The people of Marin County are well known for their concern for an unpolluted natural environment. Most citizens today in fact would vigorously oppose an industry that polluted local streams and waterways. This is a story about a Marin County trial held 125 years ago that ended in a finding contrary to these current day attitudes.
In 1855 Samuel P. Taylor built the first paper mill on the west coast along Daniels Creek, today’s Lagunitas Creek. The stream is also informally known as Paper Mill Creek in what is now Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Power for Taylor’s mill was generated by a waterwheel coupled with a dam 20 feet high and 135 feet long that included the first fish ladder in California enabling steelhead and salmon to migrate past the dam.
The Pioneer Paper Mill Company grew rapidly due to the demand for paper products and competitive prices compared to paper imported from the east. The mill ran 24 hours a day except Sunday. At one point the mill supplied virtually all of the newsprint for newspapers in San Francisco and surroundings.
As one of Marin’s first major industrial employers, Taylor was popular with local officials. The extent to which officials were willing to support him was highlighted in 1873 when a Grand Jury discovered that the Board of Supervisors paid for the erection of two bridges on Paper Mill Creek that had no public value but were a clear benefit to Taylor. The Jury called for an investigation but apparently no action was taken.
In 1884 Samuel Taylor built a new higher capacity paper mill. Unfortunately he took ill soon after and died on January 22, 1886. He was buried on Barnabe Mountain overlooking Taylorville. He had seven sons and one daughter. Though all of his sons had some experience working at the mill his fourth son, William Penfield (W. P.) Taylor, was educated and trained in the manufacture of paper and became the manager of mill.
The manufacture of paper was, and is still today, a major polluter of the environment. There were various charges that waste from the Taylor paper mill was killing fish. In response, in 1892 Colonel S. J. Taylor of the company offered $1,000 (about $30,000 in 2017 dollars) to anyone who could prove that fish were killed by the mill’s waste products. There is no record of the company making payment on this offer.
However, the effluent from the Taylor paper mill so polluted Paper Mill Creek that on September 17, 1892 the California Board of Fish Commissioners brought charges against the S. P. Taylor Paper Company. W. P. Taylor was named as the manager of the mill. The suit charged that the Taylor mill was the only one in California that, despite the law prohibiting the pollution of streams, continued to pour its poisonous waste into Paper Mill Creek.
The case against the Taylor mill appeared to be quite solid. The Board of Fish Commissioners hired a chemical expert, Thomas Price & Son, to test the effluent from the mill. Price presented a detailed analysis of the water collected downstream from the mill; “The water, therefore, contains a total of 178.38 grains per United States gallon of which 56.71 are organic matter of a character very deleterious to animal life, as the water contains two parts per million of free ammonia and 2.60 parts per million of albumenized ammonia. The foregoing analysis shows the water to be greatly polluted, containing as it does free lime, both in solution and suspension, and excessive amount of organic matter in solution and suspension.” With that striking evidence the prosecution rested its case.
The Taylor mill defense presented two fishermen who claimed that they had successfully fished the creek above and below the mill. In their opinion the fish were healthy. It was noted, however, that both men generally fished on Sunday when the mill was closed.
J. F. Taylor took the stand and described the operation of the mill to the jury. He indicated that the mill was running on “very saving scale” with regard to flow of lime and other substances into the water. The counsel for the defense argued further that a jury finding against the defendant would shut down the mill causing impacts detrimental to the tax list and to local employment.
The defense therefore consisted of the two fish stories, the claim by mill management that the mill ran at a saving scale, and the threat to close the mill if the defendant was found guilty. While the defense seemed unconvincing, the jury, after just ten minutes of deliberation, returned a verdict of not guilty.
Hence, the pollution of the creek was allowed to continue. The mill was producing railcar loads of paper products each day. It was reported that the bag factory had a daily output of one million of the newly developed square flat-bottomed foldable paper bags. Machinery to produce a new line of fine quality paper was expected in early 1893.
However, despite the favorable jury verdict and the apparent ongoing success of the company, the Taylor family lost control of the mill due to debts it could not settle in the financial panic of 1893. The court case apparently did not sully the Taylor family reputation in Marin. Shortly following the verdict, several of the Taylor siblings moved to San Anselmo where in 1893 William was elected to the School District Board of Trustees. Over time his public service career in Marin continued to advance. In 1898 he was appointed Postmaster of San Anselmo and a year later he was elected Marin County Sheriff.
In 1895 a new firm- M. Brown & Sons- reopened the Taylor mill with William Taylor as superintendent, but it was abandoned shortly thereafter. On May 9, 1916 the abandoned mill was destroyed by a fire believed to have been accidently set by tramps who were using the old building for shelter.
Hence, the last remnants of one of Marin’s first industries and perhaps its most significant polluter has completely vanished due to a fire over 100 years ago.