In the very shadow of the High Sierra, in a drafty shack through whose chinks the December snowfall filtered to form miniature drifts along floor and windowsill, two bearded men assisted by an apprentice boy wrestled with a secondhand Washington printing press.
The patent furniture of the primeval instrument was cold. So were the chases holding the long columns of agate and brevier in at least an approximation of true alignment. The ink on the hand-activated inking roller had forgotten that it was ever fluid. Everything was gelid to the touch and the breath of the two frock-coated men turned white as they panted over their task. The cannon-ball stove in the corner, for all it glowed red with a fire of cottonwood logs, hardly made a dent in the Antarctic cold that enveloped the entire Territory of Western Utah.
The two men made frequent reference to a handy black bottle containing a sovereign remedy of the countryside, called valley tan; and the apprentice boy made mental notes to explore some day for himself its possibilities.
The two ancients also cursed with fearful and ornate profanity, drawing upon resources of the literary antiquities both Biblical and profane, upon the classical humanities, upon the Book of Mormon, and upon a surprising knowledge of anatomic possibilities both animal and human. They cursed Nevada by sections and quarter sections. And most of all they made special reservations in the permanent residential areas of hell for Richard M. Hoe, in far-off New York, who had devised the infernal contrivance with which they were contesting, and his brother Robert Hoe, who merchandised the artifact.
The accursed brothers Hoe conducted a well-established and highly profitable business in downtown Manhattan at the comer of Broom and Sheriff streets where they offered for sale all sorts of ingenious aids to printing: hand presses of the Washington plan, proofing machines, stitching and binding devices, type cases and such. But only hell itself, the two printers of Mormon Station were in accord, could have outshopped such a desperate devising as the one at hand; and back to the foundries and machine shops of hell they consigned the Hoes and all their works.
The elder and more proficient blasphemer, did he but know it, was merely getting in practice for an exercise in cursing some twenty years later which would become legendary throughout the entire West and elevate the technique of execration to realms of supernal artistry.
In desperation, the thwarted molders of the public mind poured Niagaras of valley tan into themselves and over the running parts of the machinery as a lubricant. Wasn't it an accepted fact that whisky was in the ink of the pioneer press both metaphorically and factually? And at length the machinery creaked into a reasonable facsimile of action, and the more sober partner was able to snatch from its inner economy the six column one sheet the first copy of the first newspaper ever to be printed in the howling wilderness of Nevada.
The logotype read, The Territorial Enterprise. Thus, in a mist both blasphemous and alcoholic, prophetic of things to come, was born the paper that was shortly to be the pattern and glass of frontier journalism everywhere, and eventually was to achieve immortality as one of the romantic properties of the Old American West.
Lacking the crystal ball of Mrs. Sandy Bowers, a seeress even at that moment headed for the same place as The Enterprise, thirty miles distant on the slopes of Mount Davidson, W.L.. Jernegan and Alfred James were unable to see the promise of things to come in their so perilously delivered child. The partners buttoned their frock coats across their chests against the elements and ran through the snow to the Stockade Bar to show the first copy of the paper to Isaac Roop, who happened to be in town from Susanville.
Other than the indomitable hanker of the frontier to set itself up in the pattern of the good life the pioneers had known back home, it is difficult at this remove to understand what motivated the seedy itinerants Jernegan and James to ferry Nevada's first newspaper bodily overland from Salt Lake by ox team and hang out their shingle in Mormon Station. The community, which was later to change its name to Genoa, as it remains to this day, numbered something fewer than two hundred permanent residents. It was a freighting station on the emigrant route to California, a staging depot where teamsters and draymen changed horses and oxen for the ascent of the Sierra on the way to Lake Tahoe, Strawberry, Sportsman's Hall, and, eventually, Hangtown.
Mormon Station needed a newspaper far less than it required a physician, a pharmacist, and an undertaker. It had a sufficiency of wheelwrights, farriers, and bartenders. A newspaper was at best a devising of metropolitan luxury; at worst, an economic folly. But just as every community in the land must, only a few years from now, have a railroad of its very own, so did every hamlet and crossroads in the West pant as the hart panteth for the water springs for its own newspaper. Jernegan and James were the men anointed to bring this consummation to Mormon Station on the evening of December 18, 1858.
