A Newspaper and Its Town
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
4/26/13 at 10:14 AM
This is the first chapter from the book "Tulsa's Daily World: The Story of a Newspaper and Its Town," written by Tulsa World reporter Randy Krehbiel. The chapter describes how Tulsa and the Tulsa World began. Purchase the book in the Tulsa World Store.Original Print Headline: A Newspaper and Its Town
On Nov. 17, 1924, at three o’clock in the afternoon, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button in Washington, D.C., and clear mountain spring water flowed from a golden tap in Tulsa. It was, strange to say 80 years later, the single most celebrated event in the young city’s history, bigger even than the day oil shot out of the ground on the Glenn farm south of town or the day Oklahoma became a state.
Although it was perhaps not in his nature, Eugene Lorton must have smiled. By no means was he alone responsible for this day, but without him it could not have happened. After 13 difficult and at times even dangerous years, Lorton had prevailed in a bitter and highly personal newspaper war whose outcome held far-reaching ramifications for himself, for Tulsa and for the state of Oklahoma. Now, from his seat on the speakers’ platform, the 55-year-old publisher of the Tulsa World could see the immediate results. Thousands crowded the crest of Oak Cliff, a steep little summit north of Tulsa that already was being referred to as Reservoir Hill. Thousands more spectators spilled down the slopes and gathered in pools below, ears cocked to the succession of speeches blasting over that new electronic marvel, the amplified loudspeaker – speakers, the World assured its readers, identical to those used by Presidents Harding and Coolidge in public appearances.
Four miles to the east, shimmering in the bright sun of a perfect November afternoon, glinted the new city reservoir at Mohawk Park. Farther still, beyond the horizon in the Ozark foothills, lay the source of the day’s excitement and Tulsa’s renewed civic pride: Lake Spavinaw, five miles long and nearly a mile wide, the largest body of water in the state, and all of it Tulsa’s. Through 55 miles of 60-inch concrete conduit, Ozark water flowed to Mohawk Park, was pumped to the top of Oak Cliff, and from there, fed into the thirsty city’s water mains.
This day – the day water flowed from a golden spigot on Reservoir Hill – brought official parties from as far away as Kansas City and set Tulsans literally to dancing in the streets. Each of the town’s elementary schools performed an elaborate pageant starring Tulsa as a fairy princess, Spavinaw as a wood nymph and the Arkansas River as a dragon; at Lee Stadium, the young thespians had to work around high school football practice. A parade through downtown featured bands, floats and one of Owasso’s new school buses. Owasso was on the new Spavinaw water line, too.
The city had never seen anything like this celebration. It probably never will again.
(T)he crowds thronged to Fifth and Sixth streets, where orchestras struck up dance tunes and dancing was the order of business. But both on Fifth street between Main and Boston and on Sixth between Main and Boulder, the crowds were so dense that it was with difficulty that sufficient space was cleared for the dancers to begin. ... Tulsa World, Nov. 18, 1924
All of this over a decent glass of water. Water may seem a mundane subject for such wild rejoicing – or for a newspaper campaign – but clean, safe water is a cause everyone can agree on. And no place needed clean, safe water more than Tulsa. From 1882, when the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (soon to become the Frisco) laid tracks to the Arkansas River until the moment President Coolidge pressed that button in the White House, Tulsa had never had a dependable water source. The Arkansas was too muddy and too salty. It clogged car radiators and corroded boilers. Wells, while occasionally promising, proved ultimately unreliable.
By 1919, Tulsans consumed 50,000 five-gallon bottles of water a week. The city chemist, W.R. Holway, said nine of the 10 brands sold in Tulsa did not meet minimum health standards. Waterborne diseases were an unrelenting hazard; 42 fatal cases of typhoid were reported in Tulsa in 1918, making the city’s death rate for the disease one of the highest in the nation.
Railroads created Tulsa and oil brought it to full bloom, but only water could sustain it. The city was growing so fast no one could keep an accurate count of its population. According to the U.S. Census, Tulsa’s population quadrupled in size from 1910 to 1920, and reached 110,000 by 1924. Some men, Lorton among them, predicted Tulsa would soon grow to more than twice that.
But it would take water. Lots and lots of water.
