Sunday, April 6, 2014

William N. Byers and the Rocky Mountain News

William N. Byers circa 1903. Photographer unknown, public domain.

I still remember reading the Rocky Mountain News as a child. When I was raised in Colorado there was only two newspapers worth reading--The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post--and they were constantly at war with each other. And yet, between them they provided flawless coverage of every event in the state. Odd as it sounds, I was deeply saddened when the Rocky Mountain News shut down, as if I'd lost a part of my childhood. But the story of the Rocky Mountain News is more than the story of a newspaper, it is a chronicle of the history of the City of Denver and the State of Colorado, as well. 

This is the story of the man who created The Rocky Mountain News. The history of the Rocky Mountain News begins with two mining towns and one man, William Newton Byers, with a dream of uniting a community.

Panorama of Denver taken sometime between 1865 and 1900, photographer unknown. 

Ohio farm boy William Newton Byers had little formal education, but a tremendous amount of courage and pluck. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, at twenty-four years old, Byers had served as the first deputy surveyor of the Nebraska territory, issued the first official plat of Omaha, was a member of Omaha's first city council and a member of the first session of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature.

Byers had already demonstrated an inclination toward reinventing his life, but when he heard that gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak region of Kansas territory, he made a drastic move. He bought a used printing press and hired a couple of employees with the intention of starting a newspaper in the mining towns.

Before he could leave Omaha, Byers got into a scuffle with some men attacking a German immigrant and was shot in the shoulder. According to Keith Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers spent his recovery time writing a guidebook to the Pikes Peak region and selling advertising space to Omaha business owners for the front page of his newspaper.

Pikes Peak Mountain viewed from Manitou Springs region of Colorado, circa 1870. Photographer B.H. Gurnsey, public domain. 

Byers decided to name his newspaper the Rocky Mountain News because he had no specific town in mind when he left Omaha on March 8, 1859. What he did have was two wagons filled with paper, a press, and type set for the front page of his first issue.

A Fierce Competition Produces the First Issue of the Rocky Mountain News

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers arrived on the banks of the Cherry Creek on April 17, 1859. At that time, there were two mining camps, one on each side of the river, called Auraria and Denver City. As soon as he arrived, Byers discovered that another publisher, Jack Merrick, was busy setting up type in a nearby cabin. According to the Rocky Mountain News "History Timeline," Byers rented a room in the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten's Saloon, which would now be located at 1413-15 11th Street, and furiously went to work interviewing the local residents for stories.

Byers finally had his stories and the necessary type in place. He started the press, then snow began to fall. The roof leaked, and Byers had to rig a tarp over the press. He somehow managed to print his first issue and rushed into the street just as the sun began to rise on April 23, 1859 waving a few snow-smudged copies in his hand. He completed his first edition 20 minutes before Merrick. Byers' advantage, of course, was his previously-set first page. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Merrick conceded his defeat, sold his printing equipment to Byers and became a prospector.

In his premier edition of the Rocky Mountain News, Byers stated, "With our hat in our hand and our best bow, we make our first appearance upon the stage in the capacity of Editor." In The Townsmen, Wheeler described Byers as an "extraordinary voice," and his premier publication of the Rocky Mountain News as a "bragging, scolding, counseling, jealous, defensive, aggressive and thoroughly irrepressible newspaper."

Byers and the "Gobacks"

According to The Miners by Robert Wallace, newspapers around the country called the Cherry Creek "the new Eldorado." By April of 1859, 100,000 men and women left their homes, destined for the Cherry Creek. Wallace states that less than half of these emigrants arrived alive. Many travelers lost their wagons and supplies on the plains, or died from starvation and disease.

In The Townsmen, Keith Wheeler tells the story of three brothers who lost their pack horses. Two of the brothers died of starvation and the third was found by an Arapaho hunter, so desperate he was eating the body of one of his deceased siblings.

When they arrived to find the promised river of gold had already run dry, some emigrants headed back home. Byers, who quickly gained a reputation for castigating editorials, did not respond well to the retreating masses. Byers referred to those who left the area as "Gobacks." As quoted in The Townsmen, one of Byers' many editorials on this subject said 'Farewell to these 'gobacks.' They have had their day and soon will be forgotten."

Byers predicted in his newspaper that more gold would be found. A few months later, John Gregory announced his discovery near Clear Creek, and two weeks later, 'Gregory Gulch' was packed with 30,000 returning "gobackers" returning to the mining camps.

Byers Convinces the Miners to Create the City of Denver

According to Byers, it was illogical for the two mining camps to divide their efforts toward building communities and he repeatedly urged Auraria and Denver City to join forces. On April 3, 1860, the inhabitants of the two mining camps took a vote and merged under the name Denver City. This act not only strengthened the community, but the reputation of William Byers, as well.

Soon, a Masonic Lodge and Ladies Union Aid Society formed. the Colorado National Bank was created with the combined efforts of brothers Luther and Charles Kountze, and two other brothers named Clark, along with E.H. Gruber, constructed a two-story brick building and started Denver City's mint. The first $10 gold eagle coin was presented to William Byers, Editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

Byers Fights City Crime

According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers primary concern for the City of Denver was crime control, and his enemy in this endeavor was Charley Harrison, a Southern-born ruffian, and owner of Charley Harrison's Criterion Saloon. Harrison used threats and violence to control saloon owners and brothels.

Unfortunately for Harrison, he grossly underestimated Byers' determination to eliminate crime. On July 12, 1860, Harrison shot the local blacksmith when the man tried to join a card game. Byers described the act in the Rocky Mountain News as "cold-blooded murder." Within three days, the100-man Denver Committee of Safety was formed on the urging of William N. Byers.

