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Alton Telegraph History

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Through Flood and Fire
By Joseph J. Brongoole

Through flood and fire – four words might tell the story of the Telegraph’s homes through the century. And, after 100 years, the Telegraph is back in the neighborhood in which the newspaper started. On January 15, 1835 – in a pioneer frontier settlement and in an age that knew no railroads, telegraph, telephones, airplanes, radio, electric power – the Telegraph published its first issue in the Lyceum Hall building, at Alby and Second streets. Today, on Jan. 15, 1935, the Telegraph, with electrically driven presses, issues the Centennial Edition in a plant equipped with the most efficient machines science has devised – a plant near the historic corner of Second street (now East Broadway) and Alby.
From Jan. 15, 1836, to today the century’s chronicle is the story of many homes – of the day when moving was the simple transfer of a few cases, the “stones,” and a hand-press; of the time when two “upstairs rooms” sufficed; to the modern era when buildings are planned and constructed especially to house the heavy-typesetting machines, the giant presses, and to provide the maximum of light for employees.

Then – and Now

Once the “office” was a desk by the corner where the editor wrote his news and penned his editorials, and the typesetting and printing equipment occupied the remainder of the space.
Today each department – editorial, business, circulation, advertising – has its allotted offices, and the mechanical department is subdivided into the composing room, the stereotyping room, the pressroom; there is the mailing room, and attached to it the garage where trucks await bundles of papers to carry to the far-flung territory covered by the Telegraph.
Through flood and fire. The flood was that of 1844 – the highest stage of the Mississippi known to man. The Telegraph continued publication though the inundation of the downtown section halted most business. The newspaper office was on an upper floor of the building at Second and Piasa streets, and could be reached with comparative ease in boats.
The fire was that of Jan. 27, 1880. The building housing the newspaper, Beall and Danvers, printers; and E.B. Smith, wholesale druggist, was consumed by fire. Undaunted, Messrs. Eckert and Norton opened an office in Mercantile Hall building, and published a small-sized newspaper until a permanent office could be secured and adequate new equipment acquired.

Birthplace of Telegraph

As told, the Telegraph’s birthplace was on the first floor of the building that housed also Lyceum Hall – where so many institutions were born and where, when public issues burned, men were accustomed to gather in the hall to wage long debate. In the same building was the Telegraph’s competitor, the Alton Spectator. Barely more than a year was the Lyceum Building occupied. In the spring of 1837, the Telegraph office was moved to West Second (now West Broadway), near the office of the Alton Observer, the paper then published by Elijah P. Lovejoy, soon to become a regional name – a national name – because of his murder by a mob in November of that year.           The West Second street office was convenient to the levee – in fact, the boat landing was just around the corner at Second and Piasa. Proximity to the boat landing was of vast importance then. All freight was carried by boat, the newspapers from other cities were bought by boat – and newspapers from other cities provided all the “foreign” news published in those days. From other newspapers came all the political news, which was esteemed above all else by the early-day newspapers and residents of Alton. There, too, officers of the boats, and incoming passengers, knew news of the outside world – which actually was “outside” to the Alton of 1837. The levee was the gathering place - a scene of activity where folks met.
The newspaper’s next home was on State street, between Second and Third, presumably on the east side. The location was in the business district and it was close to the river.
For its fourth home, the Telegraph occupied the building formerly tenanted by the ill-fated Lovejoy, who had been assassinated in 1837. The Stiritz building on West Broadway today is on the site of the structure occupied first by Lovejoy’s Observer and then by the Telegraph.
Four times in the first five years of its life the Telegraph had different homes. Moving then was little or no task for a newspaper.

Through the Flood

In 1841, on Dec. 3, the Telegraph moved again, this time across West Second street from the old Lovejoy quarters to a building on the south side. There the Telegraph was able to withstand the flood of the swollen Mississippi that paralyzed much of the business downtown, in 1844.
Third and Belle was the site of the next Telegraph home – on the corner now occupied by the building of First National Bank & Trust Co.
It was in (garbled) that the Telegraph occupied a building that twice was to be its home, at Fourth and Piasa streets. Next the newspaper equipment was moved to Second and Piasa streets, where the building later known as the Hippodrome stood. That building since has housed the Y.M.C.A., the Boston stove, then the Hippodrome. After the use as a theater, it was torn down. Erected in 1863, the building formerly had been occupied by leading dry good stores.
The Telegraph then staged its first “homecoming” – the editors moved to Third and Belle into the quarters previously occupied. Other homes in this period were the old Armory (now the Seasel building) at Third and Piasa, the building at Broadway and Piasa, another “homecoming,” and the newspaper was to return once more to Third and Belle.
In 1880, fire destroyed the home of the Telegraph, forcing it to move to Mercantile Hall.
The newspaper, in its new quarters, issued a small-sized edition – courageously carrying on.
Of the fire, the Telegraph said on Thursday, Jan. 22, 1880:

From Our Ashes We Rise

“At eight o’clock this morning the TELEGRAPH office was removed into Mercantile Hall building, second floor, first door to the left, where we can be found for the next few days. We didn’t move over any of our type, presses, furniture or effects – but will nevertheless continue in business as usual. We are burning out but not suppressed. The TELEGRAPH will appear regularly, but in very contracted form until we have time to purchase a new press, material and fixtures. We shall endeavor to give all the local, general and telegraphic news, in condensed shape, but shall have to ask the indulgence of our advertising patrons for a few days. Brief advertisements and announcements, however, will be received and published as usual.
We return sincere thanks to our friends for many expressions of sympathy and kind offers of assistance. Our loss is heavy but will not interfere with our continuance in business. While suffering this inconvenience and embarrassment of being without a printing establishment of our own we shall, of course, labor under great disadvantages, which, we trust, will be borne in mind by a considerate public. The TELEGRAPH has lived for forty-four years but enjoys a perennial existence which fire may hamper but cannot destroy.

Great Fire

R.B. Smith’s Drug Emporium Destroyed

The Telegraph Office Consumed by the Fire Fiend – Beall and Danvers’ Printing House Destroyed

“About 2:30 o’clock this morning a policeman discovered smoke issuing from the cellar of the building occupied by Mr. R.B. Smith, the wholesale druggist, the TELEGRAPH Newspaper establishment and by Beall & Danvers, book and job printers. Mr. Smith and two of his clerks, Messrs. John Laird  and Clark, were asleep in the building, second story, and when awakened escaped with difficulty by a ladder from a second story front window, the building being filled with a dense smoke. The firemen were on hand with unexampled alacrity, under the direction of Chief Engineer Henick, who, though very unwell, worked faithfully and efficiently. The fire seemed to have originated in the cellar under the western half of the establishment, a place largely occupied by cans and oil barrels on tap. The flames extended from story to story of the part of the house first attacked, the combustible nature of a large part of the drug store stock making a fierce heat and rendering the floods of water of little avail for a considerable time. The floors were all burned out in the center of the house and in the western half, also parts of the stairways, leaving portions at the north and south ends almost intact, the presses on the second floor retaining their positions though utterly ruined by the heat. The eastern half of the building which was a large double brick, the property of Mr. Smith, was not very much burned, owing to the determined efforts of the firemen, but the stock and fixtures, owing to the smoke, heat and water, were a mass of almost chaotic ruin, a discouraging sight to the owner. The eastern cellar, with its large stock of oils, spirits, etc., was not reached by the devouring element, which was a very fortunate circumstance, else the horrors of an explosion might have been added to the list of disasters. The devouring element was well under control by daylight, but the first was breaking out at different points until 10 or 11 o’clock, although the place had been literally flooded for hours. The principal books and accounts of Holden and Norton, being in a safe, were secured in good order; also the books of Beall and Danvers though the material, stock, fixtures, etc., of both firms were destroyed or rendered useless. The files of the TELEGRAPH for twenty-five years back were all destroyed, which is a loss to the whole community as well as the owners. The list of subscribers to both the Daily and Weekly TELEGRAPH was fortunately saved.
“The total loss by the fire is estimated at $110,000…”
The fire attracted state-wide editorial comment. “Deplorable calamity”, said the Springfield Journal, continuing: “Members of the press throughout the state will deeply regret to learn the misfortune that has befallen Messrs. Holden & Norton, publishers of the TELEGRAPH, in the loss of their office. We are gratified to see the evidence , however, that their calamity is not to interfere with the continued publication of their paper…A serious loss was the destruction of the files…covering a period of 25 years past, and which were very valuable.
“We hope to see the citizens of Alton rallying around the publishers of the TELEGRAPH and giving them such support as will result in lifting a journal, so long and so intimately identified with the history of the State, from its ashes making it more prosperous than ever before.”
The Whitehall Republican and the Madison County Sentinel expressed similar sentiments.
In the more recent years the Telegraph has occupied quarters at 10 West Third street, after which it staged another “homecoming” and went back to Fourth and Piasa streets.

The Modern Era

In 1917, the building at 215 Market was completed and the Telegraph for the first time owned its own home. That plant was considered a fine one at the time, but the growth of the newspaper and the improvement in typesetting and printing equipment made larger quarters imperative after a decade.
In 1929, the Telegraph erected its present building at 101 East Broadway, and occupied the modern newspaper plant, designed as a combination of the best features of newspaper buildings in cities of Illinois. The Telegraph had staged another “homecoming”. It was back in the neighborhood of the swaddling days.

            (Originally published in the Alton Telegraph 1/15/1938).

In 2013, The Telegraph was sold by Freedom Communications to Versa Capital Management.