Deciding where and how to get the water led to something just short of civil war. Opinion divided on two sources: Shell Creek, north of Sand Springs and promoted by oilman Charles Page and his newspapers; and Spavinaw Creek, backed by a cadre of businessmen that included Lorton and the World. Shell Creek was closer and, at least in the short run, cheaper. Spavinaw was cleaner and sweeter. And bigger. Much bigger – big enough to supply a city three times the size of Tulsa in 1918, when engineer Harold Pressey appraised potential water sources.
For nine years, from the time the two factions began to coalesce in 1915 until this glorious November afternoon, each side charged the other with sabotage, extortion and chicanery on the grandest scale. No one died, unless character assassination counts, but the ultimate success of the “Spavites” was important for at least two reasons. First, it solved Tulsa’s water problems, arguably up to this very day. Second, it entrenched the World as Tulsa’s dominant newspaper.
Gene Lorton could hardly fail to reflect upon this as he sat on the platform with the other dignitaries, waiting his turn to speak. Lorton – again, uncharacteristically – would have little to say, and what he did say would be conciliatory. A man of strong opinions and bold language, Lorton said the time had come to put aside discord and strife and get on with the business of building a city. Of course, discord and strife are part of city building, and Gene Lorton would go on speaking his piece for another quarter century. And his newspaper, a foundling waif when he came to it in 1911, had become what Lorton intended – an institution.
At least four other newspapers –The Tulsa Democrat, the Times, the Constitution and the Indian Republican – were being published in Tulsa when the first edition of the World came out on Sept. 14, 1905. Others would come and go. By the time Lorton arrived on the scene six years later, the World’s owners reportedly had put $90,000 into the newspaper and were still losing money. Although it would publish afternoon editions and extras off and on for two decades, the World was essentially a morning newspaper at a time when afternoon papers dominated. It was mostly Republican in a state and town mostly Democratic.
By 1916, only the World and the afternoon Democrat remained. Lorton had bought half interest in the World in 1913 and would acquire it outright in 1917. Page, reputedly one of the three richest men in the state, bought the Democrat in 1916 and added a morning publication, The Morning Times.
Page and Lorton detested each other. Their mutual dislike was such that, according to newsroom legend, Lorton once took a particularly barbed editorial to the paper’s attorney, M.A. Breckinridge, and asked if it was libelous.
“Yes,” Breckinridge replied, “I’m afraid so.”
“Good,” Lorton is supposed to have said. “We’re going to print it and hope Page sues. All I want is him on the witness stand under oath!”
The origin of this feud is unclear. Both had lived previously in Washington state and each referred contemptuously to the other’s reputation there. Page vowed to put the World out of business. Lorton charged Page’s famed philanthropy was a sham to avoid taxes and hide shady deals. In 1917, when the World printed a court document embarrassing to Page, the Democrat declared Lorton and his partner Charles Dent “on a plane with things that crawl on their bellies in filth” and suggested they be lynched.
The World responded by calling Page a fraud who, but for “the accident of wealth,” would have been a “porch-climber, a yegg and a low-down sneak thief.”
In 1919, during the height of the water campaign, Page’s papers employed three cartoonists – one, young Chester Gould, soon to find fame as creator of “Dick Tracy”– to caricature the World as a rotund, globe-shaped lap dog of bankers and money men.
The World answered with cartoons of a many-tentacled Page strangling Tulsa with his real estate, oil, natural gas, electricity, rail and coal interests. Lorton dared Page to sue; when Page didn’t, Lorton did.
It was a bare-knuckle brawl, and the World and the Spavinaw backers prevailed. More important, they were proven right. Spavinaw turned out to be everything promised and more. Shell Creek, when finally dammed, failed to adequately supply even Sand Springs and a few industrial customers.
Tulsa’s “water question,” as the World called it, united the newspaper and its town. The World was not alone in resolving the issue, but without the World, the outcome almost certainly would have been quite different, and so would Tulsa.
And without the water question, the World might not have survived at all.
The Tulsa Daily World first appeared on Sept. 14, 1905, probably in connection with a political convention that began a few days later. Weeklies were prevalent at the time, so the word “Daily” appeared in the World masthead and remained part of the newspaper’s official name for more than 70 years.
