The Napa Valley Register came into existence 150 years ago Saturday in a valley then more known for its wheat crop than wine grapes, and in an America torn apart by civil war.
The Register celebrates the sesquicentennial of its first edition, printed Aug. 10, 1863, as the sole surviving publication from a varied and vibrant history of newspapers and newspapermen who inhabited the town from its infancy in the 1850s, through the turn of the 20th century, and beyond.
Napa had more than a dozen newspapers in the first 60 years after the town’s founding, representing both Democratic and Republican viewpoints. Some never made it past their first few months, while others found themselves on the wrong side of history.
The Pacific Echo, started in 1861, was vehemently opposed to the administration of President Abraham Lincoln throughout the Civil War. The paper published until the morning notice of Lincoln’s assassination reached Napa in April 1865, when founder Alex Montgomery quietly and quickly left town.
Two newspapers loom over those early years more than the others — the Napa Reporter, the first newspaper published in Napa County, and the Register.
On July 4, 1856, the first edition of the Napa Reporter rolled off an old Washington hand press in a ramshackle office on Main Street, next to the American Hotel.
The town of Napa was just nine years old then, composed of a huddle of low-slung wooden buildings clustered against the Napa River, where the present-day downtown now stands. Pioneer refuse littered the earthen streets — hats, boots, broken bottles and sardine boxes, as the Napa Register reported in 1864, recalling the town of a decade prior.
Fewer than 5,000 souls called the county home at that point, but Napa still had bustle. The countryside had vast crops of wheat and grain, silver, quicksilver, coal and iron for mining, and plenty of heads of cattle to keep the hotels and camps filled with young men.
“Most everybody had a pocket full of silver, or some other California coinage, which came easy and went still more,” the Register reported. “They bucked … drank freely, worked hard, enjoyed themselves hugely, and were ready for any semi-innocent piece of devilment.”
But the town had neither the population nor advertising base to sustain a profitable newspaper, as A.J. Cox, the editor and founder of the Reporter, soon realized. Cox grew up in Charleston, S.C., and worked as a printer’s apprentice before heading west to San Francisco by ship in March of 1847, wrote historian C.A. Menefee in 1873.
Cox established the Sonoma Bulletin — one of the first newspapers in the state north of San Francisco, according to Menefee — in 1852, before turning his attention to Napa Valley.
The Napa Reporter’s printing was sporadic in its first six months, with one, two or even three weeks between issues, according to Menefee. The paper’s advertisements were legal notices, and couldn’t count a subscription list longer than 20 people until 1857.
Its offices were housed in an 18-foot-by-18-foot shanty next to the American Hotel, with cracks in its walls and a hole in its ceiling — natural ventilation in the summer months, but a source of ire come winter.
“It was with great difficulty in winter (even when wood was obtainable) that the place could be kept warm enough to work in, and it often happened that wood could not be had at any price, in consequence of the horrible condition of the roads,” wrote Menefee.
Cox paid $5 for a buggy of wood that winter, only to see it and its horses get stuck in the mud on Main Street and slowly begin to sink, according to Menefee. Getting them out cost more than the wood itself.
That December, however, Cox brought on as a partner a man who would establish himself as one of the preeminent journalists in Napa’s early years, a Richmond, Va., native named R.T. Montgomery.
Montgomery was 32 years old when he set out west to California, arriving in Napa in 1853 and working as a schoolteacher until linking with Cox. Montgomery’s background was in the printing business, and he proved himself an able writer and printer, although one prone to excessive drunkenness.
Cox had his own troubles with alcohol. The historian Thomas Jefferson Gregory documents two incidents in a 1912 history of Napa. Cox once apologized to a lamp post “with which he had abruptly collided when the sidewalk was not sufficiently wide for his convenience.”
On another occasion, Cox bumped into a nesting hen and — ever the Southern gentleman — told the bird, “Beg pardon, madam, don’t rise, please.”
But through their partnership, Montgomery and Cox purchased a larger press for the Reporter in February 1857, and the paper began to take hold in Napa. New offices on Third and Main streets soon followed.
The partnership yielded other benefits: Montgomery wedded Cox’s sister, Sarah, in June 1857, as the historian Lyman L. Palmer documented in an 1881 book on Napa’s history.
Cox stayed with the newspaper until September 1858, when he left to start the Napa Semi-Weekly Sun. That paper failed within two months, and Cox departed Napa for Healdsburg.
Montgomery continued to manage the newspaper with new partners Mason D. Brownson, J.I. Horrell, and A.M. Parry. By 1861 the Reporter had pages of local and national news, opinion columns, editorials and advertisements.
Locally, the focus was partly agricultural, partly on the continued developments of Napa County. A poor grain crop in 1860 was a cause for strong concern in the Reporter’s pages in spring of 1861, and contributed to a steep shortfall in the county’s coffers. Farmers were saddled with debts from land purchases made on credit when the crop yields were good and their values high. The Reporter was not spared the financial woe.
“The county has never before experienced anything like the present hard times,” the Reporter stated. “Many men have failed. Others have gone out of business to wait for better times. Our own is as bad if not worse than the rest, and we would abandon it tomorrow, if it were possible, without losing all we have invested.”
Nationally, the news was dominated by the fracturing of the Union and the start of the Civil War. While the partners were Democrats and didn’t vote for Lincoln, a Republican, in the 1860 presidential election, the Reporter supported the administration as it tried to quash the secessionists.