Save by professional chroniclers of yesterday, Jernegan and James are forgotten now, but once, like the stout Cortez, they stood on a peak in Darien and a world spread itself before them. They were the prototype and archetype of the frontier printer, in soup stained frock coat and dented top hat, resolute, his breath perfumed with strong waters, type stick in one hand, the other on the stock of a belted gun, facing Indians, the wilderness, the opposition, creditors and hangover. O Pioneers!
Jernegan and James, according to Dan De Quille in later years, had been at something of a loss for a name for their paper and had written to a friend in the Mother Lode diggings of California, one Washington Wright, asking for suggestions. A return letter from Wright, brought to Mormon Station by Snowshoe Thompson, the universal postman, suggested that since the venture was a new enterprise in the then Territory of Western Utah, what could be more appropriate than The Territorial Enterprise?
Jernegan and James were delighted and invited everyone in the Stockade Bar to have something for their stomachs, and The Territorial Enterprise became the first of many papers of that name elsewhere in the land.
No self-respecting newspaper in those mannered days could come into being without a prospectus, and the partners lost no time in having one run up. It read: A JOURNAL FOR THE EASTERN SLOPE
The Undersigned very respectfully announce that they will commence on the first week of November next, 1858, at Carson City, Eagle Valley, the publication of a Weekly Independent Newspaper, entitled The Territorial Enterprise. It will industriously and earnestly be devoted to the advancement of everything pertaining to the beautiful country bounded on the West by the Sierra Nevadas and extending into and forming the Great Basin of the Continent . . .
The arrivals and departures of the Great Overland Mail and the incidents thereto will be carefully noted, and it will be the aim and Pride of the undersigned to print a Journal which will be popular with and advantageous to every resident of the Utah Valleys. They, therefore, confidently rely upon the encouragement and liberality of their fellow residents. W.L. Jernegan & Alfred James
The first issue of the Enterprise appeared neither at Carson City nor during the first week of November.
For reasons which have not survived, the proprietors decided on Mormon Station, perhaps because while all the teaming headed for the Sierra passes through there it did not all go through Carson, a deal of it deriving from Carson Valley without passing through the future capital itself. The postponement of the first issue was ascribable to mechanical breakdown.
At the last moment it was discovered that the publishers were shy of type. There were insufficient characters of a given face to piece out crossheads and display lines, and an urgent note was dispatched by Snowshoe Thompson to a Hangtown dealer in such matters, begging a shirttail of metal on loan and promising to repay in the terms of optimism customary in such cases. All the stage roads were already blockaded by snow and the drivers and teamsters securely holed up in Mormon Station for a winter of draw poker and Saturday night stabbings, so the precious type had to come back in the pack of the irreplaceable Snowshoe.
No copy of that historic first paper has survived into the present, although its front page is reproduced in the then new halftone Process in Thompson & West's monumental history of Nevada. The mortality rate among early Western documents in an age of wooden buildings and universal conflagration was fearfully high.
The front-page date line of The Enterprise in its earliest issues read "Carson Valley, Utah Territory Published Every Saturday Morning at the Office on Mill Street, Genoa, Carson Valley."
The copy for July 30, 1859, which reached the hands of Thompson & West and has since disappeared from human ken, was devoted in its entirety to printing the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention which had convened at Genoa twelve days earlier.
Knowing the sources of contemporary news, however, it is easy to reconstruct in the mind's eye the early issues of the paper. Notices of jury duty were flanked by advertisements for Stoughton's Bitters. Proclamations by Isaac Roop, by now governor, ran next to the notices of sales by Mormon farmers relinquishing reluctantly their rich farmsteads along the valleys of Western Utah to answer the recall to Deseret. There were the births and deaths of a community of two hundred pioneers, the departures of the great Overland Stages for Sacramento and Salt Lake, disquieting stories of Indians along the Humboldt and, as the year 1859 drew to a close, squibs telling with increasing frequency of the discoveries of gold along the slopes of Mount Davidson thirty-odd miles to the north.
Matters of national consequence arrived in the form of news boldly lifted without so much as by-your-leave, as was the universal custom of the time, from six-weeks old copies of the bedsheet-sized Boston Advertiser, the National Intelligencer from Washington, the weekly edition of Horace Greeley's revered New York Tribune, and the New Orleans Picayune, the nation's leading journals of news and opinion of the era. heroic quantities of valley tan, and resumed publication when Snowshoe Thompson came over the hill with a few precious sheers of newsprint from the dealer in Hangtown.