Tulsa’s population numbered a few thousand. Except for the boundless enthusiasm of its boosters, little suggested Tulsa would ever be more than a bustling county seat – and even that, with statehood more than two years away, was no certainty. Small oil strikes had been made in the area, but coal, cattle and farming were more important to Tulsa’s economy; its potatoes, claimed a promotional piece, were famous.
Muskogee, unofficial capital of Indian Territory, was bigger, older and more established. Sapulpa, Vinita and even Red Fork, where oil had been found a few years before, were thought to have advantages over their boisterous neighbor.
The World’s situation was even more tenuous. It entered a crowded competition for readers and advertisers in an era when newspapers were notoriously short-lived. At least a dozen were published in Tulsa before the World; most disappeared without a trace. In fact, except for a front page of the first edition, no one thought enough of the World to save copies of it until November 1906.
Lorton brought to the World the same energy and purpose with which Tulsa vaulted its competitors. Businessmen had pooled their money to lure railroads through town and to tour the East, literally beating drums for their town. Seizing the opportunity created first by the Glenn Pool and soon after by the Cushing, Cleveland and Osage oil fields, Tulsans quickly made their city the financial and distribution center of the great Mid-Continent Oil Field.
Similarly, by 1913, when Lorton and his partner Charles Dent bought out Dent’s brother-in-law George Bayne, the World claimed the highest circulation of any Tulsa newspaper. It wasn’t always right and it didn’t always win, but it was energetic and, under Lorton’s leadership, less partisan than its competitors. A man of intense loyalties, Lorton tended to support and oppose people and issues rather than political parties.
In a space of 20 years, he was a delegate to both the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
“Tulsa and Oklahoma – first of all,” Lorton once explained his newspaper’s philosophy. “National consciousness instead of class consciousness. The supremacy of good government and citizenship over prejudice and partisanship. Appealing to the people who think rather than talk.”
The World’s defining “good government” campaign began inauspiciously on May 3, 1913, when, under the headline “Need of Water Supply,” appeared the first of more than 900 consecutive “water” editorials. Oddly, it was a follow up to an expose on insurance rates. The city’s fickle waterworks left Tulsa virtually defenseless against fire for days on end, the World claimed, and was one reason for high property insurance.
“What the people want is water,” the editorial said. “They want it every day and there should be somebody who can devise a system where a man could go to bed at night and be reasonably sure that the water was going to be on tap in the morning.”
Tulsa, with perhaps 25,000 residents, relied primarily on chemically treated water drawn from the Arkansas River. As early as 1911, Cyrus Avery, a real estate developer and insurance man, had suggested piping water from a spring-fed stream near the hamlet of Spavinaw. No one paid much attention. In 1912, a series of test wells showed enough promise that Tulsans voted $100,000 in $100,000 to hook them up to the city’s mains.
Within eighteen months the wells were almost dry and the new lines empty. City engineer T.E. Hughes suggested a line from the Grand River, but at an estimated $2 million, the cost was considered prohibitive.
But as Tulsa grew, so did its tax base – and its demand for water. The problem was hashed and rehashed in the countless fraternal, professional and business organizations that were then the forums of public debate. By 1915, battle lines were drawn. Water Commissioner O.D. Hunt recommended an agreement to buy water from a proposed Shell Creek reservoir. The city’s most influential business organization, the Commercial Club, endorsed the proposal. The World said the “Spavinaw mountains” offered the “surest and most permanent” solution but doubted voters would go for it. Tentatively, it backed a privately financed “Osage hills” proposal.
Page, apparently, was not yet involved.
By late summer, however, the private financing for the Osage hills proposal had fallen through. The City Commission set a public vote on a $600,000 bond issue to develop Shell Creek, but the Chamber of Commerce – the old Commercial Club suddenly reconstituted with new officers and a new direction – got it stopped. A committee sympathetic to Spavinaw was appointed to look into the matter.
The debate slipped into a stalemate. World War I intervened. In 1918, desperate Tulsans approved a $1.5 million bond issue for new waterworks on the Arkansas River in what is now Newblock Park. The World supported the bonds but soon called again for a permanent solution – Spavinaw. The pipe dream that had looked impossibly expensive only three years earlier now seemed within reach. During the war, Tulsans had subscribed to $33 million worth of Liberty Bonds; Harold Pressey, the consulting engineer, said bringing Spavinaw water to Tulsa would cost $5 million.
