Boom and bust on the printed page

The Old West is famous for its boomtowns, those transient collections of stores, saloons and boarding houses that followed mines and railroads across the frontier, thriving on the workers’ pay and packing up to follow the source of cash when a mine played out or the advancing railhead moved on. Such was the case with the Frontier Index, a newspaper published by two enterprising former Confederate soldiers who found work after the Civil War with their former enemies.
Legh Freeman, from Culpeper County, Va., worked for the U.S. military at Fort Kearney in Nebraska after his release from a military prison in Illinois. He took over publication of the fort newsletter, the Kearney Herald, which had been established by Moses H. Sydenham and later acquired by Seth Mobley, a soldier in the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, and Hiram Brundage, the post’s telegraph operator. Legh succeeded Brundage as telegrapher and soon acquired the paper and press. Legh’s brother Fred joined him, and they turned the Herald into a real newspaper. Access to Army telegraph wires gave the Freemans an advantage over other papers.
The coming of the Union Pacific Railroad during construction of the first transcontinental line in 1866 brought first a boom, then a bust, and the Freemans decided to move their press ahead of the tracks. They bought a new Washington Hand Press, hired a train of freight wagons to carry the press, type, imposing stones, ink and paper, and were waiting at North Platte, 100 miles west, when the railroad arrived. They renamed their paper the Frontier Index. Besides printing the paper, they printed jobs for merchants. The North Platte boom lasted six months, and the Freemans accompanied the UPRR to Julesburg, Cheyenne, Laramie City, Fort Benton, Green River and Bear River City. Legh Freeman wrote volatile editorials and printed in tents, rail cars, log huts and other shelters. At least once, at Julesburg, he printed the paper on brown wrapping paper.
The career of the Index spanned just over two years. Towns farther west were progressively more lawless, and the end came in 1868 in Bear River City, Wyoming Territory. After a riot by graders, three of whom were jailed, Legh wrote an editorial saying, in part, “Bear River City has stood enough of the rowdy criminal element.” The graders rioted again, freed their comrades in jail and headed for the paper to hang Freeman, who rode to Fort Bridger and returned the next day with cavalry, which ended the riot, but the Index property had been burned and smashed. The Freemans believed the UPRR, with which they had been feuding, was partly behind the violence. The brothers claimed to have staked out and opened in western Wyoming Territory a coal mine within the railroad’s land grant and had accused the railroad of illegal seizure.
The Frontier Index was just one of thousands of frontier newspapers that came and went in the high-rolling days of the Old West. It was a risky business, far from supplies in a volatile environment. Newsprint supplies in the East created difficulties — sometimes papers were printed on wrapping paper, Mexican cigarette paper or white muslin cloth, and type was a problem.
Two stalwarts from the East, Harper’s Weekly and Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, sent reporters west to continue the illustrated journalism for which they were well known during the Civil War. Both practiced pictorial journalism: a roving artist-reporter sent cover pictures and inside essays to the offices in the East in the days before photographs could be transferred to the printed page. The reporter made drawings at the site that were reproduced on elaborate woodcuts, a time-consuming and highly skilled job. The drawing was copied in reverse on wood — some artists drew foregrounds, some middle-distance and some backgrounds. Large illustrations were usually done on several small blocks joined by bolts. The blocks were unbolted, wood engravers cut away the areas between the lines, the blocks were bolted back together, and the line ends were joined by a master carver. This elaborate illustrated journalism lasted until the 1880s, when the perfection of chemical halftone engraving allowed photographs to be mass-printed.
Thousands of western newspapers came and went in the late 1800s, reflecting the ephemeral nature of the frontier. A paper lasting a dozen years was considered venerable, and only a few lasted into the 20 century. Like the ghost towns that dot the West, these short-lived members of the Fourth Estate provide a glimpse at the rip-roaring frontier.

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