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Cover: Printer’s Devils: How a Feisty Pioneer Newspaper Shaped the History of British Columbia’s Smelter City, 1895-1925

Printer’s Devils: How a Feisty Pioneer Newspaper Shaped the History of British Columbia’s Smelter City, 1895-1925

By Ron Verzuh

Review By Derek Moscato

April 23, 2024

The confluence of region-building, news media, and the cross-border resources economy is the focus of historian Ron Verzuh’s book, Printer’s Devils: How a Feisty Pioneer Newspaper Shaped the History of British Columbia, 1895-1925. Victoria-based Verzuh delivers the reader a detailed history of the weekly newspaper of record in one of British Columbia’s more fascinating industrial towns, even as he laments the challenging times that have faced mining communities like Trail but also the business of community news. Notably, Verzuh is interested in the editors who led these hinterland publications from the years between 1895 to 1925, an era that was especially influential in transforming the community’s political and cultural institutions. Trail’s weekly newspaper, as Verzuh noted, helped to transform Trail from “rough mining camp to prosperous Interior city.”

With his ability to connect a localized history to the larger histories of B.C. and Canada, and his weaving of historical detail with the narratives of Trail’s pioneers, Verzuh delivers on multiple fronts. The Printer’s Devils takes the reader to an under-served part of Canadian and even British Columbia history, one that tells the compelling story of the B.C. interior and its ever-complex relationship to ecology, economy, and its neighbors to the south.

For the author, the story of Printer’s Devils is personal. He grew up in the West Kootenay region, and once worked for a weekly newspaper in the Northwest Territories. Verzuh also draws inspiration from smelter laborers from his own lineage, notably his grandfather, who immigrated to southeastern B.C. from Montana at the turn of the last century. Thus, there’s a welcomed spirit of bi-nationalism in this history of B.C.’s interior, with the author connecting Trail’s emergent civic and economic life directly to the quest for precious and base metals in resources-rich landscapes of the northwestern United States. But the book also serves as a larger lens into Canadian and Pacific Northwest media history during a time of economic transformation and political tumult. Verzuh articulates this as “a look back at one weekly newspaper in one Canadian town, but…also the story of all weekly newspapers.”

The story of Printer’s Devils starts in eastern Washington on August 3, 1895, when a fire destroyed the town of Sprague, including the building that housed the local newspaper The Independent. The newspaper’s proprietor, a 30-year old newspaperman named William Fentress Thompson, somehow managed to salvage a printing press and two cases of type to bravely print out a final edition of the publication, before making the 150 mile trek directly north to B.C.’s West Kootenay region, where gold, silver, and copper strikes were generating interest on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border. By fall of the same year, Thompson was already settled into the bustling town of Trail Creek Landing, ready to set up his next newspaper operation, the Trail Creek News. Here, he would have encountered fellow Americans like Colonel Eugene Sayers Toppers, the mining financier who founded Trail Creek Landing and would become Trail’s first mayor; and Frederick “Fritz” Augustus Heinze, the copper king from Butte, Montana who established Trail’s metal processing smelter.

Verzuh situates the publication as the small-town outgrowth of the British Columbia newspaper industry, one that had arisen nearly a half-century previous with the advent of the influential Victoria Gazette. But the author notes that a newspaper like Trail Creek News was likely influenced by a concurrent tradition of “raucous and undisciplined newspapers”, as described by journalist William Rayner (p. 16). These included the Scorpion out of New Westminster, described as a “scurrilous little paper” that paralleled the Trail newspaper’s penchant for “wit and… downright silliness” (p. 16).

Verzuh’s account of Trail’s early media days tends to leave no stone unturned. For the reader, this proves to be a blessing and a curse. By providing numerous biographical details, contextualizing information, and reasonable speculation to explain the professional choices of the book’s protagonists, the author lays out as many clues as possible in narrating the trajectories of newspapers, news professionals, and the communities of the West Kootenay and the Interior West. This richness of detail offers avenues for deeper inquiry and potential jumping off points for future histories of the region’s media. The cultural-economic interplay between B.C.’s Kootenay region, and the mining boomtowns of Idaho, Montana, and Washington provides a fascinating case in point.

This tracing of social and cultural history in conjunction with an overarching story of natural resources extraction harkens back to Harold Innis’s staples thesis, which explains Canadian development through the extraction and export of raw materials, including minerals. But an Innisian reading of Printer’s Devils might also consider the Canadian historian’s later contemplations of mass communication and the press, and the linkages of corporatized media interests to industrialization, spatialization, and the movement of institutional power across North America. Considered within this larger paradigm of culture, economy, and environmental history, Printer’s Devils shines.

As a social history, Printer’s Devils doesn’t provide quite the same degree of heft. On multiple occasions, Verzuh inserts himself somewhat superficially within the narrative to cast a judgement against some earlier norm or practice that is mentioned in passing. Granted, mining towns have historically laid claim to a disproportionate amount of social discrimination, workplace injustice, and environmental degradation. Trail was no exception in this regard. However, it would be helpful for the author to document these instances without editorializing and allow the reader to interrogate the ethical or moral ramifications on their own.

However, given the weight of Verzuh’s efforts, and the importance of his research to both British Columbia and Pacific Northwest histories, this is a minor methodological quibble in the larger scheme of things. Accounting for the challenges of both density and moral posturing, Printer’s Devils is a valuable resource for both the media history scholar and the casual regional history enthusiast. It shines a light on the critical importance of journalism during a transformative era for British Columbia, while telling the fascinating stories of those media pioneers who helped carve out the remarkable history of the West Kootenay region.

Publication Information

Verzuh, Ron. Printer’s Devils: How a Feisty Pioneer Newspaper Shaped the History of British Columbia’s Smelter City, 1895-1925. Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press. 2023. 248 pp. $28.00 paper.