134 Years of the Chronicle


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In January of 1865, San Francisco was an ugly, raw boomtown where the memories of vigilantes were still fresh, the streets were muddy, the ladies wore Paris fashions and the gentlemen carried pistols. There were only 60,000 people, but it was the largest city in the wild West.

Onto this stage, on January 16, 134 years ago, stepped two teenaged boys to announce they had started a new newspaper. They called it The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, "a daily record of affairs -- local, critical and theatrical."

"We make our politest bow," the boys wrote in their first issue.

"We shall do our utmost to enlighten mankind . . . and San Francisco . . . of actions, intentions, sayings, doings, movements, successes, failures, oddities, peculiarities, and speculations, of 'us poor mortals here below.'"

They were Charles de Young, 19, and his brother Michael, 17, and their total capital was a $20 gold piece they had borrowed from their landlord for a week. They were brash, irreverent and convinced of their own lucky star.

One hundred and thirty-four years later, the little paper they distributed free "in all the restaurants, saloons, reading rooms, stores, boats, cars and among the audience at Worrell's Olympic" has become The San Francisco Chronicle, the 13th largest newspaper in the United States.

At a distance of all those years, the first issue of The Dramatic Chronicle looks odd, indeed. It was part theater program, part newspaper, part satirical review, and mostly ads. The big news story in the first issue was of the death of Edward Everett, the statesman, whose mighty oration at Gettysburg two years before has been largely forgotten, since the day's other speaker was Abraham Lincoln.

Much of the paper consisted of pieces of theater news, bright little anecdotes and jokes -- some of them written by Mark Twain, who contributed items in exchange for office space. Bret Harte, then a clerk at the Mint, also wrote pieces for the paper. Much to its later regret, The Dramatic Chronicle never saw fit to give either man a byline.

The paper was bright and lively -- but very small. At night, the de Youngs used to go to the theater, gather up the crumpled Dramatic Chronicles, smooth them out and mail them to hotels in towns they called "the interior." They claimed a circulation of 2,000.

There were dozens of papers in San Francisco in those days, but in April 1865, the tiny Dramatic Chronicle scooped them all. Michael de Young, the younger of the two brothers, went down to the local telegraph office one morning after the paper had already come out.

"Have you heard the news?" the manager said.

"No," said de Young.

"Lincoln has been assassinated," said the telegraph man, who showed him the dispatch.

de Young, whose paper could not afford a leased wire, immediately felt that unforgettable tingle that comes with a big story.

He memorized the dispatch, ran back to the paper and he and his brother got out an extra. The other papers, which had taken the rest of the morning off, were badly beaten -- some of them literally. Mobs ran through the streets attacking the offices of newspapers that had savagely ridiculed the late president. The Dramatic Chronicle got out more extras describing this, too.

By the end of April, the Dramatic Chronicle had increased its circulation to 5,000, and by the fall of the year, it was printing 6,000 copies. Three years later, the paper had an 8,000 circulation, but there was clearly a limit to what a show-business paper could do.

So, on Sept. 1, 1868, the Dramatic Chronicle was replaced with the brand new Morning Chronicle. The de Youngs said it would be "a bright, bold, fearless and truly independent paper."

The Morning Chronicle covered the big stories of the '60s -- the great earthquake of 1868 (described as the greatest calamity in the city's history) and the biggest story of all, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in May 1869.

By 1870, San Francisco had a population of 150,000 -- it had more than doubled in size in 10 years. These were the champagne years, the time of the fabulous "Big Bonanza" in Virginia City, an enterprise financed by San Francisco capitalists.

The railroad barons, now called "The Big Four" -- Stanford, Crocker, Huntington and Hopkins -- built mansions on Nob Hill, and they were soon joined by the silver kings, who had become rich on Nevada's Comstock Lode.

The city glittered; the Palace Hotel, with 1,200 rooms the largest hotel in the country, was built on Market Street. The world's first cable car line was built to serve Nob Hill.

There was a dark underside as well. The Barbary Coast was wide open. Day and night, it was the scene of murder, robbery, prostitution and vice of every sort. San Francisco, some said, was the wickedest city in the world. It was also one of the toughest. The word "hoodlum" was coined in San Francisco in that period.

