On September 11, 1852, a new newspaper was fresh off the press and met an eager audience. Finally, the people of Olympia had a way of getting the news locally instead of relying on old newspapers and magazines they could get through the mail weeks (and months) after they were published. This new publication was The Columbian, the first newspaper printed in what is now the State of Washington.
The Columbian was a long time coming. Olympia was then part of the Oregon Territory. Created by Congress in 1848, this territory stretched from California to what is now the Canadian border. However, many people north of the Columbia River felt that the government based south of the river was too far away to represent their interests and concerns. In August 1851 a group met at Cowlitz Landing (near Toledo) where they drafted a proposal for a territory named Columbia that would consist of “Northern Oregon.”
One supporter of creating a new separate territory was Thomas Dryer (1808-1879), editor of Portland’s Weekly Oregonian newspaper. To help whip up support for the cause, he decided to create a newspaper in Olympia (the largest town on Puget Sound), naming it The Columbian after a proposed Columbia territory. Olympia was very new. It had only been founded by Edmund Sylvester in 1850.
Dryer chose two of his employees to set up the newspaper: James W. Wiley (ca. 1820-1860) acted as chief writer and Thornton F. McElroy (1825-1885) worked as printer and financial manager. McElroy was already an experienced printer. Born in Pennsylvania, he worked as a printer in the Midwest before joining the California Gold Rush. He had some success but soon became seriously ill. Giving up the dream of quick money, McElroy went to Oregon where he worked as printer first for the Oregon City Spectator and then for Dryer’s Weekly Oregonian.
It took seven months for the pair to get the newspaper up and running from a single-story cabin at the corner of Second (now Olympia Avenue) and Washington Streets. For printing equipment, they used an old Ramage press. Shipped up from Portland on the schooner Mary Taylor in the summer of 1852, the press was built in the Philadelphia workshop of Adam Ramage in 1820. It was used for printing in Mexico, California and Oregon. Now the press was in Olympia.
The Columbian first hit the streets on September 11, 1852. A four-page weekly newspaper, it was published every Saturday. It cost five dollars a year by mail or taken at the paper’s office. The editors employed agents throughout Western Washington to distribute the newspaper. Mostly national and international news filled issues, recycled from other newspapers. With no syndicates or wire services like the Associated Press and copyright laws limited, copying articles from other newspapers was considered acceptable. The front page of the Columbian’s first issue, for example, reprinted an essay about Japan from Washington D.C.’s National Intelligencer. The only local news was advertisements, a shipping list, and a Fourth of July speech given in Olympia by Daniel Bigelow.
The Columbian went through a dizzying series of changes over the years. In March 1853 Wiley left and was replaced by J. J. Beebe. Bebee left in July, forcing McElroy to run the paper alone for two months. Matthew Smith became publisher-editor in September. In December, James Wiley and Alfred M. Berry bought the paper from Dryer.
Wiley and Berry renamed the paper the Washington Democrat. Congress had declared Northern Oregon a territory on March 2, 1853, but named it Washington instead of Columbia. Congress felt (incorrectly) that the name Columbia would confuse the new territory with the national capitol. The Columbian took the name change in stride. It was a new territory they wanted, not a specific name.
In February 1854 Ruben L. Doyle became a partner of the newspaper, which was renamed again. It became the Pioneer and Democrat, a name retained until the publication closed in 1861. However, the newspaper came back as the Overland Press (1861-64), Pacific Tribune (1864-68) and Weekly Pacific Tribune (1868-1879).
McElroy also served briefly in the Washington Territorial Legislature as a member of the Whig party and was a deputy collector for the Internal Revenue Service for Nez Perce County (now Idaho). He got the coveted job of Washington Territorial Public Printer 1863-1867 and 1871-1873, ran his own print shop in Olympia 1861-1867 and was even mayor 1875-1876. When McElroy died in 1885, he was one of the wealthiest men in the territory.
And the Ramage Press? It was used to print some of the Washington Pioneer issues before being put in storage. In 1868 it was moved to Seattle where it was used for the town’s first newspaper, The Washington Gazette. Retired in 1874, the old press is now at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
Although the newspaper only had a short lifespan, The Columbian opened the way for mass communication in Washington and offered people who were isolated on the frontier a way to learn what was happening in the larger world. And the paper did help promote the new territory and Olympia. Having a newspaper was one reason that Governor Stevens chose Olympia as provisional capitol of Washington Territory.