capacity of the plant is rated at 250 tons a day, making it the largest wood pulp factory in this country, if not in the world.”
Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.