Charley Harrison was infuriated by what he perceived to be a threat to his control over the city. His thugs, known as "Bummers," were also tired of Byers' editorial criticism. They stormed into the offices of the Rocky Mountain News one morning and marched Byers down to Charley Harrison's bar. Harrison wisely ushered Byers out the back door with a warning.

The Bummers, angry that Byers was released by their boss, once again marched into the newspaper offices. This time, Byers was waiting with a shotgun. He wounded one of the Bummers. The other three were chased out of town by the Denver Committee of Safety, but the remaining Bummers were not ready to surrender and tried to burn down the newspaper building. Soon, Byers was forced to travel to and from work in disguise to protect himself from attacks.

In response, the Denver Committee of Safety became a vigilante group. They broke into houses, using violence and other means to extract confessions, then hung suspected murderers and thieves. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, Byers would later state: "We never hanged on circumstantial evidence. I have known a great many such executions, but I don't believe one was ever unjust."

Denver and the American Civil War

On February 28, 1861, President James Buchanan signed an Act of Congress establishing the Territory of Colorado. On May 27, 1861, Colorado's first governor, William Gilpin, arrived in Denver. Gilpin organized the First Colorado Volunteers and issued $375,000 in drafts from the U.S. Treasury to purchase uniforms and other necessities from Denver merchants. The First Colorado Volunteers, guided by Major John Chivington, destroyed Confederate General Henry H. Sibley's dream of capturing Denver and its wealth of mines by burning Sibley's supply wagons.

Major John Chivington, US Army, Public Domain.

Sibley's men retreated back to Texas, but the Union government refused to honor Gilpin's $375,000 in drafts. Infuriated by this financial slight on his city, Byers posted scathing editorials demanding a replacement for Gilpin. President Lincoln responded to public demand and replaced Gilpin with John Evans, a physician and founder of Northwestern University.

In 1864, Chivington and Governor Evans met with the chief of the Cheyenne, Black Kettle, at the Camp Weld Conference to sign a peace treaty. Then, on November 29, 1864, Chivington and his men attacked the Cheyenne at their encampment while the warriors were hunting for food. They slaughtered 163 Cheyenne women and children, then scalped and mutilated their bodies in the Sand Creek Massacre. In the Rocky Mountain News, Byers' editorial hailed Chivington and his men as heroes, but most of Denver and the rest of the United States was horrified. Governor Evans was forced to resign and Chivington's career was over.

The Rocky Mountain News Survives Fire and Flood

Denver continued to struggle with the basic necessities of a city, and on April 19, 1863, when the city's fire department was little more than a plan, a fire broke out and burned through the center of town. Damages were close to $350,000, nearly the equivalent of the losses from Gilpin's unpaid drafts, leaving Denver in dire straits. The Rocky Mountain News building survived because it was located in the center of the Cherry Creek on pilings, a position Byers chose to show his neutrality with the affairs of what had once been two separate mining towns.

The following year brought record snow and spring runoff. On May 20, 1864, a flash flood tore through Denver and destroyed the Rocky Mountain News building and all that was inside. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, 20 Denver residents died in the flood. By this time, however, Byers was a successful businessman. He used his savings to purchase the Commonwealth, a competitive newspaper, and the Rocky Mountain News was in business once more.

Byers Greatest Political Mistake

The popularity of William Byers, as well as the Rocky Mountain News, continued to grow. In 1876, the year Colorado achieved statehood, William N. Byers was considered the best candidate for the Republican nomination for Governor of Colorado.

Bird's eye view of Denver, Colorado--William Byers must have been amazed by how much it had grown by 1887! US Library of Congress Geography and Maps Division.

Then Byers made his greatest political blunder--a romantic affair. According to Wheeler's The Townsmen, when Byers tried to end the affair with the attractive Hattie Sancomb, she stopped Byers near his home and fired on him with her pearl-handled revolver. Byers' wife, Elizabeth, ran for the family carriage and rescued her husband before he was harmed, but news of the sex scandal traveled quickly through Denver and Byers' reputation and political career was destroyed.

The Legacy of William Byers and the Rocky Mountain News

Byers sold the Rocky Mountain News in 1878. He became the Postmaster of Denver in 1880, initiating free home delivery of mail to Denver residents.

From his early days in Denver, Byers showed constant concern for the basic necessities of a city, including food and water. In 1860, he homesteaded 140 acres, experimenting with irrigation techniques and crop rotation. Although his home was eventually torn down to build the William N. Byers Junior High School, may of the trees originally planted by Byers still remain on the property.

William Newton Byers died March 25, 1903 and was buried in Fairmont Cemetery in the City of Denver. He is now considered one of the founding figures of both Omaha, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado.

Unfortunately, the City of Denver suffered a tremendous loss to its heritage when the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News permanently closed for business on February 27, 2009.

  • Hudson, Barbara. "Rocky Mountain News History Timeline." Posted Feb. 27, 2009. Retrieved June 1, 2011. 
  • "The Rush for Gold." The Real West. History Channel Documentary. Originally aired Nov. 19, 1992. 
  • Wallace, Robert. The Old West: The Miners. Time Life Books. Canada: 1976. 
  • Wheeler, Keith. The Old West: The Townsmen. Time Life Books. Canada: 1975. 
  • "William N. Byers." Nebraska State Historical Society. Official Nebraska Government Website. Retrieved June 9, 2011. 

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