Boomtowns and newspaper men

I tumbled headfirst down this historical rabbit hole thanks to my mom, who reminded me during a conversation about the abysmal state of news journalism that we have an ancestor who was a newspaperman back in the mid-1800s.

Back in those days, it was a given that every newspaper covered what was most valuable to its readers and put its own slant on things. (Unlike today, when we’re expected to believe that the “mainstream” monolith is comprehensive, unbiased, and utterly factual and it’s only those other guys that are unreliable.)

Joseph Ellis Johnson fully embraced the rough-and-tumble newspaper ethos of the day. His tagline for The Huntsman’s Echo, which he began publishing in 1860, was “Independent in everything — neutral in nothing.” (We could use a lot more of that kind of honesty right now.)

Johnson wasn’t fond of the abolitionist Republicans — not because he liked slavery, but because he believed they were tearing the nation apart and he hated their penchant for political violence and intimidation. He was a unionist, bitterly opposed to the prospect of war.

In July 1861, as the nation lurched into war, he wrote in the last edition of his newspaper:

Pride, wickedness and injustice have become national
characteristics, and our whole political moral and social system has become rotten to the core. Our greatness has departed never to return, and our boasted Union is broken, severed and destroyed, never again to rise. Our national doom is sealed — unalterably — and still thousands rush upon the sword only to meet death.

Joseph Ellis Johnson in The Huntsman’s Echo, July 4, 1861. From “The Role of Joseph E. Johnson and His Pioneer Newspapers in the Development of Territorial Nebraska,” Benjamin Pfeiffer, Nebraska History 40 (1959): 119-136

Shortly afterward, he pulled up stakes and moved out to Utah to join his Mormon brethren.

Boomtown entrepreneur

Joseph Ellis Johnson: newspaper publisher, businessman, Mormon pioneer.

We rejoin Joseph Ellis Johnson a few years later in Southern Utah, in the towns of St. George and Silver Reef.

You probably haven’t heard of Silver Reef, but it was a classic Wild West boomtown — like Tombstone without the national publicity.

The boom started in 1869, after a prospector who had come in from Nevada found something he didn’t expect out in that region of sandstone ridges and canyons: silver.

The prospector sent a sample back east to the Smithsonian, where it was assayed as high-grade ore. When the Smithsonian’s geologists heard where the ore had come from, they pronounced it a hoax. Silver just isn’t found in sandstone, they said. And generally speaking, it isn’t — but Silver Reef, Utah, is one of only two known places in the world that breaks the rule.

This made me sit up and pay attention, because I’ve been wanting to include a stereotypical Wild West boomtown in the setting for FAR Western Roleplaying — but the location is basically the Bryce Valley area (the Paunsaugunt and Aquarius plateaus) circa 1874 with the serial numbers filed off, and I wasn’t sure a mining boom was plausible anywhere in the region.

More plausible than I suspected, as it turns out. Never mind that St. George and Bryce Valley aren’t quite next door; a little bit of geographical hand-waving, and we’re good to go. There’s plenty of sandstone in the Grand Staircase area, too.

But let’s get back to history.

In the next year, the population went from a handful of prospectors camped in tents to well over a thousand people. Smelters and warehouses were built, mining companies were organized, and businesses sprang up almost overnight.

And of course, Joseph Ellis Johnson got involved.

He lived several miles away in St. George, which was (still is) the largest town in Southern Utah, and where he took advantage of the mild Mojave Desert winters to start a plant nursery and garden supply business. He also published two newspapers (each of which ran for only a year) and the monthly Utah Pomologist and Gardener.

At the height of Silver Reef’s glory in 1876, he moved in and constructed a building to house a printing office and a storefront, likely intending to start another newspaper, but sold the printing office almost immediately. There are no details about the transaction — only a cryptic note in his personal papers — but it seems someone made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

For the next six years he ran an apothecary shop in the building’s storefront, supplied by his extensive gardens in St. George. Not even fire could stop this guy. When his building burned down along with several others in 1879, he rebuilt immediately on a bigger scale.

The boomtown goes bust

Johnson’s sojourn in Southern Utah came to an end in 1882, when the Mormon church sent him on a mission to help establish the new settlement of Tempe, Arizona. He died that same year in Arizona at the age of 64.

The town of Silver Reef went bust in the late 1880s when the price of silver bottomed out and the mines went too far beneath the water table for pumps to keep up. By 1890 it was a shell of its former self. By the 1920s it was a ghost town.

Over a period of about 20 years, the Silver Reef mines produced nearly $2 million in silver — over $60 million in today’s inflated currency.

St. George continued to grow, and the metro area population is pushing 175,000. The towns of Leeds and Tocquerville now sit on the outskirts of what used to be Silver Reef. The Wells Fargo office, a few foundations, two cemeteries, and one reconstructed building are all that remain of the boomtown.


Sources

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