ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Sept. 2, 2004


150 years: Humboldt history as told by the Times-Standard

Cover photo: Historical Eureka newspapers from the collection of Jack Irvine.



[Entrance to Times-Standard building, sign and American flag]IT WAS 150 YEARS AGO THAT THE HUMBOLDT TIMES, as it was known then, began publication. First as a weekly, then a daily, the Times ran under a variety of names, including the Times-Telephone and the Daily Evening Telephone. Its merger in 1967 with the Daily Standard created the newspaper we know today as the Times-Standard.

For most of its history, it has been a staunchly conservative voice, both in its editorials and its news copy. Its record is one of championing local industry -- fishing, oil exploration and timber -- and advocating what it viewed as "progress," be it the coming of the railroad or the building of the Redwood Highway or the plans for the Butler Dam in the 1970s.

As the only daily newspaper in the county, it also helped shape public opinion on the most wrenching, divisive issues of the time -- from the Indian conflicts of the mid-1800s to the expulsion of Chinese workers in 1885 to the timber wars that continue today.

"It has tremendous influence," said Susie Van Kirk, a historic resources consultant who is cited by local librarians as the foremost authority on Humboldt County newspapers. "It was extremely important early on because it was the only paper that had some broader circulation [beyond an individual city or community], and that has continued."

It also served as the sole source of news, other than word-of-mouth among residents, Van Kirk said.

"In those early days, there was no other access to news, absolutely none," she said. "So the paper had a tremendous impact, because it was the source of information."

[Ray Raphael in library, standing next to bookshelves]Local historian Ray Raphael [Photo at left] , author of the new book Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past, said the paper has been an "invaluable resource" for him and for others who study Humboldt County history, because few other primary sources, such as letters and diaries, exist from the early days of European settlers. "We would be nowhere without the recording of that information," he said. "This weekly [then daily] chronicling of what people thought was important was invaluable, partly just by their choice of what they thought was important."

The men who started the Times in 1854, among them editor and co-owner J.E. Wyman, were "shameless self-promoters of Humboldt: Everything was perfect, the future was rosy, there were always wonderful opportunities going on," Raphael said.

One example was the way the paper treated the Petrolia oil boom of 1865. The paper's owners -- like all Humboldt bigwigs of the time -- were also investors in the companies that went after the oil, Raphael said. "They're trying to attract outside money. They need capital. This is a hard thing to drill for oil in the middle of nowhere. So they're just touting this thing. Everything is going crazy [they wrote], and the description of how much oil was gushing from these wells -- a year later, of course, all these companies were belly up."

[Painting of Wiyot leader holding spear, wearing skins]
Ki-we-lat-tah, Wiyot leader 1882.

Indian 'outrages'

But far more harm was done, Raphael said, through the paper's reports on the conflicts with Indian tribes whose homeland they had invaded.

"They would report any incident in which the Indians supposedly did something bad to whites as this great grievance, and simultaneously, any time the whites did something bad [the paper] would be very, very proud of it."

Serious Indian Troubles -- Removal or Extermination

Since the forepart of June we have been called upon to notice, in nearly every number of our paper, murders, robberies and other depredations committed by digger indians in this section of the State. Within that time two men at work on their logging claims East of this place have been shot from an ambush and wounded, one of them quite severely; Thornton, of Mattole, has been murdered and his body mutilated in a manner which the diggers only are capable of doing. ... Chauncey Miller, a trader on the Trinity, being down after goods and finding the trail dangerously infested by Indians, volunteered for the purpose of removing this obstruction to interior trade. He also forfeited his life. ...

This week we are obliged to continue the record of Indian outrages on the lives and property of our citizens. It has now come to that condition of affairs in the Bald Hill country, that men are shot down within sight of their own houses and their stock driven off before their eyes.

We have long foreseen the present state of things and have been well satisfied, and so expressed it repeatedly, that it could only be averted by placing the Indians on the Reservations, or by extermination: in other words, by removing them from the range they now inhabit, either alive or dead.

