Asheville Archives: The failed paper heist of 1906

PAPER AND STEEL: Ironworkers pose during construction of the Champion Fibre Co. paper mill, circa 1907. The photo is one of several images available in Carroll C. Jones' 2018 book, 'Thomson's Pulp Mill: Building the Champion Fibre Company at Canton, North Carolina 1905 to 1908.' Photo courtesy of Jan-Carol Publishing Inc.

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. 

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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6 thoughts on “Asheville Archives: The failed paper heist of 1906

  1. Mike

    No discussion of the early days Champion would be complete without mention of Thom(p)son’s son-in-law, Reuben Robertson, who, in his late 20’s (ca 1907)) was dispatched from Hamilton, OH on a 50 day assignment to deal with construction problems at the new mill. Roberston never returned to residence in Hamilton and served as President and CEO of Champion for many years. His son Reuben succeeded him as President in 1951 but Reuben Sr continued as Chairman for multiple years thereafter. He died in 1973 at the age of 93. http://toto.lib.unca.edu/findingaids/mss/robertson/default_robertson.html

    • Thomas Calder

      Thanks for the additional information, Mike. And thanks for reading Xpress.

    • Phillip C Williams

      Mr. Robertson was “Mr. Canton” – beloved by all the folks there…he knew all of his employees and their families by name – if an employee or family member was sick or injured, they would usually get a personal visit from Reuben B. Folks never knew when the Boss might show up on their front porch, come in and have dinner with the family.

      Mr. Robertson lived in Asheville for a good part of his life – initially at the Capt John Kerr Connally mansion “Fernihurst” (still stands on ABTCC property) and later at “Hopemont” off Town Mountain Rd….he used to take the train between Asheville and Canton in the early days.

      Years ago, my 8th Grade English class at Bethel produced a good sized book called “Sonoma, Valley of the Moon” – and 2 of Reuben B’s grandchildren were in our class. Their father, Dr. Logan Robertson, loaned us all kinds of photos, diaries, back issues of the Champion newsletter “The Log”….and we got to interview dozens of Champion and Sunburst old-timers who had been there when Champion and the railroad from Canton to Sunburst (logging town that occupied the present-day site of Lake Logan) were built.

      They were grooming Mr. Robertson’s son, Reuben B. Robertson, Jr., to take over as President and CEO, but he was tragically killed in 1960 in Cincinnati, OH – struck by a car while attempting to aid another motorist. Mr. Robertson, Jr had recently finished a stint as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower administration.

      • Mike

        Thanks for the additional info! Logan II was born around the time I was 1946. I vaguely knew him but he didn’t impress me as the Reuben’s did… but then I doubt I impressed him either ;-)

        • Phillip C Williams

          A lot of folks – even locals – are mistaken as to who Lake Logan was named after – folks assume it was Reuben’s son, Logan Robertson, but it was actually named for Peter G. Thomson’s son, Logan Thomson – who would have been Reuben’s brother-in-law.

        • Phillip C Williams

          And Peter G’s surname was indeed Thomson – not Thompson….

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