Kimberly-Clark mill is part of the Everett we’ve lost

A.J. Hazen planned to work at a mill on the city waterfront until he retired, just like his father.

He expected the job would pay his mortgage, put food on the table and allow his wife to stay home with their baby daughter.

But, as he put it, life has turned upside down since the announced closure in December of the Everett pulp mill and tissue plant owned by Kimberly-Clark.

Hazen, 23, lost his livelihood just days after Christmas, when he was on his honeymoon. Now his wife is working two jobs. He’s found a job at Boeing — and he’s thankful for it — but it pays $10 less an hour and he’ll have to work every bit of overtime he can to make up the difference. He worries they may lose the house.

It’s the new reality for families trying to scrape together a living in changing times.

It’s also the reality for Everett, the City of Smokestacks that will no longer have any once Kimberly-Clark closes.

Everett’s been changing for decades, moving away from lumber, pulp, paper and fishing to aerospace, health care, the military and light industry.

The closure of Kimberly-Clark signals the end of an era — the final chapter of a proud, working-class town built by and for the mills.

It’s not a happy ending. Some 700 people at Kimberly-Clark’s pulp mill and tissue plant lost their jobs, most around the holidays. The company says it’s shutting down the plant and others around the globe as profits dropped to $1.59 billion in 2011 from $1.84 billion in 2010.

Operations at the Everett plant are expected to cease this month. The company plans to level the 69-acre site, scrap some equipment and send the rest overseas.

For some people who remember an Everett waterfront ringed with smokestacks, this feels like a death in the family. For many former mill workers, it also feels like a betrayal.

Industry didn’t just put Everett on the map; it created the city.

In 1889, Everett was a wet, wooded peninsula with a few dozen inhabitants.

By 1892, it was a full-fledged city with streets, factories, homes and businesses, said Everett historian David Dilgard.

Henry Hewitt of Tacoma had joined forces with East Coast businessman Charles Colby.

Together, they snapped up land in what’s now downtown Everett because they believed the Great Northern Railway would first touch western tidewater here.

The speculators planned an industrial city with sawmills, a paper mill, a smelter, a nail factory, docks and a ship-building company. And they had the financial backing of tycoon John D. Rockefeller.

They dreamed of making Everett into the “Pittsburgh of the West,” a planned industrial city built from a naked peninsula, Dilgard said.

By 1893, the plan was nearly bust after America suffered a national financial collapse.

Rockefeller extricated his money. The upstart city suffered through a few years of economic doldrums. Again, industry would steer Everett’s course.

Sniffing opportunity, railroad “Empire Builder” James Hill helped reorganize Everett in 1899, this time around a single industry: timber.

He had his own agenda. He wanted to ship lumber to the Midwest and Eastern markets. He was successful at getting people like Frederick Weyerhaeuser to come here. The lumber barons quickly saw the potential profit in the Northwest; the area was then so dense with cedars and Douglas firs a person could hardly walk through them.

In the early 1900s, Everett’s saw and shingle mills, small and large, popped up like mushrooms along Port Gardner and the Snohomish River.

The promise of work brought immigrants with Nordic roots in large numbers, some via Canada or the Midwest, and others straight from the old country. In just the decade between 1900 and 1910, Everett’s population exploded, tripling to 25,000, said another Everett historian and writer, Larry O’Donnell.

People at the time thought the stoicism and physical strength of a Norwegian or a Swede seemed a good fit for working in a lumber or shingle mill, jobs that required keen attention for what was dull but dangerous work, he said.

By the 1920s, mills lined the waterfront along north Everett, industrial jewels in a working-class city’s crown.

The sawmills began to fall away during the Great Depression, and pulp and paper-making mills began taking their places, dominated by Weyerhaeuser, Scott Paper Co. and the Lowell Paper Mill.

In the ’40s, a shipyard was established, but the economy was driven by the pressing needs of World War II. After that war, pulp and paper production continued to be the mainstay for another decade and a half, until the arrival of Boeing.

For many decades, Everett proudly called itself the City of Smokestacks.

Those smokestacks, big and small, belched smoke and ash and steam so thick at times the lumber barons living on Rucker Hill could hardly see through the fog.