--Humboldt Times news story, Sept. 18, 1858

Raphael said that, as shocking and racist as those old reports are, they reflect their historic context.

"The people here are in immediate conflict. They want this land. It's basically in their vested interest to portray the original inhabitants of the land, the indigenous, as somehow subhuman or cruel or un-Christian, some way to legitimize their takeover of the land."

The voices of those who wanted a more peaceful end to the conflicts "are not really registered in the Times," Raphael said. "They did exist."

A horrendous exclamation point on the conflicts came, of course, with the massacre at Indian Island on Feb. 26, 1860. In the subsequent edition of the Times, the paper said it could not "approve" of the slaughter. But the emphasis of its coverage is on the atrocities that had been suffered up to that point by whites.

The rancheria on Indian Island was attacked on Saturday night by an unknown party of men and, with the exception of three or four that escaped, the whole tribe, with many Mad river Indians stopping there, were killed . ...

...the ranches on the South Beach had also been attacked the same night, and the whole number of diggers there, exterminated. Since then it is reported that a considerable number of Indians on Eel river were killed the same time. ... The killing appears to have been principally with knives and hatchets, or axes.

These simultaneous attacks, at different points, show clearly that this new plan of operations against the Indians, has been adopted by a large number of people in this county, and that they act in concert. ...

There are men in this county, as there may be elsewhere, where the Government allows these degraded diggers to roam at large, and plunder and murder without restraint, who have become perfectly desperate, and we have here some of the fruits of that desperation. They have had friends or relatives cruelly and savagely butchered, their homes made desolate, and their hard-earned property destroyed by these sneaking, cowardly wretches; and when an attempt is made to hunt them from their hiding places in the mountains, to administer merited punishment upon them, they escape to the friendly ranches on the coast for protection. ...

Smarting under these great and grievous wrongs, we are prepared to overlook much that would otherwise be unjustifiable, but we cannot approve of the indiscriminate slaughter of helpless children and defenseless squaws. ...

If in defense of your property and your all, it becomes necessary to break up these hiding places of your mountain enemies, so be it; but for heavens sake, in doing this, do not forget to what race you belong.

--Humboldt Times news story, March 3, 1860

Other papers took a markedly different approach to the story. Bret Harte was working at the time as a young writer and occasional editor at the Northern Californian, a weekly paper published in Union, the town renamed Arcata. Under the headline, "Indiscriminate massacre of Indians, women and children butchered," he wrote:

...Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed by axes. When the bodies were landed in Union, a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbed with long grey hair. Infants, scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds..."

Elsewhere, too, the coverage was different. The San Francisco Bulletin wrote:

Amidst the wailing of mutilated infants, the cries of agony of children, the shrieks and groans of mothers in death, the savage blows are given, cutting through bone and brain. The cries for mercy are met by joke and libidinous remark, while the bloody ax descends with unpitying stroke, again and again, doing its work of death, the hatchet and knife finishing what the ax left undone. ...

Here was a mother fatally wounded hugging the mutilated carcass of her dying infant to her bosom; there, a poor child of two years old, with its ear and scalp tore from the side of its little head. Here a father frantic with grief over the bloody corpses of his four little children and wife...

So, where is the good to come from these murders of 55 on Indian Island, 58 on South Beach, 40 on South Fork of Eel river previously, and 35 subsequently on Eagle Prairie -- 188 lives of human beings in all?

San Francisco Bulletin, "eyewitness" account, March 13, 1860

[Daily Standard newspaper headline: "Chinese must go!"]

The Chinese: "Coolie" labor

The Times gave similarly racist treatment to the issue of the Chinese workers who, after having been expelled from Humboldt County in 1885 because they were viewed as an economic threat, among other things, returned in 1906 to work at a cannery on the Eel River.

After being free from the foot of a celestial for twenty odd years, and for so long a time being known far and wide as a place absolutely free from coolie labor, Humboldt county saw the return of Chinese within her borders yesterday noon with the arrival of the steamer Roanoke, when the Starbuck-Tallant Company, of Port Kenyon, imported twenty-seven Chinese to work in its cannery on Eel river.

