Posted by: Manager / Associate Curator | October 5, 2016

Artifact of the Week – Domtar Steam Whistle

For generations the Cornwall paper mill steam whistle signaled both the rhythm of routine as well as danger. For many workers it signaled shift change. For youth of the entire community, especially those without a watch nor sense of time, it announced curfew. Although few seem to be aware nor care, here in Ontario youth under 16 are not to be on the streets nor other public places between midnight and 6 a.m. unless accompanied by a responsible adult. A repeated sequence of two or three whistle blasts announced a fire on paper mill property:


1 1 Oil tanks, clarifier, salvage, storage sheds, Central Receiving
1 1 1 Stock Shipping, Finishing Room, Cafeteria
1 2 Boiler House, West Yard
1 3 PMs #1,2,3,4&5, Oil House, Filter Plant, Stock Prep, Pattern Storage, Coater
1 4 Maintenance Shop, Stores, Paint Shop, Oilers’ Shop, Clay Storage
2 1 Sulphite Mill, South Woodroom, Acid Plant
2 2 Kraft Mill, Kraft Recovery, Boiler, Kraft Shipping
2 3 PMs #6,7, Main Office, Vanillin Plant, Technical Building, Main Gatehouse
2 4 Wood Museum, North Woodroom area, North of Second Street

Like some other large industries in the former Cornwall Township, the paper mill had its own fire brigade. The fire signals directed the fire crew to the right area and made the entire community hold its collective breath.

More routine were the whistles related to daily routine for office and other day workers:
6 a.m. Wake up
6:45 Call to work
7 a.m. Start of work
12 p.m. Start of lunch
1 p.m. End of lunch
5 p.m. Head for Home

There were also whistles to the start/end of each production shift.

In preparation for the Domtar mill closure in 2006, the day that the steam plant was to shut down, the whistle was blown long and loud one final time. An employee made an audio recording of that eerie final blast and played it for those gathered for last Friday’s 10 year reunion. It seemed to pierce several attendees to their very core.


In 2006 the SD&G Historical Society approached the mill and offered to house as many artifacts as possible to preserve the many memories for former Howard Smith and Domtar employees as well as for the community at large. The collection includes the steam whistle and engineering diagram, which are but two items in a new exhibit at the Cornwall Community Museum – open Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

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