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The Life and Times of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise

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Introduction

by Oscar Lewis

When, early in 1983, word reached San Francisco from a semi-deserted mining town in a western Nevada stating that the town's newspaper, after a years-long struggle to keep afloat, had suspended publication, the news could hardly have been exptected to arouse any but the most casual and perfunctory interest. That it did a great deal more than that waws due to these two circumstances: first, the nearly deserted mining town was Virginia City, once the scene of the richest silver mines the world had ever known, and second, the newly suspended paper was the Territorial Enterprise, which had been the treaining school for an extraordinarily talented group of writers, and which - with the possible exception of the Sacramento Union, during the middle and late 1850s - had been the most widely read and highly respected mining journal ever published in the West.

It was because of these unusual circumstances that San Frannciscans were not inclined to allow the Enterprise to pass from the scene unhonored and unsung. For that city had always been the chief beneficiary of the wealth produced by the Comstock mines, and in consequence her ties with the region's once bustling but now sadly deteriorated towns had always been close. Moreover, during all the period when mining activity was at its height, the Enterprise was the chief chonicler of happenings on the Lod; hence, that paper's suspension brought to a finall close what had been one of the most flamboyand chapters of San Francisco history.

Clearly an event so filled with nostalgic memories called for something more than conventional expressions of regret. And such proved to be the case. On the morning of January 24 - only eight days after the Enterprise  suspended - one of its San Francisco counterparts, the Examiner, published five tributes to the paper and to its distinguished staff. In these, plus a sixth which appeared several weeks later, that are reprinted here.

One of a number of reasons why this material well merits a reissuing is that it has to do with a phase of Nevada's storied silver mining era that has recieved far less attention than it deserved; namely, mining town journalism and the part it played in the rise of many settlements that sprang up following the original discoveries in 1859. For all during the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s it was a poor camp indeed that did not at some stage of its eventful - and usually brief - history have a newspaper of its own, one dedicated to heralding the potential richness of the local mining claims and downgrading those of its rivals. Nor was the printing press, the traditional symbol of civilization's advance, slow in making its appearance. For within one of the dusty fright wagons bumping over the sage-covered plains toward one or another of the newly-founded camps were almost sure to bne a battered hand-press, a few fonts of worn type, and a supply of newsprint. On arrival, the equipment was hastily set up, and very soon thereafter Volume One, Number 1 of yet another smudgy little weekly would make its bow, marking the coming of age of what hopefully would become a second Virginia City.

By no means all such journals are rememberd today; many have disappeared without a trace. But the number of those of which  copies survive makes clear that they once were numerous. In his History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming, H.H. Bancroft compiled a list of daily and weekly papers published in Nevada from the early 1860s to the late 1880s; the list occupies two-and-a-half pages. While most of these had life-spans as brief as the towns whose merits they extolled, others lasted somewhat longer, and a few went on to what can only be described as distinguished careers.

Among those in the last-named category, first place must be accorded to the Territorial Enterprise. Of the history of that journal and of the group of distinguished men responsible for its success little need to be said here; these matters are fully covered in the text that follows. Some reference should be made, however, to the peculiar circumstances under which the paper was published, and in particular to the caliber of compettion it faced. For athough during most of its existence the Enterprise  was the recognized leader of the Comstock newspapers, at no time did it have the field to itself. Indeed, there was a period when Virginia City - whose population never quite reached 30,000 - had no fewer than five daily newspapers, plus serveral weeklies, all actively bidding for public support and in most cases willing to go to virtually any lenghts to get it. For a while uninhibited journalism was then being practised all over the West, nowhere was that more so than in Virginia City and its environs.

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