Opinion: The story of The Arizona Republic is a story of our state — a story of struggle and endurance, with unexpected twists every now and then.
One hundred and thirty years ago this week, our state’s most widely read and influential newspaper came to life amid the petty political squabbles of territorial Arizona.
“The Arizona Republican” was so named because it was a party organ intended to advance the agenda of the then-Republican territorial governor and his attorney general.
He had little chance of success.
The history of this newspaper turned out to be the history of the state. Both would struggle to rise, mature, and ultimately flourish. The newspaper would change its name in 1930 to The Arizona Republic and eventually become a print and digital media center serving 9 million unique visitors to azcentral.com each month.
At times like these, when momentous events threaten our way of life and the things we have built, it is worth revisiting history to remind us that we are part of a long tale of human endurance. .
Aspirations of a city and its diary
The odds that some five million of us will call this remote southwest desert outpost their home couldn’t have been longer. In the year this journal was born, Phoenix was mostly a stretch of land with 3,152 warm souls, about half the population of today’s Guadalupe.
The automobile hadn’t arrived yet, so the place smelled of horse-a musk that hung over every Western town.
People’s lives were very different from ours then. They were one with the elements – more than half a century removed from the central air conditioning that makes life here not only bearable but for some even lavish.
By the late 1800s, the Phoenicians had the most rudimentary public works to control their source of life – the water that flowed from the Salt River. The salt was so wild that they lived with ever-changing crises of floods and droughts.
It is their coronaviruses, their catastrophic events that have turned daily life upside down. And they came regularly.
Their collective aspiration was to make the desert prosper – to grow crops so they could build roads and great cities. To really understand what this meant, you need only pass through the Native American communities on the outskirts of Phoenix, where large swaths of the Salt River Valley have been thankfully preserved in their natural state.
The landscape is steep and covered in crust and rock and creosote, barrel cacti and saguaros – all baked under an unforgiving sun. Only the most stubborn farmers start with this. But the farmers in the valley did it and made the Salt River Valley green with cotton and citrus.
There, to tell it all, was The Arizona Republican, the newspaper you read today.
The mischievous little twists of history
The story has a way of taking playful little turns and that’s what he did with The Republican.
Late last year, The New York Times reported that two academics conducted a study of the biggest rivalries in sports and determined that the fiercest in North America was Arizona State University vs. from Arizona. Phoenix versus Tucson.
It doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Our two cities have been historic enemies for more than a century, battling first over who would get the state capitol and then who would enjoy the state’s most important university. In the 1950s, Tucson worked hard to strangle ASU in the cradle, to keep Phoenix-Tempe from getting a rival state institution. Since then, we have been arguing in the Legislative Assembly.
In that vein, Tucsonians have viewed the state’s largest newspaper with some suspicion due to its Phoenix-centric coverage and viewpoint. So it’s no small feat that the Arizona Republic was founded by a man from Tucson.
Like many men who found their way to Arizona in the 19th century, Lewis Wolfley was a Civil War veteran. Born in Philadelphia in 1839, he moved to Kentucky and eventually became major of the Third Kentucky Cavalry Regiment. After the war, he served the federal government during reconstruction in Louisiana.
He moved to southern Arizona and Tucson in 1883. A civil engineer and surveyor, he had come to the territory to oversee his relatives’ mining claim in the East.
We enjoy this story today, thanks to the painstaking work of retired Republic City deputy editor Earl Zarbin, who wrote the authorized history of “All the Time a Newspaper” on the occasion of its centenary – 1990.
Zarbin did not gloss over the story of its creation. Newspapers in 1890 were often instruments of politics, and the Arizona Republic was no different.
The founder of the newspaper was a politician
Lewis Wolfley was first and foremost a politician.
In 1889, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison returned Wolfley’s nomination for territorial governor of Arizona to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. After central Arizona’s political interests receded, the US Senate upheld it.
Wolfley was now governor. And Clark Churchill was the attorney general of Arizona. Soon they will launch The Arizona Republican on the Monday morning of May 19, 1890.
That same year, Idaho and Wyoming became states. Yosemite National Park was created. Activists founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association. And, more ominously, the 7th Cavalry massacred hundreds of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, SD
Wolfley and Churchill had ostensibly created their journal as a means “to bring Arizona to the Republican line”.
But other motives were more significant.
The Arizona Republic was born out of anti-Mormonism. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had migrated from Utah to Arizona and settled in what is now the East Valley. Some of them practiced polygamy, which clashed with American norms and sensibilities.
But even more offensive to Wolfley was the LDS predilection for voting Democrats. As their numbers grew in Arizona, they became a formidable opposition voting bloc.
“Wolfley, and others, wanted to counteract their political strength by denying the right to vote to people who practiced or promoted polygamy,” Zarbin wrote.
In one of those quirks of history, the people of LDS today are largely Republicans. Utah is one of the reddest states in the country, and a number of LDS people are supervisors and reporters for the Wolfley newspaper created to thwart them.
Water helped shape the Republic
There was another issue that prompted Wolfley to get into the newspaper business.
Harrison’s White House was trying to take control of water reservoir sites, irrigation canals and ditches. Wolfley had his own plans for a Gila River irrigation project which included a dam. He will use his newspaper to oppose the federal authorities.
Even to this day, Arizona’s water future is intertwined with federal government interests and influence. Today, we are working with other states in the Colorado River Basin to balance federal water allocation in a generational drought.
Water defined Arizona and defined early on the type of newspaper The Arizona Republic would strive to become. In February 1891, a torrent of flood water rushed down the Rivière Salée and destroyed the railway bridge. “As the water spread through the valley, it melted the adobe bricks that formed the walls of houses and buildings,” Zarbin wrote. “(It left) many people homeless.”
Wolfley had recruited two professional editors from Los Angeles to run his paper, and soon the Phoenix business community approached and urged them to withhold information about the flood lest it discourage outside investors.
The publishers refused.
One of them, Edwin S. Gill, wrote: “For the benefit of these (outside investors), we wish to say that The Republican is the first, the last and always a newspaper.
Publishers would not bow to commercial pressure. Instead, they announced that they would publish 500 more copies of the newspaper.
Phil Boas is the editorial page editor of The Arizona Republic. He can be reached at 602-444-8292 or [email protected]