Newspapers on the Frontier: The San Diego Union
By Nathan Fogerson, San Diego State University Intern, Spring 2021
Life on the frontier was isolating in many ways—communities were small and often insular, communication was limited and delayed, and it was hard to keep up with current events. Newspapers were one way that American settlers on the frontier stayed up to date with what was happening in the rest of the country. San Diego was no exception to this, but it took a little time before the new community had a consistent newspaper published on a regular basis. The first attempt at a newspaper in San Diego was the San Diego Herald. It published weekly but was ultimately cancelled in 1860. Subsequently, San Diego was left without a newspaper until 1868. The San Diego Union Tribune, proposed by Phillip Crosthwaite, brought a steady newspaper to San Diego, which still publishes to this day.
Phillip Crosthwaite, a San Diego pioneer, had ambitions to introduce a regularly published newspaper back into San Diego. He hoped that a newspaper might bring some interest from locals back into the community, which had seen a decline in business. Crosthwaite’s sister was married to attorney Colonel William Jefferson “Jeff” Gatewood, and together the couple resided in San Andreas, California. There, Gatewood published a local newspaper. As a result, Crosthwaite hatched a plan and left for San Andreas. During his trip, he made a proposal to Gatewood; Crosthwaite wanted Gatewood to stop publishing in San Andreas and bring a publication down to San Diego. Curious, Gatewood decided to take a trip to San Diego. Locals were enthusiastic about the prospect and gave him subscriptions and advertisement contracts. Inspired by the possibilities, Gatewood accepted the proposal to move his paper business to San Diego.
Gatewood stopped the publication of his newspaper in San Andreas and prepared for the move to San Diego. Realizing his need for reliable employees, Gatewood formed a partnership with Edward W. Bushyhead, the foreman of his San Andreas publication, and hired José Narciso Briseño, a printer. Gatewood made the trip to San Diego over-land, and had his new staff pack the massive Washington printing press on a steam ship to make the journey to San Diego.
Arriving in San Diego, Gatewood and his colleagues needed a building to conduct their business. They quickly found a small three-bedroom building on land owned by Miguel Pedrorena. Initially erected in 1850, this building is thought to have been one of the first frame buildings. The original structure is still intact at the same location to this day. The printing press was quickly installed into the building and the first issue of The San Diego Union was printed on October 10, 1868.
Printing a newspaper in the 19th century was more complicated than it is today. The first step in producing a newspaper involved getting the stories developed. These stories would range from local matters to promoting businesses, and sometimes would serve as a way for businesses to publicly shame customers who had not paid their bill. After the stories were written, the process of laying out the type began. Individual letters or type that were often made from wood or metal were arranged in proper order to reflect the stories. Spacers were used to separate the different stories, which often appeared in columns. This process could take a skilled typist a day to accomplish. After the type was arranged, one of the printers would then ink the type by gently rolling ink onto it. Once the type was inked, a piece of paper would be lowered onto the type, and a printer would operate a crank to bring it back under a press. Once in place, the press would be lowered, forcing the paper to be physically pressed against the inked plate below. This pressing motion is what imprinted the letters of the inked plate onto the empty paper, hence the name ‘printing press.’ Afterwards, the newly inked pages would be hung on a line to dry.
This process of individually inking blank pieces of paper would be done until they finished with that specific arrangement of the printing press. Once completed, a new printing plate would be arranged and the process would start again to print the other sides of the already inked paper.
The San Diego Union operated out of the same building until 1870, when the operation was moved to a building located and 4th Street and Broadway. By that time, Colonel Gatewood had sold his interest in the company to Charles P. Taggert. Despite the location change, The San Diego Union carried on printing. In 1992, The San Diego Union merged with the Evening Tribune, which had been founded in 1895. After the merger, the company was known as The San Diego Union-Tribune. This popular newspaper still publishes today with a large readership, and is one of the oldest businesses in San Diego.
After The San Diego Union left its original building in 1870, the building was returned to the possession of the Pedrorena family. It served as a family home from 1870 until 1907, when it was sold. From there, ownership of the house changed among different families until it was purchased in 1965 by James S. Copley, the then-publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He had the building restored to its 1868 appearance, when the first publication rolled out. Impressively, 70% of the original structure is still intact with some work done to keep it structurally sound. Ultimately, the building was taken over by the California State Park system, where it currently serves as a museum in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. The museum serves to educate visitors on the origins of The San Diego Union and the process through which the newspaper was printed.
Richard Yale, “The Birthplace of the San Diego Union,” San Diego History Center, Accessed April 17, 2021, https://sandiegohistory.org/journal/1968/october/union/
"History of San Diego, 1520 –1908: Part Five: Chapter 3: Later Journalism and Literature,” San Diego History Center, Accessed April 19, 2021, https://sandiegohistory.org/archives/books/smythe/part5-3/
"History of the Union-Tribune,” The San Diego Union Tribune, Accessed April 20, 2021 https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/about-union-tribune/sdut-history-san-diego-union-tribune-2011nov17-story.html