How Anacortes journalists shaped their town and the Northwest

Mar 20, 2019, 7:35 AM | Updated: 10:17 am

Anacortes was once called the “Venice of the Pacific” by 19th century historian and writer Frances Fuller Victor. And, if things had turned out differently, the Skagit County town on Fidalgo Island might have become the busiest port in the Pacific Northwest and the economic capital of Washington.

Anacortes’ early aspirations – and disappointments – are just a few of the fascinating elements of a new exhibit at the Anacortes Museum and a new online archive of the first three decades of the city’s long-running newspaper.

The new exhibit is called “Extra, Extra, The Early Years of Anacortes Newspapers.” It debuted earlier this month in the city’s jewel-box of a history museum that occupies the ornate old 1909 Carnegie Library.

Because not everyone can easily visit the museum and because the community wanted to share a priceless historical resource, the museum has also just debuted the first phase of a major project to digitize a newspaper archive and make it available online in cooperation with the Washington State Library.

Bret Lunsford is director of the Anacortes Museum. He says that while pretty much every town of a certain size had its own newspaper back in the 1880s, there’s something special about Anacortes and its relationship to journalists and journalism.

“What’s significant for Anacortes is that Amos Bowman, who’s recognized as the town founder, was a journalist who had worked for The New York Tribune under Horace Greeley and [who] took the ‘Go West’ advice literally,” Lunsford said. “And [Bowman] was only one of a couple of journalists [in Anacortes] who had city-building dreams along with the publishing interest.”

Amos Bowman, who came to what’s now Anacortes in March 1879, also holds the distinction of having re-named the town that had been known as “Ship Harbor.” His wife Anna’s maiden name was Curtis, thus “Anna Curtis” morphed into “Anacortes.”

In addition to founding a newspaper called The Enterprise in 1882, Amos Bowman also published a map of the area that was designed to lure settlers in search of land to buy, which was an essential ingredient in any community’s recipe for growth in the 19th century.

To hear Bret Lunsford tell it, in those early years when there were just a handful of people in Anacortes, it seems that most of them were wayward, bohemian journalists, all publishing or writing for local newspapers.

Lunsford says that Bowman’s paper only lasted a few years, but another of the early papers, the Anacortes American, is still in business. It was founded in 1890 by two men, including an early settler named Douglas Allmond, who Lunsford said made some keen observations about the young settlement.

“Allmond … writes about visiting Anacortes in the 1880s, and describes a real bohemian group of reporters and printers there,” Lunsford said. “He describes ‘At the time of the writer’s first visit here, there was no wharf, passengers being put ashore in a row boat and landed on the beach. This particular day, the only other passenger to land was a keg of beer, and it should be unnecessary to say the keg of beer was the most popular of the new arrivals.’”

Amos Bowman and many of the journalists in early Anacortes were also real estate speculators, hoping to cash in when transcontinental railroad connections to Anacortes’ deep-water harbor would transform the sleepy outpost into a major metropolis.

“That’s when they were promoting the idea that there were going to be three different transcontinental railroads terminating” in Anacortes, Bret Lunsford said. “In fact, at that point, they had three different newspapers – the Anacortes American, the Anacortes Daily Progress, and the Anacortes Courier – all spreading the news.”

Bowman and the others must have been pretty disappointed when Tacoma and then, ultimately, Seattle came to benefit most from the cross-country railroads, and dreams of reaping huge and immediate profits evaporated. And, once the economic downturn known as the Panic of 1893 took a hold of the country, it was tough times everywhere. Among the newspapers on Fidalgo Island in those early years, only the Anacortes American survived the 1890s.

The exhibit, and a presentation Lunsford will give on Wednesday, March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Anacortes Public Library, also showcase more recent aspects of Anacortes’ newspaper history, including longtime Anacortes American editor and publisher Wallie Funk and his business partner John Webber.

“Wallie graduated from Anacortes High School, and when he came back from journalism school at the UW, he decided to buy the Anacortes American and ran it for the next 14 years” in the 1950s and early 1960s, Lunsford said.

Lunsford says Funk, who passed away in 2017 at age 95, used his position as editor of the paper to serve as a booster for “progressive improvements to the town [when it was] in a point of transition from being the lumber, fishing, and cannery town it had been [and] it was in need of lots of infrastructure.”

For the first phase of the new online newspaper archive, the Anacortes Museum went way back before even Wallie Funk’s time and chose to highlight the first three decades of the paper, from the very first issue of May 15, 1890 – published just six months after Washington became a state – up through the issue of December 28, 1922.

The free database can be searched by keyword, or hi-resolution scans of the original papers (made from microfilm) can be browsed through page-by-page, issue-by-issue. Either way, the archive offers a deep dive into Anacortes’ early history, with local and regional news, along with advertisements for doctors, dry goods and, of course, dirt – in the form of real estate.

The Anacortes Museum is jointly funding the work to digitize microfilm of the old newspapers with financial support from Anacortes Museum Foundation and the Skagit Community Foundation. The project is in partnership with the Washington State Library, which is an arm of the Secretary of State’s office.

As part of a statewide initiative, other cities around Washington are also working to preserve and share their local newspapers, including, so far, the Eatonville Dispatch and Cashmere Valley Record.

Shawn Schollmeyer works for the Washington State Library, directing the effort to pursue projects like what’s happening in Anacortes and hosting online archives of many newspapers from the state and territory’s earliest years. Washington’s own homegrown initiative to preserve local papers came after a federal program funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities ended five years ago, though some funding for Washington’s current work comes from the federal Library Services Technology Act.

Schollmeyer says that the success of the projects she’s been involved with depend heavily on each community stepping forward and being passionate about preserving and sharing historic newspapers. She also says that along with local museums or historical societies, the publishers of local papers can really make a difference in these preservation efforts, and the partnerships can make a difference for everybody in a particular community.

“The Anacortes American publishing staff has a really great tie to their past, and that is not necessarily constant in other areas,” Schollmeyer said. “But the communities really rely on their publishers to show the local high school news, to show what events are coming up, so communities like Eatonville and Anacortes, Cashmere, they’re really very proud of their publishers and their publishing history.”

“Their local newspaper means a lot to them,” Schollmeyer said.

Plans call for digitizing and posting more issues of the Anacortes American all the way up through the year 2000; Schollmeyer says the next batch will likely be available online sometime next year at the earliest. With the future of print newspapers hard to predict – it’s been ten years since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shifted to online-only; the Seattle Weekly just did the same – the future of newspaper preservation will also likely look very different.

Meanwhile, back at the Anacortes Museum, another of the city’s newspapers that’s featured in the exhibit is from Anacortes High School. Among that paper’s claims to fame is that the newspaper staff led the successful effort back in 1925 to adopt “Seahawks” as the school mascot — 50 years before our NFL team chose that name, too.

And Lunsford says that for the Anacortes High School newspaper, it went beyond simply running a contest.

“They actually put out a list of a number of different choices including ‘Rum Runners’ and ‘Crabs,’ and a lot of just jokes, and the student body voted for ‘Sea Hawk,’ which had been recommended by the staff,” Lunsford said.

It was all in day’s work in a city with a long history of enterprising journalists with community-shaping ambitions stretching far beyond the printed page.

More from Feliks Banel

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How Anacortes journalists shaped their town and the Northwest