The Chinese were kept aboard the steamer until shortly before 4 o'clock when a Santa Fe engine backed a box car on the sidetrack alongside the warehouse and the pigtails, bag and baggage, were dumped in, the door shut, and the engine returned with the forbidden fruit, to the train, hooked onto the passenger coaches and pulled out for the valley.

--Humboldt Times news story, Sept. 30, 1906

[historical photo of boxcar and crowd]
1906 expulsion of Chinese workers from Humboldt County
[Photo courtesy Humboldt County Historical Society]

The cannery workers were shipped out the following month because loggers objected to their presence.

The Chinese were not the only workers looked upon with derision in the pages of the Times and Standard. The newspapers' approach to labor issues overall was to support the barons of industry and criticize workers who dared to challenge their bosses.

"They celebrated the people of wealth," Van Kirk said. "The men who labored 10-12 hours a day in the woods and mills to make the county's Vances and the Carsons wealthy and successful men found no supporter at the Times."

In 1935, lumber workers in Humboldt County organized as the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Local 2563, according to The Great Lumber Strike of Humboldt County 1935 by Frank Onstine. They demanded a raise from 35 to 50 cents an hour, and a reduction in their work week from 60 to 48 hours. On May 15, they joined a general strike of the West Coast lumber industry, Onstine wrote. The Times described the action as "a terrorist campaign launched by communist leaders." Local workers, the paper wrote, were caught in the middle.

"The paper was continually indicating that Humboldt County workers were not dissatisfied with their situation and that they in fact supported their benevolent employers," Van Kirk said. "So things just went from bad to worse, and they erupted in June 1935."[Susie Van Kirk] [Photo at right: Susie Van Kirk]

It was on the morning of June 21 of that year that "reds" gathered at the gates of the Holmes-Eureka mill, today the site of Bayshore Mall, and striking workers clashed with police, who shot and killed three men -- two workers and a bystander -- and arrested 141 others. The five police officers who were wounded were pictured by the Times; there were no photos of the dead men. The event, later referred to by workers as a "massacre," was described by the Humboldt Times as "mob violence." Its stories made victims and heroes of the police and the "special officers," men who were later determined to be paid enforcers of the mill, according to a 1995 Times-Standard story.

The 1935 event was described by the Times this way:

One of the bloodiest outbreaks of mob violence in Eureka's history was replaced by peace and order last night, after federal, state, county, and city officers combined to round up nearly 150 rioters and suspected radicals. Although considerable tension continued, officers believed their action had broken the back of a terrorist campaign launched by community leaders yesterday morning. ...

The battle began about 6:00 o'clock yesterday morning, when a mob of about 200 pickets began building a barricade across the road leading into the Holmes-Eureka mill, and stoned the first workmen's cars which approached. ...

[Officers who arrived] were greeted by a shower of rocks from the pickets. ...

The fact that about 45 local officers were able to subdue the mob of strikers is probably the only thing that turned the stand of the pickets into a crushing defeat. ...

It was not the local strikers who instigated the riots of yesterday, the G-men [alleged FBI agents on the scene] say, but reds who have come here during the past few weeks. ...

Proving that reds are working in this locality, a box full of weapons and literature was found in a local hall yesterday afternoon.

A police drag net is out over the entire county for reds and strikers.

--Humboldt Times news stories, June 22, 1935

[Humboldt Standard newspaper with headline reading "One striker dies, five shot in riot" and the Humboldt Times newspaper headline reading "Bloody riot at mill gates"]


Pepper spray 'flap'

The Times-Standard's coverage of the logging industry historically has been seen by critics as decidedly pro-timber. Whether through outright pro-business bias or a lack of rigorous reporting, the paper failed to jump on one of the most explosive local issues in recent years: the infamous pepper-spray incidents of 1997, which are now the focus of a lawsuit by protesters against then-Sheriff Dennis Lewis, Sheriff Gary Philp, sheriff's deputies and Eureka police scheduled to begin Sept. 7.

