Philadelphia has a storied history in the papermaking industry and was, in fact, the primary provider of paper in the United States until Holyoke, MA, overtook it in the late 1800s. As reported by The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, there were “twenty-six paper mills operating in the thirteen colonies by 1769, [and] twenty were in the Philadelphia area.” The first paper mill in North America was established in 1690 by William Rittenhouse along the Monoshone Creek in what is now part of Fairmount Park, roughly three miles from the site Paperworks would one day inhabit. The Manayunk area was sparsely populated; in the early 1800s, only 60 people lived there. Nearby, Flat Rock Island – creatively named because it looked like a flat rock and presently called Venice Island – provided an opportunity to provide water power for the area’s burgeoning industries. After the construction of the Flat Rock Dam and the Manayunk Canal, the population exploded, and in 1836 the population was listed as 3,175. Flat Rock Island alone had ten mills in 1828, manufacturing paper, textiles, hats, and grinding saws. According to Workshop of the World, “Families crossed the Atlantic specifically for work in Manayunk and its members, often as young as seven, entered the mill,” working six days a week for 11-14 hours daily.
It was during this period that the Flat Rock Paper Mill was built. A gorgeous Hexamer property survey from 1881 noted the mill employed “180 hands (5 boys, 70 girls, balance men)” and was primarily engaged in producing printing and book paper. The survey also notes that the mill was only closed for one hour each week – 11 PM on Saturday to 12 AM on Sunday – and utilized six steam engines ranging from 180 to 30 horsepower. It also notes that the earliest buildings were erected in 1844.
Aside from the Hexamer survey, the first notable sources of information I’ve found about Flat Rock Paper Mill are from the 1860s, when it was described as the largest paper mill in the world. The Flat Rock Paper Mill, owned by William Rittenhouse’s descendants Martin and William Nixon, was conveniently located on the property adjoining American Wood Paper Co.’s Manayunk Pulp Works. The pulp works was also managed by Martin Nixon, who went into business at 22 as a cotton manufacturer and switched to paper after a career-changing trip to Cincinnati.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, the paper mill generally did well during lean economic times, remaining fully staffed during recessions in 1873 and 1896. It only closed for the summer of 1893, a period when other factories in the area were laying off workers or shutting down, and again in 1902 during a miner’s strike, which deprived the mills of coal needed to run their boilers.
Towards the end of the 20th century, changes in ownership became more frequent. At some point around the 1920s, the property changed hands and became Container Corp., which operated it for decades and received an E award from the U.S. Army for Excellence in Production in 1943. The plant was set to shut down in 1981 despite massive worker protests due to reduced demand for folded cardboard packaging, and 100 workers were laid off. A 1988 article, however, reported that a paper recycling plant on the property was still active; I’ve been unable to connect the dots to ascertain when it reopened or how much of the property was in use. The entire mill was bought by Jefferson Smurfit Corp in 1998, which laid off 99 more workers in 2003 before selling the mill to Altivity Packaging. It was sold again for $14.3 million to SunCapital Partners in 2008, along with another paper mill, and Paperworks Industries was formed.
The 550,000-square-foot facility closed in 2017, laying off the remaining 147 workers. It was put up for sale for $15 million. In 2018, former Dallas Cowboy running back Emmett Smith attempted to raise $14 million from Pennsylvania’s “Business in Our Sites” program for the construction of a 3 million square foot “techie office park” called “Venice Innovation Island” with labs, offices, solar and hydroelectric plants, apartments, homes, and waterfront trails. Progress toward that goal was rocky, however. Smith was awarded $1 million through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and was under a $12.5 million purchase agreement but did not receive any additional funding, which doomed the $72 million plan.
Development was steaming along on other parts of the island, with The Isle apartment complex opening nearby in 2017. In September 2021, Hurricane Ida flooded Venice Island and much of downtown Manayunk, destroying homes and businesses in the floodplain. About two weeks later, Paperworks was sold for $4.5 million (source) to Manayunk Renaissance, an affiliate of A.P. Construction, and demolition began in 2023. There’s speculation that the reuse plan may be for some infrastructure-related project like a water management facility, but as of this writing, nothing has been announced.
Matthew Christopher PA Philadelphia Sep 25, 2023 Abandoned Places History
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Matthew Christopher Sep 25, 2023
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