Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oct. 26, 1841: Brooklyn Eagle Rolls First Issue Off the Presses

The Eagle’s headquarters on lower Fulton Street
On Oct. 26, 1841, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed its very first issue, 170 years ago today. At that time, Brooklyn had a population of 35,500, and “Fulton Street was the single business thoroughfare. Court Street was unknown. Sands Street was the residence of the aristocrats; the Heights were a bluff merely; Fulton Street, beyond City Hall, was a country road, and Myrtle Avenue an adventurous highway of travel to Fort Greene.”

This was how the Eagle remembered the Brooklyn of its origins in a history they published in 1892. They had reason to be in awe at the changes. In the five decades since the Eagle had printed its first issue, Brooklyn had grown exponentially, not just in population — becoming the third largest city in the country — but in consequence, with a volume of industry that rivaled any working waterfront in the nation.  

The Eagle grew right along with Brooklyn, continually expanding its long-time Fulton Street, and later Washington Street, headquarters, buying newer and more state-of-the-art printing presses, opening more and more branch offices, and drawing in more readers. By the Civil War, the Eagle had “the largest circulation of any evening paper in the United States,” a fact the paper made a point of printing in the top left corner of page 2 every day, followed by, “Its value as an advertising medium is therefore apparent.”

That the Eagle became such a resonant and lasting voice in Brooklyn would have come as a surprise to its founders, who intended the paper to be a temporary endeavor, as a voice for the Democratic Party in Brooklyn through the election season following the death of President William Henry Harrison. But one of the founders, a printer named Isaac Van Anden, saw the paper’s value and took it over as the sole proprietor after the election.

Van Anden was born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1813. At an early age he learned the printing trade, and came to Brooklyn in 1836. He ran the paper until his death in 1875, although five years earlier he had sold the paper to a group of investors. To his employees he was known as “Mr. Van.” William Hester, Van Anden’s nephew, succeeded him as president and remained in control of the paper until he died in 1921.

By far the Eagle’s most famous editor was Walt Whitman, though he only served the post a short time (1846-48). He had a falling out with Van Anden over the issue of slavery — Whitman was a supporter of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited the extension of slavery to new territories. Seven years after he left the Eagle, Whitman published the first edition of his groundbreaking Leaves of Grass at a printing shop just around the bend on Fulton Street from the Eagle’s offices.

While at the Eagle, Whitman supported free trade and higher wages for dock workers, was critical of the “Nativist” movement (which was hostile to immigrants) and was in favor of prison reform. One of his editorials was headlined: “Are We Never To Have Any Public Parks In Brooklyn?” His crusade resulted in the creation of Fort Greene Park and the reburial there of the Prison Ship Martyrs, who died aboard the British prison ships in New York Harbor during the Revolution.

The Eagle rallied to many causes throughout its long history, perhaps most notably in favor of building the Brooklyn Bridge. (Several of the founders of the New York Bridge Company, the entity entrusted with building the bridge, were also co-proprietors of the Eagle itself, such as Van Anden, editor Thomas Kinsella, politician Henry C. Murphy and contractor William C. Kingsley.)

In the late 19th century the paper came out against political bosses, picking fights with Brooklyn Democratic “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, and Gravesend “Boss” John McKane. The Eagle unsuccessfully fought the movement to consolidate Brooklyn with New York City, with this warning: “If tied to New York, Brooklyn would be a Tammany suburb, to be kicked, looted and bossed.” (Brooklyn became a borough of greater New York in 1898.)

During the 20th century, more successful campaigns helped bring a central library to Grand Army Plaza, and secured the demolition of the elevated train (“The Black Spider”) that rattled noisily up Fulton Street, darkening the main shopping boulevard.

The Eagle had two long-time editors, Thomas Kinsella (1861 to 1884) followed by St. Claire McKelway (1886- 1915), who had the greatest influence upon the paper’s style and voice, and oversaw the paper through the height of its influence.

None other than Joseph Pulitzer himself had this to say about the Eagle in 1911:

“This is what I sincerely feel about the Brooklyn Eagle:
In the first essentials of any newspaper to be respected and be respectable - integrity, independence and intellect — I consider it among the foremost newspapers of the nation — and there are very few indeed I would call foremost.
Secondly - As a newspaper emphasizing the word “news,” it is absolutely unique, because I do not know of any journal in New York City or in the whole country using such lavish liberality in space and printing the local news of Brooklyn with such impartiality, non-partisanship and broad variety.

Thirdly - On the editorial page, I find it courageous, non-partisan, able and free to attack abuses in both parties. My ideal. In specially difficult situations which test courage, character and capacity, I find the Eagle rises to the importance of the occasion and brings out great latent strength in reflecting the moral sense and public opinion of the community, which it largely creates.”

Over the years the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize four times, once for exposing corruption in the police department during the administration of Mayor William O’Dwyer.

In 1955, when its circulation was at an all-time high of 137,000, the Eagle fell silent as the borough’s voice — a victim of a five-month strike that even federal arbitration could not settle. The last issue of the 114-year-old Eagle rolled off the presses on Jan. 28, 1955.

The author and newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, who used to deliver the Eagle after school, once observed, “It had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.”

For a few months in 1960, the Eagle resumed publication as a weekly, and it was published daily for a year, ending in mid-1963.

As of Aug. 21, 1996, publication of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was resumed by publisher J. Dozier Hasty.

The Origins of the Eagle, As Told By Founder Isaac Van Anden

“In 1841 Brooklyn was a Whig County and, as has always been the case with a party opposing the Democratic party, the Whig embraced within its lines the great majority of the wealthy men of the city. It had two organs, the Star and the Advertiser. The Democratic party had none to defend it from attack or to advocate its principles. In the early part of 1841 it appeared as if the issues of the day were to the advantage of the Democrats. The logic of events was with it. How the Democrats were to advantage themselves in this condition was a frequent discussion among the Democrats who were active in affairs. The discussion proceeded through the summertime, and I was in frequent discussion with these active men. Early in the fall I suggested the establishment of a new paper. The suggestion was made to Henry C. Murphy. At first he did not take kindly to the suggestion, but, on reflection, he thought better of the idea. Finally a number of Democrats were called to a meeting in the office of Lott, Murphy & Vanderbilt at 3 Front Street.

“After a thorough discussion of the subject, it was agreed to start the paper, each one present contributing to a fund for the purpose. But my idea had been modified, and a campaign paper was determined upon, to cease with the election. The title of the new paper was suggested by Judge Greenwood. It was The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat.

“It was agreed that it was to be printed in my printing office. Henry C. Murphy was made the editor and Alfred G. Stevens was named as publisher.

“The Eagle was successful from the start, but when the election was over it was proposed to cease publication as it had served its purpose. Against that I protested . . . . I offered to assume the burden of the whole responsibility and to buy the interests of all who had been subscribers. While these negotiations were pending, the publication of the paper was continued, I guaranteeing them against a deficit . . . . These negotiations had been so long protracted that it was not until the following January that I was able to publish an issue which told that Isaac Van Anden was the Publisher and Sole Proprietor.”

1 comment:

GrayMck1425 said...

Really interesting. I was going through my family history today and came across the first issue of the Brooklyn Eagle.