When groups of timber protesters were pepper-sprayed at the Scotia headquarters of Pacific Lumber Co. on Sept. 25, 1997, the Times-Standard ran a front-page story under the headline, "9 Jailed after PL offices invaded."

The paper referred to the pepper spray in the third paragraph, quoting a Sheriff's Department statement that said "liquid chemical agents" were used on the protesters "who refused to release themselves from the steel devices and leave the building." An unnamed protester was quoted as shouting that pepper spray had been used. The article included no further discussion of the chemical.

The second of three pepper-spray incidents did not make the paper. It involved two men who attached themselves to a Pacific Lumber bulldozer in the Bear Creek watershed near Stafford, according to a later story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The third incident involved a protest against the impending passage of the federal Headwaters appropriations bill on Oct. 16, 1997 at the offices of then-Rep. Frank Riggs in Eureka. Four women were arrested after they chained themselves into metal sleeves around a stump that protesters had dragged into the office. This time, the Times-Standard didn't mention the pepper spray use until the ninth paragraph. The paper noted that one protester shouted "Stop torturing people" as the women were removed from the building, and that the skin around the women's eyes was red.

Twelve days went by with no further coverage of the use of pepper-spray. Then, when protesters filed suit Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco -- and showed Bay Area reporters the videotape of officers swabbing and spraying the chemical in the eyes of the nonviolent activists -- all hell broke loose.

The Times-Standard ran a wire story about the lawsuit on page A5, the last page of local news. Meanwhile, the videotape was being aired on TV stations all over the country, and the pepper spraying was reported in major newspapers nationwide.

The following day, the Times-Standard ran an Associated Press story on its front page under the headline, "Law enforcement under pepper fire." The lawsuit alleged the pepper spraying violated standard police practices, the story read, and the AP reporter quoted then-Humboldt County Sheriff Dennis Lewis as saying that the tactic was "something new."

The Times-Standard filled out its coverage that day with two of its own stories: one involving an interview with Lewis headlined, "Pepper spray safest method, sheriff says," and a brief article entitled, "Riggs office closes early after death threats made." The following day, the paper ran a front-page story under the headline, "`I thought I was going to die,'" quoting Riggs' office workers saying how afraid they were of the "terrorist" protesters, and another front-page story in which local officials criticized the media "flap" over the use of the spray.

In a Nov. 2 editorial, the paper acknowledged that the videotape "represents an offensive image of Humboldt County to the rest of the nation." But it does not go so far as to denounce the spraying. "Whatever the courts decide about the tactics police and deputies used, it will not excuse the protesters' vandalism and mayhem," it writes.

Gerry Adolph, publisher of the Times-Standard since 2002, said this week that the paper's coverage over the years reflects its readers. "In World War II, there was a different sentiment. In World War I there was a different sentiment. The true owners of the paper are the community."

On the question of bias, Adolph said it depends on whom you talk to. "We're trying to cover from all angles, and one day it may sound like we're pro-timber and one day it may sound like we're pro-environment. I think you can put one story in front of six people and they'll walk away with six different impressions."

Move to center?

Humboldt State journalism Professor Mac McClary said that the paper has undergone significant change since he first moved to Humboldt County 37 years ago. "I think that the paper has moved more to the center politically in the last couple of years. I think there are more pro-environmental voices in the Times-Standard than there were years ago. And I'm surprised how liberal the editorials are. They always used to be tagged with the pro-timber label, and I don't think that's true anymore."

After being under a single local owner from 1941 to 1967, the Times-Standard was acquired by the Brush-Moore newspaper group, which in turn was purchased by Thomson Newspapers, a Canadian company, later that year.

In 1996, Dean Singleton's MediaNews Corp., a $738 million company based in Denver, bought the paper. (See "Dean Singleton: Vilified newspaper mogul beginning to see the light?," below.) Many predicted that it would go downhill under Singleton's leadership, McClary said. But the paper "is much better than his detractors would have predicted."

