It was a city unto itself.
There was a store where you could buy dresses, a medical office for physicals, an internal post office, a credit union and a cafeteria where Willie Johnson worked for 54 years, earning a reputation as the fastest, most efficient short-order cook. His liver and onions were better than Momma made.
The city had its own utility systems, its own trucking firm and its own railroad to move coal and chemicals. The Southern Railway even had a station on its main line south of Charlotte bearing the city’s name.
The city covered about 1,100 acres – so big that when Mack Bailey reported for work in 1973, they offered him a bicycle to get around. He declined. After a week of walking, he was back, asking for the bicycle.
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Bill Cranford didn’t get the option of a bike when he reported for work in 1960 shortly after graduating from Rock Hill High School. His first job was internal mailman. He had to walk his route, which included multiple flights of stairs.
The utilities were so dependable that when hurricane Hugo ripped through the region in September 1989, the traffic light at the city’s entrance off Cherry Road continued to change from red to green – the only working stoplight in the Rock Hill for days.
At its heart, this city was a manufacturing plant of massive machines that continuously produced synthetic fiber no bigger than a strand of hair. There was no “off” switch on the production line.
Chemicals used to make the fiber created a pungent odor inside and outside the plant – a smell often carried home by its workers. The plant had its own recycling program long before others.
It was an engineer’s paradise. When it opened in 1948, it redefined the region’s economy. For so long, the economy was built on the backs and brawn of its workers. Suddenly brains – from the production floor to the plant manager’s office – were in demand.
It was the Knowledge Park of its day.
While thousands of yards of concrete formed the foundations for the three-story brick buildings, the huge silos and miles and miles of pipe, the true foundation of the company was its people.
“Family” is a word most people use to described the plant, followed by stability and opportunity.
The most-often-told story is when a parent, sibling or relative got a job at the plant, the quality of food at the dinner table drastically improved.
Such is the legacy of Rock Hill’s Celanese chemical fiber plant, or as it was more simply know, The Celriver.
Nothing without Charlie Cobb
Over its 57-year history, thousands of employers came through the gate on Cherry Road to work. They came from all walks of life, men and women, all races. At its peak, Celriver employed 2,500 workers, most of them members of the Textile Workers Union of America, Local 1093-T.
All owe their opportunity to one man who never worked a day at the plant. Without Charles Cobb, there never would have been a Celriver plant.
Cobb, born in Chester, left his stamp on Rock Hill forever – although his contributions are now relegated to the history books.
His People’s National Bank is now a toy store, museum and apartments. When it opened, it was Rock Hill’s first “skyscraper” with the city’s first vertical trolley – an elevator.
When President Franklin Roosevelt closed the banks in March 1933, Cobb kept his bank open. His bank was solvent, in part because he had helped recruit the textile firm that would become the Rock Hill Printing & Finishing Co. to the city in 1929. The Bleachery kept many residents employed during the Depression.
In 1946, the Celanese Corp. of New York wanted to build a new plant. The company produced the first commercial acetate fiber in 1924. The company wanted 500 acres with highway and rail access.
Rock Hill wasn’t on Celanese’s list of potential sites, but after meeting with Cobb, the company bought more than 1,000 acres of the Hamilton Carhartt plantation. The property stretched from the Catawba River to what is now Interstate 77. Down the road was a cotton mill started by Carhartt. At its heyday, the mill employed several thousand workers.
Soon, the Celriver plant would rival the mill.
Wood pulp, vinegar, acetone
At its most basic level, production of cellulose acetate fiber is a simple process. Pure wood pulp is mixed with acetic acid – a stronger version of vinegar. The resulting “flake” is then mixed with acetone – most commonly known as the active ingredient in fingernail polish remover – and the “dope” is pushed or extruded through machines to form a filament.
From there the filament goes through a process similar to textile mills, through which the filaments are combined. The “150-40” – the bread-and-butter product of the plant for years – was 40 filaments in the yarn, the 150 was in deniers, a unit that measured the thickness and “fineness” of the material.
The filament was collected on 5- to 6-pound cones, or beams, that were 36 to 72 inches wide.
“Cellulose acetate was the poor man’s silk,” said Mack Bailey, who helped oversee production. “It wasn’t a cotton knockoff.
Cellulose acetate was used in the liners of men’s suits – Hart Schnaffer Marx suits used a 120-60 blend – in dresses and shiny, disco-era shirts. It was also used in the headliners of cars.
Working on the production floor was rough, steady work, said Hoyle Ramsey, who started working at Celriver in 1958 and retired 41 years later.
It also was work that paid well. To keep the machines running constantly, five shifts – plus a day shift, which helped maintain the plant and run the small city – worked around the clock. Overtime was paid at rate of time-and-a-half, and if you worked a seventh day it was double time.
The money allowed employees such as Willie Johnson and others to buy cars, build houses and raise families. Johnson raised seven children on his Celriver wages.
Celanese’s corporate culture was to give opportunity to employees who showed promise. When Celanese started looking for a new plant site, it looked at the college board scores for an area’s schools and the quality of its universities and technical colleges. Celanese used Winthrop University and York Technical College to fill its needs and to improve the skills of its workers.
