Hopewell, Virginia


31 July 2006





In the summer of 1966, through my college, I got a summer job with the electrical engineering department of the Continental Can Company (CCC) in Hopewell, Virginia. When I got the job, I did not know where Hopewell was located in Virginia or what the job with the department might entail but I needed a summer job and knew I needed some resume material for post graduation.


As I soon found out, Hopewell, Virginia is located to the South and East of Richmond, and sits on the James River. Hopewell is a strange little town as it is dominated by large chemical plants, which use the James for intake water and also for dumping production waste bi-products. Was at the pipe, which dumped waste from the CCC in the James one time and this ugly foam and smell all around. Sure, what was being dumped was not “clean” and so glad the Environment Protection Agency and clean water act came into being. Don’t think you can swim or eat anything out of the James even now and no wonder considering all that was probably dumped into it at Hopewell by one chemical plant or another.


Memories fade and so I do not remember how I found the bedroom in the librarian’s house, but I did. One upper bedroom in the house of a lady who was librarian for Allied Chemicals or some other large chemical company in the area. A widow or at least living alone, her house was always in perfect order and she entertained frequently fixing special meals like squab, etc. Can’t remember the rent per week.


As I did not have a car, I had to walk from my upper room to work each day and then back again at the end of the day. From the house to work was at least 1 mile and maybe more and because I was not used to getting up at 6am each day to be at work by 7am, I was often late for work or I would be forced to call a taxi. The walk home after work, which ended at 3pm, was slow and always included some food for the day.


As I said, Hopewell was a strange town, as I seldom, if ever, saw anyone on the streets of the business area. Everyone worked at the plants and since the plants ran 24\7, there just wasn’t anyone to be out shopping, moving around. No idea where the housewives where or the kids but not on the streets of the town. Remember walking along empty streets day after day. Do not even remember a movie theater in town or at least I never saw one or went to one while I was there.


The Continental Can Company was a large paper mill (yep, with that paper mill stink you must have experienced at least once in your life), contrary to it’s name, making large, 40 feet wide rolls of Kraft paper, which is that brown paper used in grocery bags and general, throw away, wrapping. Anyway, on my first day at work, I asked for and found the electrical engineering department where an alumni had arranged for the summer job and after brief small talk, told me grab a safety helmet and he would give me a tour of the plant.


Kraft paper making: pulp wood, which is pine tree logs about 20 or 30 feet long, devoid of limbs, comes in on large tractor trailers and is dumped in a huge pile where it is then loaded by crane onto a conveyor belt, which moves the logs to a giant grinder\chipper. From there, the pulp chips move to a giant cooker where various chemicals are added (starch was one of them as bags and bags of it were stacked everywhere) to break down the cellulose and make this slurry or mush which is then feed to a giant, 40 foot wide machine, which squirts out the mush onto a conveyor belt that is heated and as the “paper” begins to dry, it is fed through a long series of drying rollers until at the end, a man with a long knife actually cuts the moving roll of paper and takes away one giant roll and begins the moving paper onto another 40 foot wide core. I do not remember how much each roll of paper weighed if I ever knew but it must have been tons and tons.


As I said, like other plants in the area, CCC ran 24\7 and almost had to. If something happened and the plant shut down, the mush in the pipes would harden and then the pipes would have to be cleaned out via some mechanism I do not remember. Just remember, the plant going down was a disaster.


Electrical. The plant consisted of perhaps thousands of motors, most of which were pumps as can be imagined. These motors where scattered everywhere and controlled by huge switches in rack type consoles also scattered everywhere. Motors ranged from the type you probably have in your home to huge 10,000-volt motors 8 or more feet tall at the center. I was told by one of the electricians that one of the 10,000-volt motors flew apart once and what a mess it made of the surrounding area. Luckily, no one was present in the area at the time the motor decided to explode or they would surely have been killed. After hearing this story, I was always a little anxious when I was around any running motor.


