The Columbia Register
Houlton, Columbia County, Or.
The “story of Oregon journalism” is dynamic; low initial cost, a need for news in undeveloped areas, and ample resources meant demand for publications was high, and papers could be readily supplied. Newspapers would spring up, seemingly overnight, to fill a singular need. Some were created to promote political causes, to encourage settlement during pioneer days, or to simply provide news for a burgeoning town. Others were meant to bring literature and art to the masses and to provide a platform for fledgling Oregon writers and artists. Changing political ideologies, lack of patronage, consolidations and even towns being left off railway lines could contribute to the demise of a newspaper. The Columbia Register [LCCN: sn97071109], a short-lived, political publication established by Robert H. Mitchell, typifies the Oregon newspaper experience through its origin, evolution and abrupt end.
Robert H. Mitchell was born in 1854 in Marshall County, Illinois and spent his formative years in the central part of the state. He received a public education and apprenticed for several years as an iron moulder, eventually turning his attention to the printing press. He began moving westward, like the pioneers before him, and ran county newspapers in Kansas until 1879. In an allegedly dramatic and unfortunate twist of fate, “a cyclone swept away the Dighton Eagle”[LCCN: unknown] abruptly ending his career with that newspaper. Mitchell, unfazed, established the Dighton Progress [LCCN: sn85030095] the following year and then continued on as a newspaperman in Nebraska. He eventually moved to Cornelius, Oregon in 1888 where he would edit the Hillsboro Independent [LCCN: sn93051621]. In 1894 Mitchell, along with C. W. Clow, founded the Hillsboro Argus [LCCN: sn96088160] but sold the paper that same fall. He moved to Vernonia where he then ran the Nehalem Journal [LCCN: unknown], the town’s first paper, as a Democratic weekly. In 1898 he became editor of the Columbia County News [LCCN: 2011260114]. Newspapers were prolific and, like many editors, Mitchell would bounce from publication to publication. Consequently, he became a savvy and experienced editor and writer by the time he established the Columbia Register.
Around the turn of the century, Mitchell purchased the Rainier Gazette [LCCN: sn00063655] from C. W. Herman for $350. Mitchell took this opportunity to assure his readers in the December 17, 1901 issue of the Gazette that he assumed new responsibilities with the acquisition but was “assured of hearty support [since] the Gazette will be better prepared to give the news of the county” than under previous proprietors. Like most newspapermen of the day, Mitchell oftentimes used his publications for personal promotion. Mitchell continued to print the Gazette in Rainier, but a few years later he moved the printing plant to the nearby “little town of Houlton,” where he established the Columbia Register.
Debuting on April 29, 1904, the eight-page, six-column publication was printed every Friday, and a year subscription cost readers $1.00. Mitchell writes in the first issue that he believed there to be a need for a paper “in opposition to the three Republican Party papers.” It was the paper’s policy to “favor good government, as opposed to Republican misrule,” meaning the Register would have strong Democratic leanings. Mitchell would go on to make the bold claim that the Columbia Register would “always be the best paper in the county.” Unfortunately, this was not the case, as the paper was suspended in just two years.
The Register reported on local and state news but devoted substantial space to Democratic Party issues and news from the nation’s capital. International news was also covered regularly. A column entitled “News of the Week” featured condensed, typically one-sentence news items to quickly cover important news stories, reminiscent of today’s “Tweets.” Serial stories were also published, with a chapter or two appearing in each issue of the Register. “The Planter’s Daughter or Fate’s Revenge” by Mrs. Alice P. Carriston, “Master of the Mine” by Robert Buchanan and “The Red Storm” by Joel Robinson were just a few of the serials to appear.
Printing a newspaper was a labor-intensive job, and certain presses could make or break a publication. The Register had been using a second-hand Washington press that was brought in from “its hiding place in the woods” for almost a year. In February of 1905, Mitchell purchased a Prouty press, sometimes called a “Kansas Grasshopper” due to the two long bars which swung back and forth resembling the legs of its namesake. This was a marked improvement over the earlier press. The Register proudly printed a picture of the new Prouty and declared that “in one hour after going to press, we can have our entire edition of six hundred copies all printed and ready for the mailing clerk.” Whenever a new press was purchased, it was not unusual for a newspaper to boast about the modernization and invite the public to see the new machine in action.
In April of 1905, the Register’s new press began printing the Rainier Gazette, which Mitchell still owned and edited. Mitchell stated, in a jab at the Republican-leaning Oregon Mist [LCCN: 2004260421], “The Gazette is out-stripping the Mist in the lower end of the county, and the Register is doing the same for him in the upper end of the county.” These politically fueled insults were very common and newspapers were often used as vessels for personal and political vendettas. By July of that same year, Mitchell suspended the Rainier Gazette,and all subscribers were “supplied with the Columbia Register in lieu of the Gazette.”
On June 1, 1906, Harry G. Kemp became editor of the Register and the paper moved to Rainier, Oregon. Like many Oregon newspapers before it, the Columbia Register lasted for only a short while longer and then dissolved into obscurity. It’s difficult to know what became of the Register after June 1. The 1907 N.W Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual lists the Columbia Register existing in Rainier, edited by Kemp, but it also lists the title in Houlton, edited by Mitchell. Neither entry appeared in 1908, and Mitchell was living in Washington state by 1910.
Prepared with reference to:
Ayer, N.W., Ed., N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: N. W. Ayer & Son, 1904-1908.
Blackmar, Frank W. ed., Kansas: a Cyclopedia of State History, Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Towns, Prominent Persons, Etc. Vol 2. Chicago, Illinois: Standard Publishing Company, 1912.
“Gallery of Oregon Newspaper Men,” Morning Oregonian (Portland), Tuesday, July 10, 1900.
The International Printing Museum, the International Printing Museum Collection, Carson, CA.
Rowell, Geo. P. American Newspaper Directory. 16th ed., New York: Geo. P. Rowell and Co, 1903-1909.
Turnbull, George S. History of Oregon Newspapers. Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1939.
University of Washington School of Journalism. “More or Less News.” The Washington Newspaper 6, no. 1 (October, 1920).
–Written by Emily Vance