Piedmont Paper Mill

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Location: Luke, Allegany, Marylandmap
Surname/tag: Gates
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The paper mill at the Potomac River played an important role in the local communities on the border between Maryland and West-Virginia. Many ancestors of Henry Louis Gates Jr featured in the Wikitree year challenge of 2021 worked in the mill.



Paper mills that produce paper made from wood need a lot of water, wood, fuel and laborers, so a spot near a river, woodlands and coal mines is perfect. That made West Virginia such a good place to start a paper mill.

Paper making process

In earlier times paper was made of rags. By pounding them in water the fibers loosened into a pulp which was used to make paper. The process used to make paper by the Luke family was based on a chemical process that extracted cellulose fibers from wood chips. It's called the sulfite process. The cellulose fibers are beaten in water so the fibers are well separated and saturated with water. This was all done in the pulp mill.

In the paper mill the pulp was filtered on a woven screen to form a sheet which was next compressed, and dried to loosen the water content.[1]

Luke paper mill

West Virginia Paper Company


The plant was originally located in Piedmont, West Virginia on the south bank of the Potomac River. But because the Potomac River shifted its course, the plant was now on the other side of the river. Even the municipality changed its name in 1922, so that the plant was now situated - without relocating - in Luke, Allegany County, Maryland.


The founder William Luke was born into a Scottish paper making family who came to the US in 1852. He started working for Jessup and Moore Paper Company in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. He did this until 1898. In the meantime he started his own small paper making company in 1889 with two of his sons.


Potomac Papermills.

There were a lot of accidents in the mills. The machines were dangerous because they didn’t have coverings. All the moving parts could be reached so losing a finger or cutting a hand were common injuries and considered to be minor. More serious injuries came from getting clothes pulled into the machines which led to crushed limbs. Other injuries were from burns from explosions and electrocutions or falls from high places. Sometimes these accidents led to the death of an employee.


In 1919, the employees went on strike due to the long working hours of a two-shift system, 11 hours during the day and 13 hours at night, six days a week with low pay. This was during the WWI period. The factory management retaliated by closing the mill and firing the active union members. The management claimed that they wanted to handle employees individually. They pointed to the fact that they had hired nurses to look after employees during the influenza epidemic as an example of good faith. They claimed they would switch to an 8-hour shift schedule when they could find enough employees. A mass meeting with a dance afterwards was held to support the strikers. The culmination of the whole issue was the arrest of five strikers who were accused of assaulting two deputy sheriffs - employees of the paper mill sworn in by the Sheriff - who were accompanying workers from work to home during the strike.The five men were tried and acquitted in a jury trial. [2] Workers got paid twice a month and on payday shops in town were open in the evening.


In 1955 the Luke mill was producing enameled printing paper and converting paper.[3]

Devon club

Devon club house 1911
In 1911 William Luke founded the Devon Club and built them a club house. It was opened on March 23, 1911. The club was named after the river on which banks William Luke was born in Scotland. The Devon Club was meant for the employees of the paper mill. You could only become a member if another member presented you for membership. Fees were 5 US dollars a year. Race isn't mentioned.... The building had four bowling alleys on the first floor, a gaming room with pool tables a billiard, checker chess tables, card rooms and two reading rooms on the second floor and on the third floor a massive assembly or concert hall with a large stage.[4]


The mill employees had sport teams who competed with the teams of other factories. It started with two baseball teams - one forthe pulp mill and one for the paper mill - but at the end of 1929 they also formed a basketballteam.[5]

Company History

Piedmont Paper Co. (1888 - 1899)

60 employees producing printing paper called West Virginia paper.[6]

West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (1897 - 1969)

In 1897 the company merged with the West Virginia Pulp Company in Davis, West Virginia to become the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company. They expanded further in the following years. When the founder William Luke died in 1912 the company owned four mills situated in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia. [7]

Westvaco (1969 - 2002)

On March 3, 1969 the company changed its name to Westvaco. This name was already in use as trademark and brandname but not for the company itself. Due to the fact that the company had many mills outside West Virginia and even outside the US,(Belgium, Brazil and Australia were mentioned) the old name didn't fit the bill anymore.[8]

Meadwestvaco (2002 - 2005)

New Page (2005 - 2015)

In 2005 Mead Westvaco sold its paper business to New Page, a new company controlled by Cerberus Capital management based in New York.[9]

Verso Corporation (2015 until closure in 2019)

Verso Corporation, an Ohio company, acquired the facility in 2015 and operated it until May 2019. The company said they were closing mill because of a combination of high production costs at this mill and reduced demand for coated free sheet paper, the type of paper the mill produced.[10][11]

Effects of the closure


675 jobs were lost when the mill closed and 2,000 jobs in the near area were affected.


Black liquid - a waste product of pulp produce - was discovered leaking into the Potomac River almost a year after the closure of the mill. Before its closure, this liquid was burnt by the mill as an energy source--a practice in use since the 1930's. Black liquid is very caustic.[12]

Water Supply

Luke lost its drinking water supply from the mill and had to invest in a new supply source. They connected their system to that of Westernport. This was subsidized by a Maryland State grant. [13]

Latest news

January 19th, 2021: It looks as if there's a buyer for the closed mill. Whiskey River would start a lumber related business on the site, selling wood chips and offering up to 200 jobs[14]

Research Notes

  1. The archives of the different companies that Luke mill was a part of are now located at Cornell University (the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company) and
  2. the kind of process of papermaking which was used in Luke is not totally clear. The different sources state it was the first successful one using the sulfite process but the pollution caused after the closure of the factory in 2019 mentions black liquid, the waste result of the Kraft process of extracting carbon fibers from wood. I see two possibilities: one, the sources are partly wrong, two: they changed the process somewhere during the existence of the factory.


  1. [https://www.britannica.com/technology/papermaking
  2. verdicht strike trial may 1919
  3. annual report 1955 in peidmont Herald
  4. opening Devon club 1911
  5. basketball team
  6. https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/economics-business-and-labor/businesses-and-occupations/westvaco-corp
  7. [http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/westvaco-corporation-history/ history of westvaco
  8. name change WEstvaco 1969
  9. Piedmont Herald march 8th 2005
  10. Verso to Close Coated Freesheet Paper Mill in Luke, Maryland, Paper Age, April 30, 2019.
  11. It was the backbone of this town for 131 years. Now Luke paper mill is gone., The Washington Post, 1 June 2019.
  12. The Washington Post; Maryland environmental officials investigate leak in Upper Potomac River near shuttered paper mill; 25 Oct 2019.
  13. Baltimore Business Journal; Western Maryland towns affected by paper mill closure seek state aid for water supply project; 4 Aug 2020.
  14. WCBC Radio; Purchase of Luke Mill Appears Imminent, 19 Jan 2021.

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