One hundred and fifty years ago this year, Seattle got its first newspaper when the Seattle Gazette a small four-page weekly, was born. Over time, it morphed into the daily paper that became the Seattle Post-Intelligencer which, alas, exists today as an electronic wisp of its former self.
In 1863, America was involved in a Civil War, and that news was in the pages of the press throughout the Washington Territory. But frontier concerns were mostly parochial. Seattle was a budding port but hardly the preeminent place on the Sound. In 1860, King County's entire population was 302 people.
Olympia, Port Townsend, and even Steilacom were much livelier scenes. Washington Territory was struggling toward, but not assured of, statehood. As the San Juan dispute with Great Britain dragged on and eastern parts of the territory, like Idaho, were carved off, even its boundaries were not fixed. But New York Alki had big ambitions and they could not be realized without a trumpet to sell the virtues of the city and the region. Frontier papers were little engines for urbanization.
Leafing through the first couple of issues of the Gazette (which can be found online here), it's striking to see how familiar it all is. Rain, coffee, transportation issues, worries about Olympia politics, even concerns about shipping coal, they're all in these pages. There's even a reference to drones!
One thing striking about 19th century newspapers is how familiar they would be to the iPadded or Kindled readership of today. They mostly featured stories aggregated from other sources topped off with hyperlocal details, like listing who had mail waiting at the trading post. The papers tended to be partisan and very opinionated, often using harsh and colorful language to excoriate their enemies. Frontier papers were more like the blogs and social media we rely on today than most modern metropolitan dailies. They were cracker barrel versions of Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist and Huffington Post.
If the Gazette is familiar for its Webby feel, it's also eerily modern in terms of content. Take the vision for the city expressed in the very first issue on Dec. 10, 1863, which Seattleites read along with news reports on the successes of Ulysses S. Grant's Chattanooga campaign. After listing many of Seattle's advantages from the standpoint of geography and natural resources, the paper laid out an ambitious shopping list for a small village:
"We want roads, bridges, wharves, schoolhouses, churches, printing-offices and population. It takes all these to make towns, cities and a prosperous people, and the more numerous they are, in a country naturally capable of sustaining them, the better it is for the whole and each constituent part of the community."
This could be the platform for any of the candidates for mayor in 2013. We're building new bridges, expanding roads, designing a revamped waterfront, and Seattle voters just passed a schools capital levy. You might substitute "fiber optic broadband" for "printing offices" however. The Gazette even declares that Seattle is for sustainability long before that became a buzzword. We want growth but growth that the "country is naturally capable of sustaining." Seattle, a sustainable city since 1863, who knew?
Transportation was a big issue. The Northwest wanted the transcontinental railroad, but it also needed regular roads, and after sails and before rails Seattle's priority was a wagon road over the Cascades (preferably Snoqualmie Pass) all the way to Walla Walla for direct trade and communication with the interior. The Gazette made sure the road issue was front and center.
One interesting development was the importance of coal. Today, we debate whether to allow coal trains through our city, but the debate in 1863 was how to get more coal to Seattle. The second issue of the Gazette describes how "Coal Fever" has hit town. "The excitement at times has reached such a pitch as to recall to the minds of old Californians the 'gold fevers' of that auriferous country..."
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