As late as the 1960s, a man could stand outside with his shirt off on a sunny day near the waterfront and feel a hot cinder from one of those smokestacks burning on his shoulder, O’Donnell said.

In town, Everett people would speak almost fondly of the pungent sulfur stench produced, calling it the “smell of money.” For several generations of Everett families, that’s exactly what it was: a welcome chance to make a better life.

That also came with a cost.

All those heavy industries operating for decades took a toll on the water and land that is still being tallied.

Atlas Holdings, a Greenwich, Conn., company, appeared ready to buy the Kimberly-Clark pulp mill and tissue plant last winter, but backed out because of the cost to clean up a polluted waterway.

And then there was the cost to workers. In the early days, men worked in dangerous conditions for little pay. A shingle weaver was recognizable by his missing digits. Workers risked frequent mill fires, long-term chemical exposure and crushed or severed limbs, chewed off by the sharp teeth of a saw or the mangling mouth of a heavy machine. Sometimes they lost their lives.

In the early years especially, the extreme divide between mill owner and mill worker caused a class division in Everett, a wrestling match between those who controlled the city and the workers eking out a living. The mill owners may have had the money, but the workers had the union.

In 1916, an armed confrontation between union workers and local authorities ended with at least seven dead and dozens wounded. The Everett Massacre was such a touchy topic in the community that nobody spoke about it in polite company for decades, O’Donnell said.

“Mill Town,” Norman Clark’s 1970 book about Everett’s beginnings, would disappear off the Everett Public Library shelves because it discussed the massacre.

Even with those early troubles, industry built this city.

Its jobs drew the workers who became the fathers and mothers of today’s residents.

Its lumber and shingles built the homes and businesses. Its tax dollars paid for roads and schools and libraries.

Even the mills’ massive appetite for water led to the city securing the rights to an ample water supply that is the envy of other cities today.

As hard as life sometimes was in the early days of Everett, people here were proud and tough — many still are.

What would Everett have been without that?

Pamela Compton, 68, grew up in one of those many Everett mill households.

Her father, Stephen Langton, started at Soundview Pulp as a brick mason helper, and continued on there when it merged with Scott Paper Co.

The sights and sounds of the mills were the backdrop to her childhood.

Like many mill children, she remembers her family’s loyalty to the products made in Everett, such as Scotties facial tissue.

“We were brought up on Scott products, and you didn’t even talk about Kleenex,” she said. “You bought Scott products because they provided my dad with a living. They put food on our table.”

She remembers the company Christmas programs at the Everett Civic Auditorium, which ended with Santa handing out gifts to hundreds of children.

Her family still has a music box she received.

The announced closure of Kimberly-Clark’s pulp and paper mill to her indicates an important change for Everett — and not a good one. It feels odd to her, for instance, to think of high-priced condos on the waterfront.

The Port of Everett planned a $400 million development of shops, offices and condos on the waterfront where industry used to dominate. That ended up falling apart when the private developer filed for bankruptcy.

“I just feel bad,” she said. “The mills are part of who we were.”

One by one, the big pulp and paper mills began shutting down, starting in the 1970s. Perhaps the most visible moment of the start of that decline was the dynamiting of the Lowell Paper Mill’s smokestack in 1974.

The departure of the mills from Everett in the past few decades reflects a general decline for some wood products coupled with stiff competition from markets in the southeast, said economist James McCusker, who writes a column for The Herald.

Trees just aren’t as plentiful or as inexpensive to harvest as they once were.

With environmental regulations tightening, it may have been simpler for Kimberly-Clark to purchase pulp overseas, he said.

Still, to many who worked at Kimberly-Clark, it looked as if their mill might last awhile longer.

But Kimberly-Clark, a worldwide corporation with headquarters based in Dallas, Texas, decided to sell its few remaining pulp mills acquired when it merged with the Scott Paper Co. in 1995. Everett was the last.

Kimberly-Clark put the mill up for sale and it looked as if Atlas Holdings was going to be the buyer. The sale was so close last winter that the union had already negotiated a new contract — although not all the workers were going to keep their jobs — and employees were putting in applications with Atlas.

Suddenly, in December, employees were called into a meeting and told the plan had fallen apart over the cost to clean up a waterway near the mill. Many employees later said they thought the company didn’t want the competition acquiring the site.