“We voted against Mr. Lincoln and undoubtedly should do so again,” stated an editorial on March 16, 1861. “But while he is at the helm of the state — placed there by fair and constitutional means — his every act for the preservation of the Union and putting down the rebellion will receive our most sincere approval.”
Their words, while no doubt read by Napans, had no effect on the nation at large. The bombing of Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War occurred less than a month later.
In August 1863, J.I. Horrell left the Reporter to found the Napa Register with a partner, L. Hoxie Strong. Strong died soon afterward, and on the day of his death, Nov. 14, 1863, Montgomery joined Horrell at the Register, writes Palmer in 1881. Montgomery remained affiliated with the Register, either as editor, partner or sole owner, until 1869.
The early days of the Register trace closely to those of the Reporter. Its first offices were also in a small shop on Main and Third streets, and it struggled to take hold in a town with stiff competition from other, more established newspapers.
It was a weekly for the first decade, and was printed on a Washington hand press. Each sheet of paper had to be inserted into the press one at a time. The Register was staunchly Republican in its views.
Horrell eventually sold his stake in the Register in 1864. The newspaper would never have survived its infancy were it not for Montgomery and his successor at the Register, George M. Francis.
Montgomery was a brilliant but troubled man, whose name was associated with churches, financial companies, temperance societies and, after bouts of heavy drinking, the police blotter, Palmer writes.
“He had a massive mind, a quick and keen perception, a good use of language, recognizing the delicate shadings of words,” Palmer wrote. “He knew what was meant by the term gentleman. No man was capable of holding a higher and prouder position in his relations, social and intellectual, than he, and none suffered themselves to sink lower.”
Alcohol would prove his undoing, and he died in 1878 a broken man.
“The demon alcohol possessed him, and drove him from the summit to the chasm, and he died a vagrant in the county hospital, on the charity of the people he had so long lived among and so faithfully served in the discharge of his editorial duties,” Palmer wrote.
But his name and his legacy are inseparable from the history of journalism in Napa, the Register wrote in a memorial.
“It would seem to us that a newspaper biography for Napa County without the name of R.T. Montgomery ... must be about as deficient as Hamlet with the ghost left out, or Paradise Lost without the devil,” the Register stated.
George M. Francis followed Montgomery at the helm of the Register, and knew none of the troubles that plagued his predecessor.
Francis was a native of Pontiac, Mich., and began working as a printer’s apprentice at age 14. By age 18 in 1862, he was the foreman of a print shop, but left to enlist in the Union Army. He served in the ranks of General William Sherman’s army during his march to the sea in 1864, sweeping through Georgia to burn and raze Confederate towns and cities.
Francis never lost his love for the Union blue, and the sense of patriotism it entailed for him. Decades later, the Register printed an editorial extolling the beauty of those blue uniforms, and lamenting the switch to olive green in World War I.
After the war ended, he ventured west to California and settled in San Francisco before moving to Napa in 1870. He purchased a share in the Register that year, and helped transform it from a very small weekly to one of Napa’s dominant daily newspapers.
Two years later, the publisher of the rival Reporter announced plans to start a daily edition at some point. Not to be outdone, Francis started a daily edition of the Register the next week. He maintained daily and weekly editions of the paper until 1922, when it shifted solely to daily printing. By 1878, the Register was large enough to occupy a loft across the street from the Napa Valley Opera House.
Francis was a devoted Republican and active in local politics. He worked as Napa’s postmaster under a series Republican presidents, Chester Arthur, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. But his political interests weren’t enough to trump his love of newspapers, the historians Tillie Kanaga and W.F. Wallace wrote in 1901.
“His heart is, and always has been, in journalism,” wrote Kanaga and Wallace. “His paper is his pride, and will doubtless be to the end of his life.”
Francis’ son, George H. Francis, was born in 1877 and began working in the print shop as a young boy, sweeping floors and delivering papers by horseback. The Register had two delivery routes — town and country.
The Reporter ceased printing in 1888, when the Napa Daily Journal was created. At the close of the 19th century, that left the Register and the Journal as the two main dailies in Napa. The other newspapers “were of ephemeral existence, not unlike a northern sun, circling above the horizon for a brief period and then disappearing from sight forever,” the historian Gregory wrote in 1912.
George M. Francis built a new headquarters for his thriving newspaper on First and Coombs streets in 1905, reflecting the growth and development of the town it covered. In 1920, he recalled the earlier Napa.
“When I drove my stakes in Napa there was no East Napa, as far as improvements went,” Francis said. “There was no Third Street bridge and no Third Street Avenue to the cemetery and the regions beyond. There were no Second, Third, School or Church street residences. It was all commons, where circuses pitched their tents and the boys played ball.”
Francis brought his son in as a partner in the Register in 1907, and George H. Francis eventually assumed control of the newspaper as his father aged. George M. Francis died in April 1932. The son called the father one of the last “old-time California newspapermen, who wrote his own editorials in a bold hand in a bold language.”
The paper remained with George H. Francis and various partners until 1958, when it was sold to Scripps League, a small family chain. Subsequently, the Register was bought by the Pulitzer newspaper group. In 2005, Pulitzer newspapers were folded into Lee Enterprises, a Davenport, Iowa, newspaper group.
This story has been edited to delete an assertion that the paper never missed an edition. Indeed, it has missed at least one.