It was all in the accepted scheme of things for pioneer editors. So were occasional short rations. Both during its stay in Carson and Eagle valleys, as well as during its early existence on the Comstock, The Enterprise editors sometimes fell upon lean days. Hard currency was difficult to come by and credit more so. Often subscribers paid in trade goods and if half a bear, a hind quarter of venison, or a dozen sage hens arrived in payment of the delinquent subscription, the staff lived high as long as the fat of the land lasted. "Let us indulge our vanity by saying that we yield to none as a caterer to the inner man," wrote Jernegan at the time, "whatever our shortcomings in regard to intellectual pabulum."
The Territorial Enterprise, destined to occupy many premises in the next ninety-five years of existence, first published, so far as can be ascertained, from a still standing, one-story wooden shack on the northern outskirts of Mormon Station, but shortly thereafter occupied quarters in Singleton's Hall, the Nevada Hotel, "a room discriminately used by preachers, debating clubs, and secret societies." Mormon Station had no jail at the time and, on one eventful occasion, a prisoner awaiting trial was chained to the Washington hand press with a logging chain for three days but all through the terrible winter of '59, destiny was hovering uncertainly above the snowdrifts of Gold Canyon, which led up a five-mile-long ravine from Carson Water at Dayton to a point halfway up the precipitous side of Mount Davidson overlooking the old Emigrant Trail to California and, in the distance, the Sink of Carson and the blue mountains of the Reese River.
For a full decade, ever since the first overland covered wagons had passed along Carson Water on the way to El Dorado in the Mother Lode, pocket gold had been turned up on the slopes of Washoe hills by casual prospectors. It wasn't much, and only a few easily discouraged pilgrims, dismayed by the prospect of one more mountain range to cross, had served down on the eastern slope of the Sierra; the little crossroads town of Dayton, where they had to make up their minds whether to stay in Utah Territory or pass over into California, was for a time and locally known as Pause -and-Ponder.
Ten-dollar bonanzas in Gold Canyon kept turning up just regularly enough to keep the Washoe prospectors in beans and whisky. The overture to the great first movement of what was shortly to be a crashing symphony of riotous riches was being played as no more than a refrain of distant woodwinds and muted French horns half heard above the wind in the sagebrush.
Comers to the scene who had made their exit where none might follow had been the brothers Ethan and Hosea Grosch, sons of a Urica clergyman back in upper York State, who had intimatings of bonanzas to come but whose secret had perished with them in the rigors of the Nevada winter.
Part possessor of stolen knowledge of the Grosches was Henry Comstock, a windy no-gooder who had watched the comings and goings of the brothers as they worked a tenacious blue clay in their crude rockers. Neighboring no-gooder and a human wine-cellar to boot was James Finney, alias "Old Virginny," who was on the lam from a California sheriff for a sordid and by now all but forgotten knifing up Downieville way. Farther up Gold Canyon operated a disreputable partnership of musical comedy Irishmen dressed to make an entry into history with shortstemmed clay pipes and silk top hats without brims. Peter O'Riley and Pat McLaughlin were amiable no-gooders, as honest as might be but not right bright in the head and easily imposed on when the time came round, which was to be very shortly.
Stray echoes of these things drifted down the wind and eventually became record in the columns of The Territorial Enterprise at Mormon Station.
One night Old Virginny Finney and Old Pancake Comstock became uncommonly drunk in the shack down near the head of Gold Canyon. Their footing was unsteady, their wolf calls and Dionysiac tumult frightened the wild life of Mount Davidson. Suddenly, unimaginable catastrophe struck. While attempting the mere elementary routine of smashing the neck of a whisky bottle against a rock to provide easy access to its content, Old Virginny lost his expertise and shattered the entire bottle.
Only for a moment was he paralyzed with horror, then man's godlike capacity for rising above disaster asserted itself and Old Virginny screamed: "I christen this place Virginia City." He had named a place for himself anyway. Neither Old Virginny Finney nor Old Pancake Comstock had any idea of the sort of place it was going to be. TE
Reprinted from Comstock Commotion with permission of Ann Clegg Holloway
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