Whatever the reason, the closure of Kimberly-Clark is the end of an era in Everett. It’s an end that’s been coming for years.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson has watched that change firsthand. He’s 65 now, and as an Everett kid, he remembers families up and down his block in Pinehurst had dads who worked at a mill.

“Those were the good jobs,” he said. “Families with mill jobs were lucky to have that kind of work.”

That’s true now, too. In Everett, it’s tough finding a good-paying union job.

People who work at the mill talk about getting a job with no related experience or education. They made good money — $15 to $30 per hour wasn’t uncommon. The mill also offered advancement and the chance to learn a trade.

Everett does have Boeing. Although the company also hasn’t been recession-proof, it remains an important, dominant presence in Everett.

While some of the severed Kimberly-Clark workers have found Boeing jobs, they’re often earning less than they did at the mill. The exception is for workers who know a trade.

The mayor worked closely with Kimberly-Clark and Atlas on the sale of the mill. Until the end, it looked like the sale would go through.

“I was pretty pumped,” he said. “Then the wheels just absolutely came off.”

The buyer lost a bridge loan when testing turned up more known contaminants in the waterway than previously believed, he said. More pollutants means millions of dollars more in cleanup costs.

Stephanson called the sale’s failure the biggest disappointment of his tenure as mayor.

“I think Kimberly-Clark came honestly to the table to sell the mill,” he said.

He adds this caveat: People at the company were well aware that a sale would create a competitor.

Even though all the large waterfront mills are gone, that doesn’t change the people in Everett, he said.

“I don’t think we lost anything as a community,” Stephanson said. “We believe in giving our employer a good day’s work for a day’s pay. That’s in our DNA, it’s who we are.”

In recent decades city leaders have tried to remake the gritty mill town. The new Everett hasn’t yet fully emerged from its cocoon.

City leaders have invested millions of dollars on projects meant to make the downtown more walkable and vibrant, including an arts center and an arena.

Part of the reasoning by city leaders is that amenities downtown are one way to keep and attract workers and good-paying companies.

Everett was developed as an industrial city, and its economy fed off natural resources, particularly lumber.

Those jobs are shrinking, and often the family-wage jobs that have taken their place are jobs that can be done anywhere, such as engineer or computer programmer.

Despite the improvements, today downtown remains more of a government center than a retail hot spot.

The city also has invested millions more on a site near the river that used to be a landfill. They plan for it be a high-end development with housing, shops and entertainment. Right now, it’s a muddy, cleared expanse waiting for the economy to turn around.

Reid Shockey came to town in 1970 to work as a city planner. Back then, Everett was still very much a mill town, with half a dozen large waterfront mills operating. The community wanted it to stay that way.

“If you proposed anything different than an industrial mill on the waterfront, there was an adverse reaction by people,” said Shockey, who also served as the city’s community development director before opening his own business.

For instance, the city wanted to improve Norton Avenue — now Marine View Drive — the roadway that runs along the waterfront. Those improvements included adding bike lanes.

“You’d have thought the Soviet Union had come to occupy Everett,” he said of the reaction to the plan. In fact, a city councilman at the time put it to him using nearly those exact words.

People told him, “What are you trying to do, drive industry out of Everett?”

The reaction seems silly to Shockey 40 years later, but at the time, industry was paramount. It shows how much the community has progressed, he said.

“I would say this community does and should have an industrial waterfront,” Shockey said. “But not a continuous line from Pigeon Creek all the way to Lowell.”

Instead, the city should intersperse public access with different kinds of businesses, some industrial, some commercial, as well as housing.

At the moment, most of the waterfront is controlled by the Port of Everett, the Naval base or private ownership. The public has limited access.

The port is in the midst of trying to figure out what to do after its failed Port Gardner Wharf project.

Kimberly-Clark occupies a prominent place on the city’s waterfront. The city put an emergency moratorium on the development of the land, afraid the company would sell and an “undesirable use” would spring up.

“We’re not well served by a warehouse that employs three people,” Mayor Stephanson said.

It’s important the community gets it right.

“Everett’s waterfront is a working waterfront,” he said. “That’s our history, it’s who we are and who we will be for the foreseeable future.”

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or

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