Before the Vail Daily: Newspapers ‘keep the record’ for Eagle County since 1881
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: The Vail Daily, which printed its first edition on June 15, 1981, is celebrating 40 years in Eagle County. Over the course of a year, we’ll take a look back at how the Daily has covered Vail and Eagle County through four decades and tell some of the fun stories behind the stories that defined this newspaper and its community.
When silver-bearing ore was discovered in the rock formations around Red Cliff in 1879, miners swarmed in with picks, shovels, and high hopes. Within a year the mining camp boomed with five hotels, a livery stable, several general stores and at least two saloons.
Henry L.J. Warren arrived in 1881 with an engineering degree, a printing press and an aggressive weekly newspaper, the Eagle River Shaft. For the first time Red Cliff residents had a common, reliable source of information.
Warren, a mining expert, often ventured deep into the mine shafts to get a story. His reports were detailed, technical and lengthy. The Shaft reported on local politics, boosted the business community, and reported on the Red Cliff social scene whether it be a women’s literary society meeting or pranks by the miners. The mix of straight news and amusing stories made the newspaper a community connector and essential reading.
The first newspapers
A newspaper writer’s work has always required research, thoughtful questions and persistence. Producing a newspaper was a physical task in the 1880s involving a hot-lead-spewing typesetting machine and clunky presses as opposed to silent (but equally cantankerous) computers.
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Early day newspapers typically declared a political party affiliation and unabashedly promoted party candidates and philosophies. The Shaft was a Republican newspaper, a fact which left an opening in Red Cliff for a newspaper from an opposing political party.
Warren’s newspaper experienced a rough start. A railroad construction blast sent a 20-pound rock through the newspaper office’s window. Warren kept the rock for use as a paperweight for newsprint sheets.
Warren was not shy about printing his opinions. On Jan. 14, 1882, the Shaft lampooned the Red Cliff city fathers over their new $1,500 stone jail after a prisoner picked his way out with the aid of a toothpick and a nail fragment.
That same year a Town Council member incensed by a newspaper story threatened to “get even.” Warren brushed off the threat but then showed up at work the next morning with a badly bruised face. The angry councilman had ambushed the editor.
The community rallied behind Warren, treating his bruised face with slabs of beef and swaths of bandages. He recovered and the community declared the attacker to be uncouth and unwelcome in the camp.
Warren was resourceful. When a series of heavy snowstorms in March of 1884 blocked railroads and roads, the Shaft ran out of newsprint. Undaunted, Warren printed the April 5, 1884, issue on scraps of wallpaper. A copy of that newspaper, with typeset letters imposed over a pretty background of dots and pale green ivy sprays, is archived at the History Colorado Museum in Denver.
It is a fact in the journalism world that if one newspaper is good for a community, two is even better. Competition forces newspaper staffs to hustle harder for the news and dig deeper for interesting stories. The real winners of a competitive newspaper situation are the readers.
Red Cliff soon had two newspapers and sometimes three. Newspapers followed the people. Many former miners, weary of the boom-and-bust economy of silver mining, moved down into the Eagle River Valley corridor to homestead ranches and farms. And every little community needed its own newspaper.
The newspaper competition was fierce, particularly during the 26 years between 1895 and 1921 when Red Cliff and Eagle battled for the county seat. The upvalley and downvalley newspapers unabashedly promoted their respective communities as the best county seat. There was little pretense of objectivity and a lot of nasty name-calling. One Red Cliff publisher declared that his editorial rival to be a “supercilious, sneaking grafter … licking the spittle from the boots of anyone who would give him a dollar.”
In 1898, Red Cliff’s Eagle County Blade editor delivered a scathing review of the downvalley (Eagle-based) Eagle County Examiner, declaring that “After reading it one scarcely expects to find a word of truth in the rest of the paper … nor even a good lie.”
In 1904 the Blade accused the downvalley broadsheets of publishing “irrelevant, immaterial, false and unfair” information about Red Cliff, and called for a press censor (for the other newspapers, not the Blade).
Still fighting over the county seat in 1912, the downvalley Eagle Valley Enterprise suggested that the editor of the Red Cliff newspaper needed to “return to public school to learn arithmetic, and to Sunday school to learn to tell the truth.”
