Vail Valley History: The Eagle County press is unstoppable
Mountains, Men and Memories
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Newspapers have been taking a shellacking lately, both financially and politically. Blame changing technology in news delivery and unhinged politics.
Historically, newspapers have always played an important role in Eagle County. When miners came to Eagle County in 1879, lured by the silver mines, one of the earliest businesses to set up in the fledgling mining camp of Red Cliff was the Eagle River Shaft newspaper. Editor Henry L.J. Warren, a mining expert, often ventured deep into wet and muddy mine shafts to get his stories. The printed articles were lengthy, technical and eagerly read.
Like newspapers today, the Shaft had its critics. In 1882, a miner named Joe Groom vowed vengeance after a published news item raised questions about his character. Warren was warned, but remained unconcerned. Groom ambushed the editor outside of the newspaper office, and “cowhided” Warren, beating him severely about the face and head. Warren’s rescuers treated the bruises with bandages and cold slabs of beef. The editor remained unperturbed. Local citizens interpreted the incident as proof of both the newspaper’s accuracy and Groom’s bad character.
Boulder, snowstorms and wallpaper, oh my
Credit those early day editors for perseverance. In the early 1880s, a railroad construction dynamite blast sent a 20-pound boulder bouncing through the window of Warren’s newspaper office. The unflappable Warren kept the rock in his office, using it as a paperweight.
In April of 1884, heavy spring snowstorms shut off all transportation to the Battle Mountain mining camps. With no trains or freight wagons coming in, the paper’s newsprint reserve was quickly exhausted. The enterprising editor printed the April 5 newspaper on wallpaper. A copy of that famous issue, with stories and advertisements printed over a lovely pattern of green ivy sprays on a cream background, is preserved at the History Colorado museum in Denver.
Similarly, when an 1899 snow blockade in western Eagle County left the Basalt Journal short on newsprint, the resourceful pressman, Bramblet Willits, printed the news on parcel wrapping paper donated by the local grocery store.
On Jan. 13, 1932, a devastating fire in downtown Eagle nearly put an end to the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the official county newspaper. The late night blaze started in a dry-cleaning business and quickly spread to adjacent buildings. The fire alarm was sounded, but the town’s volunteer fire department struggled with frozen water lines and inadequate equipment. Realizing that the newspaper office was threatened, firefighters and neighbors pulled the linotype — a 2,000 pound typesetting machine — the print trays for that week’s newspaper and the subscription list out of the building and into the street.
The newspaper office was a total loss. Publisher Adrian Reynolds’ $1,500 insurance policy was not enough to cover the damages.
The community rallied. An office space was created in the back of the town’s post office. The neighboring Glenwood Post newspaper staff volunteered to do the printing. Local businessmen and ranchers continually stopped by Reynolds’ makeshift office, offering financial or physical assistance to keep the newspaper in business. Reynolds rebuilt the newspaper office, never missing a week of publication.
Thirty-three years later, hard times hit the Enterprise again. A newly purchased printing press, temporarily stored in a Denver warehouse, was ruined by the historic flooding of the South Platte River. Frustrated, publisher and editor Marilla McCain (Reynolds’ daughter) stormed to the bank that held the newspaper’s loan and told the banker to “take your damn newspaper.” He talked her down, encouraging her to “… just keep a-going.” The Enterprise is still publishing today.
There’s message in this bit of local history. People sometimes dislike the press, but they also recognize its value. Newspapers are not the enemy.
Also, there is good reason to be wary of people who want to muzzle the press.
Kathy Heicher, president of the Eagle County Historical Society, writes a periodic history column for the Vail Daily. She can be reached at email@example.com.