Adolph said the Times-Standard has added reporters, improved wages and upgraded equipment since Singleton took the reins. "I think the future is pretty bright.


Research assistance provided by Susie Van Kirk, Joan Berman, Edie Butler and Gisela Rohde.

Dean Singleton:
Vilified newspaper mogul beginning to see the light?


[Dean Singleton]WHEN NEWS BROKE that the Thomson newspaper chain had sold the Times-Standard in the fall of 1996, the paper's employees rushed to their computers to find out about their new boss. According to one member of the editorial staff who has since moved on, it didn't take long for them to realize that the news was not good.

"I remember the deer-in-the-headlights look when they read what employees and ex-employees had to say about Dean Singleton," said the former staffer, who asked not to be named. [Photo at right: Dean Singleton]

Eleven years after Charles Hurwitz bought Pacific Lumber, another billionaire with Texas roots had made his entrance into Humboldt County. At the time of the acquisition, William Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group was well on its way to becoming the seventh-largest newspaper chain in the country, with 47 daily newspapers and 110 non-dailies in the United States. And, as the Times-Standard reporters found out that day, Singleton had already developed a reputation as a budget-slashing, union-hating mogul interested only in bringing profits back to his Denver headquarters.

Singleton began his newspaper career in his teens, working as a cub sports reporter at small Texas newspapers. But it didn't take long for him to make the switch to the business side -- while still in college, he bought a small weekly newspaper. He founded MediaNews with a friend in 1983, slowly acquiring papers until he was large enough to make a bid for the Denver Post in 1987.

The Post became the chain's flagship paper, and its revitalization became a matter of personal pride for Singleton. But the story of the Houston Post, which he acquired at the same time, became the iconic MediaNews story -- the company cut staff at the Houston paper, offered remaining employees a weaker compensation package and, in 1995, closed down the paper completely and sold its assets to the Houston Chronicle, a competitor. Calling themselves the "Toasted Post-ies," disgruntled Post employees organized in part to promote the practice of referring to Singleton by their preferred nickname -- "Stinky."

Singleton has recently claimed to be interested in improving the quality of his newspapers. In a speech to newspaper editors in 2002, he said that "newsroom cutbacks have gone far enough maybe too far." But his company may not have the financial wherewithal to make a significant investment in improving the product.

MediaNews' rapid expansion during the go-go `90s was financed by borrowing. Now, with the economy in the doldrums, the company is paying the price. According to its latest filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (dated March 31), MediaNews is currently $928 million dollars in debt. In the nine months before the statement, the company made only $14 million in net profit -- less than half what it had made over the same period a year earlier. These facts were among those that prompted Moody's Investors Service to give MediaNews bonds a rating which declares that they "lack characteristics of the desirable investment."

Sean Holstege, a transportation reporter for the Oakland Tribune and the union representative for reporters at Bay Area MediaNews papers, believes that Singleton is sincerely trying to change course. He said last week that the company has been willing to spend a little bit more to do in-depth stories. But he also noted that the paper has gone through two large-scale layoffs in the past year, and quality reporters have left on their own after competitors offered contracts that the Tribune simply couldn't match.

"Singleton has been consistently talking about improving product," Holstege said. "The question is whether changes are slow to come because they can't afford it or because it just takes time to turn the ship around."

But while Singleton's new day has yet to dawn -- especially in the Bay Area, where the dot-com crash devastated advertising revenues -- Holstege remains hopeful that it is still somewhere on the horizon.

"For the people I represent, it becomes one of those stories that there's nowhere to go but up," he said.

Also of interest in the North Coast Journal:

Feb. 20, 2003: The Chinese Expulsion: Looking Back on a Dark Episode

July 1, 2004: The Return of Indian Island: Restoring the Center of the Wiyot World

Websites of intererest:

The Times-Standard Website

Humboldt State University Library: Northwestern California Newspapers

The California Newspaper Project Catalog





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