Because the plant needed so much steam to dry the paper, it had a giant coal fired boiler and because after drying the paper, there was steam to spare, the plant had 2 steam-driven turbines to generate electricity. In fact, the plant generated so much electricity; it sold electricity to the local electric grid. Again, another story told to me: when the plant tied its generators to the electric grid, it did not take enough care to make sure the power generated by the plant was in phase with the grid and also that if the grid went down for some reason, the turbines would not try to supply the entire load of the grid. Well, as you can imagine, the grid did go down one day and the turbines could not handle the load and came to a screeching halt, destroying both of them. After that, the plant installed special equipment to keep everything in phase and also, to trip out the turbines if the load got to be too much. I was in this special equipment room once and everything in there was giant size. Coils 4 feet in diameter and 7 feet tail, knife-type switches 4 feet long. Wishes I had a picture of the room now to show you.


So after my tour, back to the air-conditioned engineering department, which I was thankful for and an assignment. Now and again, pulp wood logs came in with metal spikes in them. How they got there was a mystery and really did not matter. What did matter is that if the log with the spike was allowed into the chipper, grinder, it could and did, destroy the blades in the mechanism with an associated huge replacement expense. So, I was told to design a spike detector for the log conveyor belt. Say what? I had no idea how to start, where to look for what, anything, and design a spike detector was all I was given in the way of instructions. To be honest, I am not sure what I did or did not do. I know I had a drafting table and I do remember trying to design some sort of mechanical shelf, which would be above the conveyor belt and onto which I intended to mount a magnetometer or device which would detect the present of iron. Or at least I think that what I was attempting to do at the time or would certainly do now, given 40 years of experience. Anyway, the long and short of it was after some period of time, the engineering department realized I was in over my head and sent me off to the electrician’s shop for whatever work they could find me to do. As with actual electrical engineering, I was no more qualified for the electrician’s shop, but the old man who ran the shop was kind and understanding of my college money need and decided, if nothing else, I could clean the grease off motors, which were pulled from service for a rebuild. So day after day, in the hot, open air electrician’s shop, I took apart motors and soaked their parts in some sort of cleaning solution, which turned black from the grease and other plant deposits. Although I might be complaining now, it really was not all that bad and other than being late more often than not for work, I tried to do a decent job and worked hard.


After a while, for some reason I do not remember, I was paired with an actual electrician and once given a job order, he and I would head out into the vast plant of pipes, motors, and motor control units. Climbing up ladders to the top of various units and down under the actual paper making machines with paper rolling by at 100 feet a minute overhead. Another story: sometimes the man who controlled the flow of slurry onto the conveyor belt, leaned out the mixture a little too much and somewhere along the multiple dryer rollers, the paper would break and begin shooting off in all directions but usually under the machine itself. If you were down under the papermaking machines when the paper broke or tore, you could be buried in paper in no time at all. As paper tearing was not an uncommon event, underneath all machines was a tow motor to push all scrap paper into a concrete ditch, which moved the paper back to the giant cooker to be recycled.


CCC was a union company and it was there that I got my first taste of labor unions. My electrician friend and he did become a friend and turned me on to many fine books and taught me some about his rock hound hobby, would be out somewhere in the plant and if there was a piece of wood leaning up against a motor control switch door we had to open, we were not allowed to do it, we had to call for a carpenter to lift away the wood. Or if we were going to take a motor out of service and it was obvious which valves had to be closed to route around the motor or engage a backup, we could not. We had to call the plumber’s union and get a plumber sent out to simply turn a valve. Now I certainly agree that labor unions have greatly benefited every working person in the United States and probably most of the industrialized world, but I found this division of labor silly and wasteful. Anyway, typically, we would open a motor control cabinet, throw the switch to the off position, tag it clearly such that anyone coming by would know not to touch the switch and we then would go to the actual motor and take it out of service.


Underneath the papermaking machines, the temperature was at least 120 degrees even on a cool day and by union agreement, union labor could not work under the machines for more than 5 minutes at a time without getting a 15-minute cool-down period. After being under the machines for 5 minutes at a time and getting completely soaked with sweat from the heat, this is one union agreement I could live with.