Barbara Mills started working at Celriver in 1972 after graduating from Rock Hill’s Emmett Scott High School. She started in the textile division, working the coning, beaming and twisting machines. She left as a manager with a master’s degree in business administration from Winthrop.
“I didn’t pay a dime; they paid for everything. All you had to do was make a ‘C,’ and they paid for it,” she said of her education. Mills worked at the plant for 32 years.
When Geraldine Farmer came to the plant, she didn’t have a college degree, and her experience was all in hospitality. She had worked as a clerk at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in downtown Rock Hill and then at the Red Coach Inn.
She was hired to work as a machine operator. Thirty-five years later, she retired as the No. 2 person in management with a nationwide reputation for empowering employees, giving them a voice in ways to improve plant operations.
Largest acetate filament producer
The Celriver plant reached its peak in 1996, when it was the largest producer of acetate filament in the world.
But trends in the fashion world were changing, and government pollution standards were getting stricter. From 1980 to 1996, the Celriver plant had been among the top three polluters in South Carolina, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Celriver dropped from that list when the agency removed acetate from a list of polluting chemicals, and as the plant phased out the use of benzene, a carcinogen.
In 1998, Celriver celebrated its 50th anniversary. A year later, its owners announced they were closing the filament production lines. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs.
For a while, the plant made acetate tow, a product used in cigarette filters. When tow production was moved to another company facility, Celriver’s days were over. On April 29, 2005, almost all of the plant’s workers left through the Cherry Road gates for a final time.
“When it closed, it was devastating,” said Nelson Odom, who worked in training and development for 23 years. “It was like a funeral.”
Odom remembers walking the plant during its last days. The machines were silent, illuminated only by security lighting.
“It was a ghostly effect,” he said.
Mark Anders of Rock Hill was among the last to leave in July 2005. He stayed to clean the machines, wash out the chemicals.
Anders was the second generation of his family to work at Celriver. His mother, Thelma, worked in the beaming department for 40 years. When Mark Anders went looking for work, he had offers from Duke Power, General Tire and Celanese. He choose Celanese out of loyalty, he said. He started in 1980 and worked there for 25 years.
Anders said he and his crew worked as hard during the final cleanup as they did when the plant operated. They were motivated by pride.
“We made sure we left in good shape, just like it was when I came to the plant,” Anders said. “We did it right, we didn’t want to leave a mess. This was our company.”
Demolition of the plant soon followed.
Mack Bailey remembers driving on Cherry Road and seeing one wall of the plant remaining.
“You could look through the windows,” he said. “There was nothing behind them.”
Karlene Haley, daughter of Geraldine Farmer, remembers the first time she and her mother passed the site after demolition.
“The car was quiet, there were no words,” Haley said. “It had been there for so long, supported the community for so long.”
Nelson Odom had mixed emotions. He, too, knew what the plant had done for his family and other Rock Hill families.
“But I was happy it was torn down before it was vandalized,” he said.
Celriver to Riverwalk
A brick building that once house the personnel office, crumbling asphalt parking lots, a water tower that now bears the name “Riverwalk,” and a pump station at the river are all that remain from what once was Celriver.
Two chemical plants remain on the site – PBI Performance Products and InChem. Both were stand-alone facilities started by Celanese and then sold.
Local 1093 is still operating, now under the banner of Workers United. Bill Cranford, who came to the plant as an internal mailman, worked there for 38 years, his last 10 years as the union representative at the plant. Today he is the secretary of the local, helping Celriver retirees, and assisting union workers at PBI.
In Celriver’s place is the Riverwalk mixed-use development that includes a velodrome and BMX Supercross track — two city-owned cycling facilities.
On various weeknights and weekends you can find Bailey at the velodrome, either circling the track to keep fit or refereeing club races.
Bailey can stand in the velodrome’s infield and point out where various parts of the plant were, including the sprawling five acres of warehouses he first supervised – first on foot, but soon on a bike.
For Bailey, Celriver has come full circle.
1946: Charlie Cobb, president of the People’s National Bank of Rock Hill, shows Celanese a 1,100-acre site. Celanese invests $40 million in property and plant, and the state commits $100,000 to prepare the site.
1948: The Celriver plant opens.
1968: Union workers briefly strike the plant.
1987: Hoechst A.G. of West Germany acquires New York-based Celanese Corp. for $2.84 billion, creating the world’s largest chemical company.
1996: Celriver is the largest producer of cellulose acetate filament in the world; first of several big layoffs announced.
1998: Celriver’s 50th anniversary; Hoescht sells Celanese.
1999: Demand for cellulose acetate filament declines; 900 layoffs.
2001: Cellulose acetate filament production line closes; 445 layoffs.
2005: Plant closes, property sold for $40 million to Pollution Risk Services, the company developing Riverwalk.
The Celriver Legacy Project
A group of Celriver employees are working to maintain the legacy of the plant through two efforts. One is a commemorative plaza, which will include artwork and signs that explain what happened at the plant. The second is a scholarship fund. The group hopes to raise about $500,000. For information on the project, go to facebook.com/CelriverLegacyProject or email Mack Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ed Ewald at email@example.com.