The city's political life was in the hands of Chris Buckley, an amazing blind man who had memorized the voice of every politician and knew to the penny how much each was stealing.

In 1877, there was a drought and then a depression, and out of the sand lots on the western edge of the city came the voice of Denis Kearney, a political orator whose twin slogans were "The Chinese must go!" and "Bullets must replace ballots!" His formula for social reform: Hang the rich.

Kearney's mobs roamed the city, attacking Chinese and threatening to seize control by force.

The Chronicle had opposed Buckley vigorously -- his candidates were denouced regularly in the no-holds-barred invective of the time -- but it truly despised Kearney, his sandlotters and his front organization, the Workingman's Party. It called him "a political mad dog," and his candidate for mayor, Issac Kalloch, "a tainted preacher, seeking his election in low grogeries."

Kalloch, a minister who was pastor of the Metropolitan Temple on Fifth Street, had a checkered past. The Chronicle ran a huge expose. Kalloch, in turn, insulted the de Youngs, and Charles de Young shot and wounded Kalloch.

In the meantime, Kalloch was elected mayor by a narrow margin. "The people expect their officials to steal," he said in his inaugural address, "they are disappointed if they do not."

One day in April 1880, Issac M. Kalloch, the mayor's son and also a minister, appeared in The Chronicle office bent on revenge, drew a pistol, and shot Charles de Young dead.

John Young, who was his managing editor, called Charles "the ablest newspaper man the city had produced." His younger brother, Michael, took over, and the newspaper carried the stamp of his personality for the rest of his life.

M.H. de Young, as he now called himself, was interested in promoting California -- and San Francisco as its leading city. His paper, now the largest on the coast, circulated as far north as Oregon, and The Chronicle did not hesitate to give advice to the Oregonians until such time as they might obtain a metropolitan paper of their own.

In 1885, The Chronicle looked south, to Los Angeles, to note the town had only "two mediocre hotels," to advise them to build more and to take an optimistic view. "We may look forward to the day when at least two large cities will grow up in Southern Calfornia," the paper wrote, "and when that time arrives, the commerce between them and this port will attain proportions we scarcely dream of now."

By 1890, San Francisco's population had doubled again, to 300,000, and The Chronicle moved into a 10-story building at Kearny and Market streets. It was the first steel-framed building in the West and the tallest, a Victorian skyscraper of red brick with a clock tower that made it look like a fortress. Much remodeled, it is still there.

By this time, the paper had embarked on a program it called "the journalism that does things," promoting the city and projects like the paper's own weather bureau.

de Young's big idea of the '90s was a Midwinter Fair, to be held in Golden Gate Park in 1894. It would showcase the California climate, display its industries and put people to work. The fair was built in four months, was open for seven and attracted 1.3 million people. Its legacy is the Japanese Tea Garden, built for the fair, the elegant bandshell and the park museum, which years later became the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum.

In 1897, the world was electrified by the gold strike in the Klondike -- and The Chronicle sent eight men "to penetrate the frigid and unknown country."

But at the turn of the century, the paper was engaged in one of its biggest battles. Years after the decline of boss Buckley and the end of Kearney, an even more sinister political machine had emerged. This one was run by Abe Ruef, a brilliant lawyer, and a band of stooges led by Eugene Schmitz, a handsome bandleader who was elected mayor in 1901.

Here was crookedness on a magnificent scale. Ruef took payoffs for everything connected with the city, including gambling, prostitution and streetcar franchises.

His associates, as Ruef himself said, "were so hungry for spoils they would eat the paint off a house."

The Chronicle campaigned mightily against the machine. "Rascals" was the nicest thing it called them. Despite its exposes, the paper lost nearly every time. Ruef and Schmitz won three straight elections.

When they won again in 1905, they organized a big parade, stopping outside the Chronicle building to jeer and shout insults. They also shot off skyrockets, and the next thing anyone knew, The Chronicle's clock tower was afire.

It was a great story -- a crusading newspaper nearly burned to the ground by crooked politicians -- but five months later, there came San Francisco's all-time big story, the 1906 quake.

Those who went through the 1989 quake have some idea of what happened, but the 1906 temblor had 10 times the power, and it nearly killed the city.