Tellingly, Pressey was hired by the Chamber of Commerce – not the city – to investigate potential water sources. Pressey had designed and built Oklahoma City’s reservoir-fed system and came highly recommended.
Pressey’s appointment coincided with a recommendation by the Ozark Sportsmen’s Club, a group of businessmen with a hunting lodge on the upper Spavinaw, that Tulsa look to that mountain stream for its water. Page by this time owned The Tulsa Democrat and The Morning Times, as well as Shell Creek. When Pressey’s report, delivered in March 1919, proclaimed Spavinaw the only viable long-term solution, Page’s papers portrayed him as an incompetent and the Spavinaw project a scheme to enrich the members of the Ozark Sportsmen’s Club.
On June 3, prodded by the World, the City Commission set a July 10 vote on a $5 million bond issue to finance the Spavinaw water project, including a hydroelectric dam to power two pump stations.
The campaign that followed has never been equaled, in Tulsa and maybe anywhere, for vituperation and comedy. Anyone of any stature rallied to one standard or the other. Predictably, Mayor Charles Hubbard became known as “Mother Hubbard” on the pages of the Democrat and The Morning Times. Obscurely, the World speculated on connections between bond opponents and the “bolsheviki.” When the Democrat quoted a 13-year-old boy on the unhealthy properties of Spavinaw Creek, the World found a 15-year-old girl who allowed that fish caught in “Smell Creek” were not fit to eat.
The Democrat reprinted World editorials from 1918 praising the new waterworks; the World reminded readers that Page blamed German saboteurs when 50 Boy Scouts camping on Shell Creek caught typhoid. Automobile caravans were organized to inspect Spavinaw, and motion pictures of it were shown in a vacant lot downtown.
“Smellit” McFarland, an engineer who went around town with a jar of sulfur water that he said came from Spavinaw, turned out to be a former Page employee. W.R. Holway, the young chemist who declared Tulsa’s bottled water unsafe, wound up making his reputation and a good part of his fortune as chief engineer for the Spavinaw project.
Never have so many column inches been devoted to mathematics. Tax millages, water rates, watersheds, bond markets, hydrologic engineering and real estate values saturated the World and the opposing newspapers. The Chamber of Commerce reactivated its Liberty Bond speakers’ bureau to promote Spavinaw. The opponents recruited their own roster of orators, led by Judge J.B. Diggs, who, despite his title, was actually an oil pipeline company attorney.
“Those . . . cast into outer darkness by the official Dope Sheet will be barred” from a public meeting on the water bonds, The Morning Times predicted in a mild poke at the World. Perhaps coincidentally, an “Anti” gathering was plunged into darkness a few nights later when the courthouse lights.
In the World appeared doggerel poetry, including the immortal lines:
I will tell you about Shell creek,
I will not detain you long.
It’s a place out in the Osage
Where the cattle use to roam
Until they starved to death for water
Now we see their bleaching bones.
There’s some pools of stagnant water
Full of filth of every kind
Where the bull frogs and the turtles
Have malaria all the time.
Sarcasm intensified as the election neared. Lorton insisted Page was bent on domination of Tulsa and if Tulsa bought the Shell Creek plan it would pay Page millions in the end and be no better off. Page’s newspapers, edited by Richard Graves and former World staffer Vernon Smith, said more or less the same of Lorton and the Spavites.
On June 21, the World published a short but incendiary front-page editorial headlined “Charlie Page – Tax Dodger.” Citing county records, it reported that Page paid taxes on only a fraction of his property, with the rest written off to charity. That afternoon the Democrat responded that Page had paid almost three times as much as the World said and that the World knew it.
“In other words,” the Democrat said, “the World deliberately lies.”
The next day, in another front page editorial, the World challenged Page to present his tax receipts to an officer of the Exchange National Bank. If the newspaper was wrong, the piece said, it would print the receipts and settle the matter.
On June 24, on the editorial page, boxed under the headline “We Knew He Wouldn’t Do It,” the World announced Page had not taken up its offer. Instead, it said, Page had agreed to go along if Lorton would “leave a statement of the amount of money the bootleggers have paid him. ...”
Whether Lorton or someone else, the writer indignantly denied involvement with bootlegging and then proceeded to accuse Page of tampering with a recent grand jury and being “the official bondsman for practically every bootlegger in the community ... and ... the next best friend of the criminal element ... .”
