CANADA

Trois-Rivières, QB

Back to the Days When Newsprint Was King

Paper-making machine in Boréalis museum in Trois-Rivières, Quebec

A paper-making machine runs the length of Boréalis’s main hall. It was built for teaching purposes. Its scale is one-fifth that of the actual equipment, which was the size of a football field. Trois-Rivières was once the world’s newsprint-making capital. Boréalis, formerly a mill water-treatment plant, uses both machinery and human tales to tell the story of how paper was made.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

ONCE UPON a time, the source of worldly information was the newspaper. For you to read one, somebody first had to make the paper it was printed on—and that took a machine the size of a football field.

Like as not, that machine was in Trois-Rivières, halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. For decades, from the 1920s, this was the planet’s newsprint capital. Its mills were ideally situated where the St. Maurice River, having frothed its way south from Quebec’s tree-rich northern woods, met the mighty St. Lawrence, whose commercial ships reached ports worldwide. The town stunk, of course, from the chemical process that separated wood’s cellulose fibres, but that was, as they said in pulp-and-paper towns, “the smell of money.”

Then the Internet came. Trois-Rivières’ air started getting cleaner as mills shut down. The largest, Canadian International Paper, closed in 2000 and its buildings were demolished, save one: the water treatment plant. It’s been recreated as Boréalis, and it tells the now almost sepia-tinted story of making newsprint.

The journey starts in the boreal forests covering a third of Quebec and ends in the plants spinning out giant rolls of newsprint at 600 metres a minute. Massive machinery a-plenty helps illustrate how it was done, but the tale is mostly told in human terms, and not especially happy ones.

When the mills were first built, loggers were mainly farmers who traded their ploughs for two-man saws once the harvest was over, living for three cold months in camps in the woods “where sleep was often a mere break, interrupted by snoring and lice bites,” says the audio guide (in English).

Come spring, a million logs were dumped into the St. Maurice and floated downstream. Inevitably, there’d be jams, which log drivers had to go out onto to clear. “Only the most reckless dared driving the logs,” we learn, “braving the threat of drowning, hypothermia, crushed limbs.” Success could kill you: when the logs became unstuck you had to scramble back to shore across the bobbing, moving wood.

At least it was healthy, outdoor work. Life in the mill, especially in the early days, was awful. The workweek was 60 hours; heat, humidity and deafening noise all took their toll. The worst spot was dryer section: steam-heated rollers removing water from the paper at the rate of a tonne a minute pushed temperatures to 43 degrees Celsius, with 60 per cent humidity. It was so horrific that, in a place where shifts lasted 13 hours, at the dryer station they were sometimes reduced to a matter of minutes to keep workers from passing out.

Trois-Rivières is a lot nicer place today. The old CIP lands are being redeveloped with shops and apartments. Downtown, rue des Forges and surrounding streets have more than 30 cafés with open-air terraces. The Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières fills them with 12,000 students. There are still three mills in town, although much smaller than in pulp’s heyday. You catch the occasional whiff from them, but now it smells more like nostalgia.

 

ACCESS

For more information on Boréalis visit its website at www.borealis3r.ca.

For information on travel in Quebec visit the Tourisme Québec website at www.quebecoriginal.com.