The three morning papers -- the Morning Call, the Examiner and The Chronicle -- had finished their press runs when the quake hit at 5:13 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18. In the old days, editors got out extras. The Chronicle tried hard on that April morning. Reporters gathered news, and some of it was actually set in type ready to go. But, as it turned out, the water mains had broken and there was not enough water to get up steam to turn over the presses.

Nor was there enough water to fight the fires that broke out after the quake. The huge blaze jumped Market Street, roared through the newspaper building and nearly everything else in San Francisco. The three papers published a combined edition at the Oakland Tribune.

The Call-Chronicle-Examiner lasted only a day; each paper went its own way. The Chronicle published at the plant of the Oakland Herald and never missed a day.

Those were unbelievable times: The city burned for days; looting broke out, and some suspects were taken out by troops and shot. There were rumors of horrible events, some of them true.

In New York, Will Irwin, an ex-Chronicle man, wrote San Francisco's obituary in the New York Sun. He called it "The City That Was."

The city and the paper, of course, survived. Ruef and Schmitz were both brought to justice. Mayor Schmitz was acquitted of the graft charges. Ruef, however, went to San Quentin.

But all was not disasters and graft and shooting in those days. Christmas Eve 1909 was one of those magic San Francisco events that stand out, frozen in memory over the years. Luisa Tetrazzini, the great opera star, gave a free concert in the streets of San Francisco because, she said, "The streets of San Francisco are free."

It was sponsored by the paper and held in front of the Chronicle building, at Kearny and Market, now rebuilt from the fire. Some say 200,000 people were there. There were no microphones in those days. Downtown San Francisco stopped completely to hear her sing; even the cable car bells were silent.

"She sang . . . and if you had closed your eyes you would have thought yourself alone with that beautiful voice," wrote Samuel Dickson 50 years later. She sang "The Last Rose of Summer" and "Auld Lang Syne."

"It was San Francisco's most wonderful Christmas eve," Dickson wrote.

In a way, Tetrazzini's concert was the end of the old city.

In 1910, The Chronicle sent a staff of 16 of its own people, plus Jack London and Rex Beach, to cover the Jack Johnson-James Jeffries fight in Reno. The writers filed 40,000 words; the photographers developed their pictures on a special train hired for the occasion.

Within hours, The San Francisco Chronicle was on the streets of Reno with an account of the fight.

It was unheard-of to pay that much attention to sporting events in those years, but the coverage reflected California's interests. Sports news, then and now, was big news.

That fast train ride down the Sierra to put out an extra full of pictures was a sign that San Francisco and the world were changing, and change came faster and faster in the years after 1910.

In 1914, World War I -- the Great War -- broke out. In 1915, San Francisco, still a city on the far edge of the continent, paused to celebrate quieter days one last time with the lovely Panama-Pacific International Exposition at what is now the Marina.

In 1916, a terrorist bomb -- still called "an infernal machine" in those days -- went off at Market and Steuart Streets as a Preparedness Day parade was passsing by. Six people were killed. The story went on for years as labor leaders Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings were accused, tried and found guilty -- on fake evidence, many said. The campaign to free Mooney and Billings went on for some 20 years, until the men were pardoned in 1939.

In 1917, America joined the war. The Chronicle had its own special correspondent in Europe. Now it joined the war fever, and over the masthead ran the line "THIS NEWSPAPER IS ONE HUNDRED PERCENT AMERICAN."

In the Roaring '20s, the big stories were Prohibition, great growth and the sudden death of President Harding in San Francisco's Palace Hotel.

Sunny Jim Rolph, who wore cowboy boots, a frock coat and a flower in his lapel, was mayor. He was sure that San Francisco one day would have a million people. There was serious talk about building bridges across the bay.

A new era for the paper began in 1924, when The Chronicle moved into its present building at Fifth and Mission streets, but another ended in 1925, when M.H. de Young, the paper's link to the pioneer days, died and was succeeded by George T. Cameron, a businessman who was one of de Young's sons-in-law.

The '20s were prosperous and the future was brilliant, but the 1930s, at least in the first years, were gray, bleak and bloody. The great economic Depression stalked the United States, thousands of people were out of work. It was an angry time.

