Around Burlington: Controversial newspapers were lively reads

1877 was not an especially good year for Burlington.

Even more than usual, the town was split along class and ethic lines, thanks to a divisive railroad strike, a controversial city water project and rampant corruption both at city hall and the police station.

Burlington citizens grumbled and fussed over the state of affairs and turned to the town’s two newspapers, The Hawk Eye and the Gazette, for the latest reports of malfeasance.

But these community watch dogs turned a blind eye to anything controversial.

Ever mindful of their advertising revenue, the two publications had come down solidly down on the side of the town’s conservative merchant and manufacturing leaders at the expense of the town’s working class.

News reports in both newspapers were closely tailored not to cause offense at the breakfast tables of North Hill mansions and labor unions were castigated as inventions of the devil.

This view was not universally shared by all members of the community, and The Hawk Eye management finally came to realize that there might be room for a newspaper with an alternative editorial point of view.

The decision was made to offer a weekly sheet to be called the Monday Morning News — a spinoff intended to report the news that the daily Hawk Eye would hope to ignore.

The owners of The Hawk Eye looked at their news room staff and tasked Allison Leadly to oversee this venture.

Leadly was given little opportunity to turn down this task, even though he was apparently happy with his role as Hawk Eye city editor.

Leadly then drafted E.H. Thomas from The Hawk Eye’s composition room to help him get the weekly underway.

But the owners of the parent newspaper were to get more than they bargained for.

From the onset, the two men displayed a highly independent nature for a satellite publication because Thomas and Leadly found they greatly enjoyed running their own operation.

The town apparently enjoyed it too, for in a short time, the Monday Morning News had a circulation of 3,500.

This was not necessarily good news, because advertisers also grew aware of the weekly’s growing popularity and both the Gazette’s and Hawk Eye’s profitable advertising base began to erode.

The solution was obvious to the parent newspaper and the neophyte editors were ordered to shut down.

The Hawk Eye then stopped printing the Morning News, cut off the sheet’s wire service and fired its two editors.

But, Leadly and Thomas decided not to go away.

They arranged to have their paper published by a local job printer, opened their own office, lined up a source of bootleg wire stories out of Chicago and renamed their paper the “Working Man’s Appeal.”

For awhile, it was grand fun because stories of malfeasance abounded.

The Appeal exposed a sweetheart deal between local banks and the city council that greatly inflated the cost of the fledgling water system.

Then there was the story of the city’s mayor that disappeared with $100,000 from the school fund. But the principal story shaking the city was the railroad strike that held the town in thrall.

The local business community, most of the churches, and the two daily newspapers were firmly in the railroad management’s camp.

But the Appeal would take the side of the union.

The Hawk Eye would call the strikers socialists and anarchists while the Appeal castigated the railroad’s lack of sensitivity to the working man’s plight.

Editor Leadly was personally hurt when old friends at The Hawk Eye wrote he was a “lazy agitator who gained a livelihood by creating dissention and trouble among the wage earners.”

The strike proved to a vicious affair. Strike breakers were stoned and insulted and company goons broke more than a few heads.

Burlington merchants refused credit to the strikers and bankers were quick to foreclose on outstanding loans of workers honoring the picket lines.

It was all great fun, but it could not last.

The nationwide railroad strike was broken, a depression gripped the country and strike leaders were blackballed from jobs in Burlington’s close-knot manufacturing community.

This all spelled doom for the Appeal. It lost its publishing capabilities, advertisers were pressured to do business elsewhere, and the feisty weekly succumbed.

Leadly left town to become a Kansas farmer and Thomas turned to the river and became a steamboat pilot.

But while they manned the presses, Burlington’s worker’s newspaper made for some very lively reading.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Burlington newsmen took on management, supported workers