Often when my electrician friend and I were servicing some motor under a papermaking machine, he would stop by a huge pile of bagged starch, cut open a bag and grabbing a handful, shove it down is pants and rub it between his legs. Apparently, “jock itch” was a common problem for those who worked at the plant year round and starch helped dry out the area or so he told me. Said he had been to the plant clinic many times for the problem and they are the ones who told him just to use starch wherever he found it.


I liked my electrician friend and we got along well out in the plant and I think the head of the electrician’s shop was happy. Anyway, one day, I was told to report to the electrical engineering department but not told why. What could this be? Had I done well enough cleaning motors to be called back to the spike detection problem?


Again, some small talk but this time with an engineer I had never met and turned out that the electrical engineering department had no map of motors and motor control units for the plant! That’s right, no map of the electrical plant. The engineering department did not know, which switch controlled which motor and the union electrical shop was not going to tell them, as it was the union shop’s job security. Ok, nice to know but what did it have to do with me? Since I was there, working everyday with electricians and going to motor control units and then to motors, if I would simply write down the control unit number and then the motor number and give collected information to the engineering department, they would be mighty grateful. What? Immediately I felt like some sort of spy. They were asking me to compromise the job security of the folks I had come to know at the shop, to include the drunks that did nothing and my friend who worked hard every minute he was on the job. What could I do? On one hand, I saw nothing wrong with the engineering department knowing the electrical layout of the plant and really could not understand how they could not know with the plant fully functional for years and years but on the other hand, I worried that if they learned everything, they might let go some folks in the electrical shop who needed their jobs.


What did I do? In the end, I did not have to make a decision as the company hired an experienced electrical engineer whose job it was to learn from the shop where all motor control units and associated motors were. When the nice enough, wearing a tie and white shirt, guy, came to the electrical shop, I tried to tell him that the union guys were not going to talk with him but he would not listen and began simply following workers around and writing everything down. Of course, the union guys were smarter than that and saw what he was trying to do right away and on purpose would go to one motor control unit and then to the wrong motor.


After 2 weeks or so, this new hire came to me and says he needs help and since I am on the inside, would I help? For some reason, since it was known he was the one actually doing the mapping, I felt like I could help and so I did. Seems to me my term at the plant was almost up and I doubt I managed to give him more than 1% of the motor control\motor combinations but that was better than he was getting on his own. I wonder to this day if the engineering department knows every motor controller\motor combination?


Hopewell, Virginia: where I first experienced large industrial plants; the polluting chemical industry; labor unions; loneliness and envy and or jealousy.


Loneliness? Other than the shop workers and the old lady I lived with, sort of, I never knew another person in the town the whole time I was there and with no TV in my room, nothing to do at night. As I have said, the town was dead during the day and even deader, if such a thing is possible, after 5 o’clock.


Envy, jealousy? One day when I walked up to the house where I had my bedroom after work, there was this brand spanking new, red, Triumph TR3 convertible parked at the curb. When I went inside, the old lady landlord introduced me to her new boarder, some swanky private school, rich kid, who was staying with her while he hung out each day with his chemical company vice president. I mean this guy had looks, movie actor hair, clothes, money, and that damn car. Just did not seem fair at all and I was most envious each day I left walking to work while he slept late and then zipped off to work in his new, daddy provided, convertible. Such is life, I guess.


In August of 1966, a week before school started again, I said goodbye to everyone in the electrical shop, packed what little I had and headed home on the Greyhound bus. Been 3 months in Hopewell and although now, I cannot say I really enjoyed my time there, I did learn from the experience. Specifically, I learned: that I did not want to work in a big industrial plant in any capacity; did not want to work as a electrical engineer; did not care for labor unions and that loneliness was a real bummer.


A recent search of the Internet reveals than Continental Can Company is no more or not by that name anyway. It is unclear if the Kraft paper plant I worked at in Hopewell still exists or not. Certainly, everyone I worked with has long since retired with their nice union pensions or at least I hope so as most earned them.


Perhaps on some trip to Richmond, I will venture back to Hopewell, but this time in a car, with a wife, money in my pocket and only stay an hour or so. I wonder if they have a movie theater now?