The Western Chroniclers

pat2When I blogged a month ago about mining camps, I included a paragraph about life in a mining town. Fairplay, I reported, was typical of the towns in that it included a handful of rough hewn log cabins, a hotel, three newspapers and twelve whorehouses.
More important to me than the whorehouses (though that certainly was an intriguing tidbit) was the fact that there were three newspapers. Three. Today, cities of hundreds of thousands are lucky to have one newspaper, and especially one that is not in bankruptcy.
That one little fact stirred my interest. I’m a journalist by education. I was a reporter with the Atlanta Journal and later editor of a metropolitan weekly. To this day I can’t go to any city and not buy every newspaper I can get my hands on. Quite simply I love newspapers and I have watched with great sadness as one after another have disappeared. My choices are fewer every day.
So when I read that this small tent mining community had three newspapers, I had to discover more. Fairplay, I discovered, was not unique.
“American pioneers,” a Nevada editor observed in 1867, “carry with them the press and the type, and wherever they pitch their tent, be it in the wilderness of the interior, among the snow covered peaks of the Sierra or on the sunny sea beach of the Pacific, there too must the newspaper appear.”  Indeed, according to the Time Life “Old West Series,” it was a rare town, even in the remotest reaches of the West, that did not boast at least one paper – often long before the place could claim a post office, school, church, or even a jail.”
One very sad symbol of that passion for newspapers is Denver’s Rocky Mountain News that was founded in a saloon attic in 1859. It recently announced it was going out of business after a hundred and fifty years. My heart broke at the announcement, especially since other major newspapers throughout the country are also going out of business one by one.

Operating a newspaper wasn’t much easier in the early west than it is now. Even in areas already settled, the pioneer Western editor had to be an optimist. He needed a press that had to be shipped thousands of miles. There’s one story of a press being transported across the Isthmus of Panama en route to California. The press sank in the Chagres River when the Indian canoe carrying it capsized. After righting the canoe, the Indian paddlers tried but failed to recover the 1,870 pound machine. (I can’t figure how it went any distance at all in a canoe). According to the story, the owner, a man named Judge Judson Ames, dived into the crocodile-infested waters and, singlehanded, heaved the huge press back aboard. According to the Time Life account, that improbable though the tale may seem, the fact remains that Judge Ames’ press arrived dampened but undamaged in Panama City. That very machine printed papers in San Diego and San Bernardino. Later it was carted over the Sierra to Aurora in the Nevada mining country and back again to turn out a weekly in Independence California.

Another press, this time in Harrisburg, Texas, was dumped in 1836 into a bayou by Mexican General Santa Anna. In 1862, a hand pres in Sioux Falls, City in the Dakota Territory, was pitched into the Big Sioux River by a war party of the Santee Sioux. Other presses were lost in Lawrence, Kansas when the town was raided by Quantrill, and still another was washed away by a flash flood in Denver’s Cherry Creek. There were many other tales of lost presses.l

Editors, too, faced hazards.. They were shot, kidnapped, clapped into jail by cattle barons, and tarred and feathered. In Medicine Bow unhappy citizens wanted to tar and feather its editors. Failing to find any tar, they coated the editor with sorghum molasses and sandburs before riding him out of town on the rail.

Income was iffy, too. Newspapers were bought once and passed around. They were read and reread until they disintegrated. Money was in acute shortage and editors often had to take a proportion of their bills in trade. Another problem, especially in mining towns, was the boom and bust nature of strikes. A transit population could vanish overnight.

One city editor in Oregon commented: “I uses to rustle ads for a four-page paper, but it was worse than painful dentistry, and when I tried to collect bills, I invited getting shot. So I joined the army and went scouting through three Indian wars, thus getting into the safety zone.”

But despite the dangers and hardships, the Old West was flooded with editors. One scholar has calculated that in the last two thirds of the 19th Century, a staggering total of 10,000 weekly and daily journals were published in 17 Western states.

And women in journalism? They existed, too, but mostly they were wives who continued to publish family newspapers when they were widowed or, as sometimes happened, while their husbands were disabled by an unhappy reader. But one determined woman started a paper on her own. Caroline Romney published the Durango Record which once announced, “The rumor that the editor of this paper is about to be married is without foundation. In fact, we can’t afford to support a husband yet.”

So all those old movies where the heroine is the local newspaper editor is based in reality.


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19 thoughts on “The Western Chroniclers”

  1. Good Morning Patricia

    What wonderful information. I guess that maybe why we have so much information on the old west. That is so great, with so many people wanting to change history it is great that we have it documented as it happened.

  2. I think it’s a shame that newspapers are fading as much as they have. They’ve just gotten too big. It’s a huge industry now. Back then it was one man, usually with a contrary opinion and a page or two of news to make up the whole paper.
    I have a journalism background, too, Pat and I love newspapers.
    One thing that I really want to find out more about is, how did newspapers back then do pictures? They’d have ads with pictures, even if now News pictures. But some of the bigger ones did pictures, too.

    Did they ENGRAVE the picture onto a large piece of metal, like the typesetting was done? I can’t quite imagine it.

