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.