Two men kidnapped Brooke Hart, the son of a wealthy San Jose businessman. When the boy's mutilated body was found in the bay in the fall of 1933, a mob of 10,000 stormed the Santa Clara County jail, took the kidnappers out to San Jose's St. James Park and lynched them.

The Chronicle's Royce Brier was there, and his vivid account won the paper its first Pulitzer Prize.

A few months later, the biggest strike in the San Francisco waterfront's long history broke out. On the 58th day, the employers tried to break the strike by opening the port. A thousand police faced 5,000 strikers; it was war, and Brier described it in one of the classic newspaper leads:

Blood ran red in the streets of San Francisco yesterday.

Despite this kind of brilliant reporting, The Chronicle had lost some of its own vitality, and Cameron decided to make a major move. In 1935, he named Paul C. Smith, a 27-year-old who was running the business page, The Chronicle's executive editor, with orders to change things.

Smith was tough, brilliant and immensely popular. When Chronicle reporters and photographers were threatened by the top authorities of the city of Salinas for telling the truth about a lettuce strike there, Smith flew to the rescue himself, faced down the mayor and told city officials that the paper would "print the news as it was."

Smith shook up the paper. He put an emphasis on international news, he started This World, a Sunday supplement that looked at the time like a newsmagazine -- and he hired a smart young kid from Sacramento named Herb Caen to write a radio column.

The newspaper's printers and other workers had belonged to unions almost from the beginning of the paper. The last major departments to join unions were the business and editorial departments, which joined the Newspaper Guild in the mid-'30s -- with Smith's encouragement. The Chronicle printed a special section when the Bay Bridge opened in 1936 and another one when the Golden Gate was spanned a year later.

Now the clouds of war -- what Churchill called "The Gathering Storm" -- were building in Europe and Asia, and they broke in the Pacific on Dec. 7, 1941.

Many still remember the late extra with a single word in the headline: "WAR!"

The Bay Region was terrified. There were rumors that the Japanese fleet was just over the horizon, and The Chronicle reported the first blackout, which was not a success, and the reaction of Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who told a meeting at City Hall that Japanese planes had actually flown over the city. "Why bombs were not dropped I do not know," he said. "It might have been better if some bombs had been dropped to awaken this city. I never saw such apathy. It was criminal, it was shameful."

There were no Japanese planes and no bombs, but the Bay Area was completely transformed by the war. New shipyards, built in months, ringed the bay. The military was everywhere, and many of them spent their last leaves in San Francisco. If they came back alive, they said, they would come back to California.

The Bay Area started to boom, and little places like Concord and Mountain View and Novato began to grow into huge new suburban cities. But though The Chronicle had won two more Pulitzers and reached a peak circulation of 180,000 in 1948, it began to lose readers. Even Herb Caen defected to the Examiner.

By the spring of 1951, circulation was down to 152,672, a dangerous situation in a city that had four daily newspapers. Smith resigned, and Charles de Young Thieriot, M.H. de Young's grandson and the new publisher, picked Scott Newhall to take his place.

Under Newhall, the paper touched off one of the last of the West's great newspaper circulation wars, primarily against the San Francisco Examiner, then the largest paper north of Los Angeles.

His aim was simple: to get more readers. It was, he said, a bit like a circus. Once the customers were in the tent, they would see that The Chronicle had something to offer.

To do it, Newhall turned the paper back to its roots -- it again became irreverent, it held up a mirror to the West, informed the readers and had a good time doing it.

The Chronicle went after stories with a vengeance, scooped the opposition and ran rings around them with lively writing and imagination. Among the columnists it developed were Pauline Phillips, who wrote under the name "Dear Abby," Arthur Hoppe, Stanton Delaplane and Charles McCabe, the acerbic "Fearless Spectator."

In 1958, amid much rejoicing at Fifth and Mission, Caen came back. Gradually at first, the paper picked up readers -- from 194,000 in 1957 to 300,000 four years later. There were big, black headlines every day, whether there was momentous news or not. The paper and its staff were expanded. News services were added. Special projects were regular fare.

By the fall of 1965, The Chronicle was selling 363,322 papers a day, a lead of 60,000 over the Examiner.