  3. Hi Pat,
    Thank you for that wonderful story. I was more than intrigued, because my hometown is 15 miles south of Independence, California. We still have a newspaper, but it is from Bishop, (45 miles north of Independence), and comes out 3 times a week. That is OK with us because we don’t have that much local news. Our entire County has about 19,000 people, scattered from the Sierra to the Nevada border. I had no idea that our particular press had that kind of history. I will have to check this out.
    Thanks again for the great read.

  4. On illustrations: they could not transfer photographts to the printed page, but instead used drawings. These drawings were reproduced by means of woodcuts. To make a woodcut, the artist’s original picture first had to be redrawn, in reverse, on the surface of a smooth block of boxwood. Because this was a time consuming and highly skilled chore, it was usually used only for the country’s major newspapers and journal back east. The actual work was more complex than this but you get the general idea. So in answer to your question, I think there were few or no picture in the western papers. I have to add that when I was in journalism school, I took an advertising course in which we had to learn how to hand-set type and use an old hand press. Not fun. I never did see the reason behind his learning excerise except to appreciate the modern press.

  5. Wonderful info! Thanks so much. I was a journalism major before I went into law and I don’t remember learning such interesting background. I sometimes think if they taught students with more interesting “novel” (yes take it both ways!) techniques, the students would be more interested and learn better. I have learned a lot more history from reading than I did in college!!

  6. Martha. . .If I had not gone into journalism, I would have taught history. I love it so, and I had really terrible history teachers in high school (usually a coach forced into it). It was mainly learning the dates of when the states came into the union. No why involved. No wonder kids have so little foundation in American history. Then I had a great history teacher in college who really made history come alive. I was a devoted disciple and took every course he taught. I always thought that if his methods were used in high school, there would be so much more interest and understanding of our past. And understanding that past is so important to the future.

  7. Pat, what a wonderful post. It just goes to remind us the power of the written word!! It’s unstoppable.

    I can’t imagine (like you) taking a printing press on a canoe…whoa!

    Thank YOU!

  8. Pat, what interesting reading! I love this blog. I think us romance writers tend to leave out newspapers in our stories unless the H/H is directly involved with them. Newspapers can serve in numerous ways to further enhance our stories.

    I, too, love newspapers-the smell, the feel, the stimulation to my brain. I can’t imagine not ever having one. But so many newspapers have gone the way of the Internet if they survive at all. It just breaks my heart. Reading the newspaper Online just isn’t the same. Nor is listening to books on tape or reading them from a Kindle or other device. I want the book in my hand. There’s just something that connects to my brain when I open a book.

    Thanks for the wonderful newspaper accounts!

  9. Pat, I work in a printing shop. My official title is typesetter (think goodness we don’t have hand type anymore) but of course I do alot more. We still have a linotype machine (Sets Type in hot metal) as well as a Heidelberg.

  10. Hi Pat, fabulous post as always! I too love newspapers and start my morning reading two of them including the L.A. Times. But both have shrunk dramatically–in size, staff and subscribers in the past year or two. And our town’s own paper went defunct at least ten years ago. So sad.

    I think I eventually do want a Kindle because I can carry it around, sit in an armchair etc. but absorbing the news on a computer screen just will never appeal to me. I love the rustle of the pages, and finding my way to the page where an article continues is almost like a treasure hunt. Because I almost always get side-tracked on the way there.

    Thanks again.

  11. Houston, with its millions of residents, has only
    one major newspaper. Thank goodness for the many
    weekly area newspapers which give us area news!

    Pat Cochran

  12. Hi Pat,
    Great info today on the chronicles! It’s sad to see print papers going out of business, but people seem to get their news by other sources. If you’d have told me ten years ago, I could get news from my telephone, I would have doubted it. I also think there’s a lot of bias in the news today and that turns a lot of people off. I like to get the facts, not the reporter’s version of the facts. IMHO 🙂

  13. Pat, what a great subject. For my story in “Give Me a Texan” I had to research early day newspapers and printing, since my setting was a newspaper office in the Texas Panhandle. There was so much interesting information, and I wanted to use it all. Two things really stuck in my mind. One, the low man on the totem pole was called the printer’s devil. I used that. But the terms I found most interesting is that the characters we commonly refer to as uppercase letters and lowercase letters came from the placement in the type case. The uppercase were in the top drawer of the cabinet and the lower, well you guessed it, in the lower drawer. I thought it was cool information. I’m with you all, it’s a shame newspapers are going by the wayside. Again, great information! Phyliss

  14. Pat, Loved reading about the newspapers. I work part time for a small town newspaper. Actually I work for a gentleman that owns 5 smalltown newspapers. My husband runs the press. I help in all kinds of ways, preparing the negatives, making the plates, labeling and stuffing. It is a facinating job and I am surrounded by antigues left over from the “old days” of the newspapers. The press is small. It can do an 8 page newspaper so if there is more we have to stuff the two sections together. The papers come out once a week but they all come out on Tuesday and Wednesday so those are long days.
    I really enjoy all of the information shared on these blogs.

  15. Phyllis and Connie. . .

    Great information. Thanks so much for your comments.
    Phyllis, I worked for a weekly as well and helped with the layout, though not the plates.

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