The rivalries persisted though the final county seat election in 1920. “Week after week the Eagle County News [Red Cliff] has been vomiting a mess of untruth, ill repute and general ugliness against Eagle and its folks until it has caused the gorge to rise in a lot of people who like fair play and decency,” declared the Eagle Valley Enterprise on Feb. 15, 1920.
Ultimately, Eagle won county seat status in 1921, and the Eagle County journalism scene simmered down considerably. The county economy was now driven by agriculture more than mining.
Red Cliff’s population dwindled, and its newspapers disappeared. The Eagle Valley Enterprise became the county’s dominant newspaper for over 40 years, surviving even through a 1932 fire that destroyed the newspaper office and financially wiped-out publisher Adrian Reynolds Jr.
Fearing a complete loss of their local newspaper, ranchers, businessmen and neighbors rushed into the burning building and pulled the linotype out into the street. The Enterprise to this day has never missed a weekly publication date.
‘Vail’s greatest newspaper’
The development of Vail in the early 1960s scrambled the valley’s journalism scene again. George Knox Sr., a businessman with an advertising background, launched the Vail Trail in 1965 with $500, persistence and a healthy dose of boosterism.
Incorporating the Vail resort logo into the newspaper’s nameplate, Knox declared his publication to be “Vail’s Greatest Newspaper.” What started out as a one-man operation and a folksy, eight-page promotional newspaper evolved over several decades and several editors into a serious publication averaging 48 pages per week that delivered both resort-friendly stories and in-depth news.
Like in those early days, the success of one newspaper prompted journalistic rivals, starting in the early 1970s. For many years, the family-owned Trail remained dominant, despite some spirited competition from the sassy little Vail Villager that popped up in 1972, founded by Tom LeRoi and Stanton Hawes, then carried on for several years by Cal Thomas.
In the early 1980s the feisty Avon/Beaver Creek Times, led by Cliff Thompson, undoubtedly caused some consternation for the long-established newspapers.
The Vail Daily’s arrival on June 15, 1981, forever changed the journalism scene. Front-page worthy news didn’t necessarily occur every day, yet still the newspaper printed. From 1998-2000, the Vail Trail rallied with its own daily newspaper, led by David O. Williams. While the Daily Trail could not compete financially, it did often hold the Vail Daily’s feet to the fire on breaking news.
Ultimately, it was the financial decisions, not the editorial effort, that ended the Daily Trail. In 2004, Swift Communications (the company that owns the Vail Daily and the Eagle Valley Enterprise) bought the Vail Trail from the Knox family.
Four years later, with the country and the local economy mired in a recession, and advertising revenues in decline, the Vail Trail published it last issue. The Eagle County journalism scene changed from family-owned newspapers to a corporate operation.
For 140 years newspapers have come and gone in Eagle County. The future of newspapers today is uncertain. But for now, residents of this valley can still go out every day of the week and find a newspaper that will connect them with their community.
Happy 40th anniversary to the Vail Daily.
Kathy Heicher is a local historian who has been writing for newspapers in the Eagle Valley since 1972.
Eagle River Shaft: 1881-1886
Eagle River Comet: 1886-1889
Eagle County Times: 1886-1910
Eagle County Blade: 1894-1911
Eagle County News: 1911-1922
Holy Cross Trail: 1923-1941
Minturn Messenger: 1891-1892
Eagle Eye: 1892-1893
Minturn Booster: 1938-1942
Eagle County Examiner: 1896-1902
Eagle Valley Enterprise: 1901-present
Eagle Eye: 1973-1975
Eagle News: 1981-1982
The Eagle: Oct. 1981-Nov. 1981
Fulford Signal: 1893-1894
Eagle County Examiner: 1902-1905
Gypsum Record: 1912-1915
Gypsum Democrat: 1914-1916
Avon/Beaver Creek Times: 1982-1993
Vail Valley Times: 1993-1998
Vail Trail: 1965-2008
Vail Villager and Eagle County Review: 1972-?
Vail Daily: 1981-present
Vail Trail Daily: 1998-2000
Source: Colorado Press Association