By then, the two afternoon papers had merged, and the merged paper was floundering. In September 1965, the Examiner and The Chronicle established a joint agency to handle everything except the editorial departments of the two papers. The Examiner became an afternoon paper itself.

The Chronicle had become the biggest daily paper in Northern California; in the West, it was second in size to the Los Angeles Times after 1968.

Once, during a labor dispute that year, it was also the smallest daily in the state. The paper was produced on a copying machine by its senior executives for 52 days.

The late '60s and '70s were tumultous years, the years of the Flower Children, the student protests at Berkeley, San Francisco State and Stanford, the rise and horrible fall of the Rev. Jim Jones and the assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. The Chronicle was there to cover those times with its own special kind of journalism.

They were also the times when professional sports boomed by the bay.

The San Francisco Giants played their first World Series in 1962 and set the town on its ear; then came the Oakland Athletics, the basketball Warriors and then the fabulous years of the 49ers. The Bay Area, which had always enjoyed sports, was suddenly at the top of the major leagues.

The Chronicle's leadership changed in 1977 when Charles Thieriot died and was succeeded as editor and publisher by his son, Richard Thieriot.

During the 15 years that followed, the paper broadened and deepened its coverage and nearly doubled its staff, expanding its business pages, reporting on new fields like high technology and old ones where The Chronicle has always led the way, as in coverage of music and the arts, from the classics to rock.

News bureaus were expanded in Washington and Sacramento, and regional coverage in the Bay Area was overhauled.

Newspapers have always had an interest in medicine and science, but The Chronicle was the first to assign a reporter full-time to cover a new and deadly disease -- AIDS.

This decade, the '90s, have seen great change, too.

In the spring of 1990, the witty, urbane and often sardonic Allan Temko won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. Temko had been a fixture on the paper for years and had focused his laser-like criticism on the Bay Area's buildings, its outlook and even its lifestyle. In his view, nothing but the very best would do for San Francisco and its environs and he turned his eye on everything from the look of new bridges, freeways, public buildings, Yosemite National Park and even tourist traps.

In 1993, the paper's leadership changed when Richard Thieriot stepped down as editor and publisher and was replaced as CEO of the parent Chronicle Publishing Company by veteran news executive John B. Sias.

In 1994, the labor unions that represented workers at the paper struck The Chronicle, the Examiner and the jointly-owned San Francisco Newspaper Agency for ten days. Following a sometimes bitter strike, both sides realized the process had to be changed. The result was an agreement that provides labor peace until at least 2005.

The year 1996 was a year of joy and sadness mixed. That spring, Herb Caen, who had written a column longer and better than anyone in the newspaper business, won a rare special Pulitzer for his "extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city."

Caen wrote nearly 16,000 columns over a career that lasted 58 years. The columns were full of jokes, observations of daily life, bits of news and bits of wry. The main theme was San Francisco, the city he loved.

On June 14, 1996, the city held Herb Caen Day, and 75,000 people showed up to cheer him. But it was a bittersweet occasion, since Caen had inoperable cancer and died seven months later. The Chronicle lost a major voice.

But the '90s also brought positive change: Expansion and broadening of the paper's coverage of the Bay Area with new bureaus and four whole new weekly sections. The paper also expanded its coverage of business news, technology and sports. And The Chronicle's corporate parent started an Internet site called SFGate. That site combines the content of the company's Bay Area properties, including The Chronicle, KRON-TV and BayTV.

Today, 134 years after it began as the Daily Dramatic Chronicle, the paper is one of the West's oldest institutions -- and one of its freshest. In the newspaper business, there is a new product every single day.

Over those 134 years, the paper has reported the triumphs and tragedies of the world and of Northern California.

It has shared a few of the tragedies, turning them into triumphs of newspapering. In 1906, when an earthquake and fire nearly destroyed the city, The Chronicle found a way to publish.

And in 1989, when another major quake struck the Bay Area, The Chronicle came through again. All power, essential to the highly sophisticated production of a modern paper, failed. But the staff gathered the news, assembled it under the glare of hand-held flashlights, jury-rigged an electronic system and put out an eight-page extra.

That kept its record intact. In its 134 years, The San Francisco Chronicle has never missed a day.

This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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