JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville’s unique 200-year history includes both the good -- and the bad.
Newer residents might not know, but the River City once had a reputation for a pretty nasty smell that was so bad it could make you sick to your stomach.
The odor lasted for decades and played a major role in Jacksonville’s history.
Some called it the smell of money.
In 1938, the first paper mill opened on Talleyrand Avenue, and over the years, the mills expanded along Talleyrand Avenue and on the Northside along Heckscher Drive, employing thousands of workers in well-paying jobs.
From the late 1930s to the late 1990s, the paper mill stacks and chemical plants that processed the mill’s byproducts dotted Jacksonville’s industrial skyline.
The late Hans Tanzler, who served as mayor of Jacksonville from 1967 to 1979, was one of the supporters of the mills -- despite the reputation that their odor gave the city.
“Some of us say it smells like money. I laughed and went to explain it employed a lot of people and paid a lot of taxes, and people come to live with it,” Tanzler said.
According to an article published by Metro Jax, by the late ‘60s and ‘70s, much of Florida’s paper industry was in Jacksonville.
Time for change
But it wasn’t until the ‘80s when studies suggested the odor leads to health effects that the environmental impact of the mills hit the city.
Environmentalists got involved, and those who worked for the city in environmental services and spoke out were actually kicked out -- a situation that was depicted in an editorial cartoon of the late Jake Godbold, who was Jacksonville’s mayor from 1978 to 1987.
In 1985, Channel 4 produced and aired a documentary, called “The Smell of Money,” which some credit with starting to make changes for the better with Jacksonville’s smell.
The documentary pointed out that 100,000 tons of pollution were being dumped in Jacksonville’s air yearly.
After the documentary aired, former mayor Tommy Hazouri, who was elected in 1987, made odor a major priority for his administration.
Former Jacksonville City Councilman Harry Reagan was Channel 4′s editorial director at the time and recalled how this played out.
“With all due respect to Tommy, getting rid of the odor was not on his agenda until Channel 4 helped to put it there,” Reagan said. “We at Channel 4 raised the community consciousness, and the result was politicians started looking around (and saying), ‘Maybe we should do something about that.’”
In 1991, the city began a crackdown and heavy fines were imposed on offending businesses.
The industry also made changes, and those laws are still on the books.
As of 2022, there are no paper mills in Jacksonville, but some of the chemical plants remain.
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At times, the odor returns, like last November, when Jacksonville residents awoke to a stench that might have taken some back in time. The city received over 30 complaints, but no business was cited.