January 21, 2015

"We Are Getting Old Fast." A Newspaper Says Hello and Goodbye

by Christine Kirkham, Manager, Montana Digital Newspaper Project

We are getting old fast and the best years of our lives are swiftly passing by and we find there is a limit to our patience.
Edwin K. Abbott in 1887 (Source: noel_jeff)
So wrote the editor of the Neihart Herald, on January 12, 1901. The Herald had started life a decade earlier in a tiny mining camp deep in the Little Belt Mountains. Originally called Canyon City, the settlement experienced its first boom after James Neihart and two partners discovered silver-lead ore in 1881. By 1885, there were 50 homes, a post office, a blacksmith, and two saloons as well as restaurants and stables. But within a few years, the high-grade ore was played out, and removing low-quality rock from the isolated region was costly. Prospectors fled, and Neihart shrunk to fewer than 300 residents.

Fast forward to 1890. The Sherman Silver Purchase Act passed Congress, doubling the amount of silver the government was required to buy. In addition, the Montana Central Railway completed a new spur from Great Falls. At last, ore could be cost-effectively moved to smelters. A new boom arrived, and with it, a newspaper.

In the Herald's first issue, 25-year-old editor Edwin Abbott struck a celebratory tone: "The sound of the carpenter's hammer is now heard on all sides. There is not a house in town for rent, all of them being occupied." The issue features ads for six lawyers, four assayers, and three real estate agents. In short order, the population ballooned to nearly 5000 and the mines were managing a payroll of $250,000 (as much as $7 million today). On that hope-filled day, Abbott greeted readers with a benediction: 

1890 Map of Neihart
1890 map of Neihart and
dozens of mining claims above it.
The greatness of this camp is visible in the signs of its times. And no man not a fool will dispute the coming great developments and probabilities of new and valuable finds within the present season…many thousands of dollars will be poured into her tills and into the miner's wallet….

Over the next two years, the future looked bright. Neihart boasted four hotels, three churches, a hospital, and six miles of mining tunnels. Electric streetlights were installed, and the Belt Mountain Miners Union opened a library for members.

Fast-growing Neihart in 1892
But fate was not finished with Neihart. Over-production of silver drove the price into free fall, and the exchange of silver notes for gold seriously depleted the gold reserves of the government, leading to repeal of the Sherman Act. The Panic of 1893 led to the worst depression in American history. Thousands of banks failed, and silver mining in Neihart came to a halt.

Defiant, Abbott spent the better part of 1895 producing an elaborate, 25-page pictorial edition, the Herald Souvenir. Directed toward prospective investors, the publication chronicled the town's growth and promoted its potential.
We have prepared several thousand extra copies…which we expect the public to aid in distributing. Every family wants the Souvenir on its center table. But the copy which is sent out to distant friends is the one to be relied upon for doing the most good.
In 1896, William Jennings Bryan ran for president on a platform of free coinage of silver, and Neihart was behind him all the way. A group of local musicians performed as “The Neihart Free Coinage Band.” For months, Abbott printed this exhortation below the Herald's nameplate: FREE MEN, A FREE BALLOT, AND FREE SILVER.* But Bryan lost, and for the first time, the Herald's optimistic voice was tinged with the fear that things may not, after all, improve. Abbott unveiled a new motto below the nameplate:

In 1900, Bryan lost again. The silver lobby failed, and Neihart’s population shrank to 10% of its 1893 level. Facing a paucity of readers and advertisers, Abbott surrendered.

"This is the last issue of the Neihart Herald," he wrote, "and we wish to thank our patrons for past favors. We have struggled along since the panic of '93, hoping for better times and during that period at times did not much more than make our salt."
We have great confidence in the future of Neihart and know that some day its mines will be employing a large number of men…Neihart may be a good camp 2, 3 or 4 years from now but for us it is too long to wait.
Abbott decamped to Salmon, Idaho, taking his printing press with him. There, he started the Lemhi Herald and remained a newspaperman for his entire career. He died in Salmon in 1933.

And what became of Neihart? A brief surge in zinc mining enlivened the 1930s and 1940s, but in 1945, the railway closed. Due to high levels of lead in the soil, in 2001 the area was named a high-priority Superfund site. In 2013 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Neihart was home to 51 souls. Their predecessors still populate the pages of the Neihart Herald, the entire run of which is available on Chronicling America.

*The Herald was avowedly Republican; however, miners and farmers in the West supported pro-silver Democrats like Bryan.

  • Ayer, N. W. N.W. Ayer & Son's American Newspaper Annual: Containing a Catalogue of American Newspapers, a List of All Newspapers of the United States and Canada, 1892-93.
  • Cascade County Historical Society. Cascade County Album. Great Falls, MT: Cascade County Historical Society, 1999.
  • Great Falls Tribune June 22, 1941.
  • Malone, Michael P., Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang. Montana: A History of Two Centuries. Rev. ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • McIntyre Brothers. "Map of Neihart, Meagher Co., Mont.," Chicago: John Morris Co., 1900. Last accessed 1-16-2015 at http://cdm16013.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15018coll5/id/622.
  • Neihart Herald, May 29, 1891, December 18, 1897, and January 12, 1901.
  • Niehart Herald Souvenir, November 28, 1895.
  • Photo: Edwin K. Abbott. Posted by noel_jeff. Last accessed 1-15-2015 at http://trees.ancestry.com/tree/71454848/person/46241976150/media.
  • Photo: Neihart, Montana, Fall of 1892, photographer unidentified, MHS Photo Archives PAc95-76.1.
  • Polk, R.L. & Co. Montana State Gazetteer and Business Directory. 1892-93 and 1900.
  • “The Death of Edwin K. Abbott,” The Recorder (Salmon, ID), August 25, 1933.
  • Wolfe, Muriel Sibell. Montana Pay Dirt. Denver: Sage Books, 1963.