There was more. Much more. Whether this was the editorial of newsroom lore, clearly Lorton was trying to provoke Page. He did not succeed in goading Page into legal action, but veiled references in The Morning Times and the Democrat to “severe” steps taken to rein in the World hint at some sort of consequences. Three days later, Graves called Lorton a “degenerate” and a “grafter” on the front page of the Democrat and implied Lorton was a blackmailer, as well. Lorton sued Graves.
The suit’s outcome is unclear, but probably was dropped. In truth, the fight was already over, and the World had won. Apparently in serious financial trouble, the Democrat and The Morning Times carried full-page paid advertising for the Spavinaw bonds alongside stories condemning it.
Tom Latta, a respected newspaperman and former World editor known for his elegant writing, returned to the paper as a “special correspondent.” While continuing to spar with opponents on side issues, Latta concentrated on Tulsa’s history of community spirit and optimism.
“No” votes never build cities. Had the noes
prevailed we would have no courthouse, no municipal
building, no water system, no parks, no schoolhouses.
If the noes had prevailed Tulsa would be a village. ...
When the noes begin to prevail Tulsa hesitates,
the wheels of industry begin to slow down, progress has
the airbrakes and begins to stop ... Tulsa World, July 3, 1919
For all the noise, and despite being the first city election in which women were allowed to vote, fewer than 4,000 Tulsans went to the polls. The bonds passed by 818 votes.
“Men formerly against the bonds went over in a single night,” The Morning Times’ post mortem intoned. “Even some workers pledged against the bonds and registered as headquarters volunteers got ‘cold feet’ and quit.”
The Morning Times ceased publication at the end of the month. The Democrat was sold to Richard Lloyd Jones, who changed its name to The Tulsa Tribune.
But the campaign was not quite over. Tulsa’s charter forbade the city from owning property more than five miles beyond the city limits. On that point, the Taxpayers’ Protective League – an organization that, ironically, Eugene Lorton helped found – successfully sued to stop the bond issue. Two years later, after a charter amendment, a $6.8 million proposal (this one without the hydroelectric plant or pump stations) passed by better than 3-1 in a heavy turnout. W.R. Holway, the former city chemist and a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became the project’s chief engineer; later Holway held a similar position with the Grand River Dam Authority, a state agency created to build hydroelectric dams in northeastern Oklahoma.
The Tribune took up the Shell Creek cause, ostensibly as a temporary solution, and created a diversion with an investigation into paving contracts. Neither did much to improve the newspaper’s standing. Jones’ connection to Page was well-known, as was the fact he lived in one of the neighborhoods whose paving contracts the Tribune was investigating. The fight with the paving contractors also drew Jones into a personal controversy that further damaged his newspaper’s credibility.
Lorton had had to borrow $75,000 in 1917 to buy out his partner Charles Dent. Seven years later, he had amassed a sufficient fortune to secure the World’s viability.
Feasting on the oil money pouring into Tulsa during World War I and again after a post-war recession, the World for several years claimed to carry significantly more advertising than any other newspaper in Oklahoma. The David who took on one of Oklahoma’s richest, most powerful and most respected oilmen had grown into a Goliath.
Lorton’s fights with Charles Page ultimately damaged Page very little. He died a hero in 1926, rightly eulogized for his generosity and enterprise, and his sins, whatever they may have been, forgotten. For Lorton and the World, however, the “water question” proved incalculably important. By supporting Spavinaw, the World identified itself with the prevailing spirit of the city.
Thus, with oil and water, the direction of a town and its newspaper was determined.
Under Jones and his heirs, the Tribune became a fine newspaper but could never overcome the advantage the World and Eugene Lorton built during those crucial early years. In 1941, Jones entered into a joint operating agreement with the World that both saved the Tribune and doomed it. The agreement locked the Tribune into afternoon publication, a format slowly strangled by radio and television news. In 1992, the World bought out the Tribune and closed it.
In 1919, days before launching the decisive Spavinaw campaign, Eugene Lorton laid out his view of what the World should be.
There are two kinds of newspapers. One is an
organ and the other an institution. The difference between
the species is merely in the degree in which they serve the
public. If the policy of the newspaper is indefinite where
the public welfare is concerned and definitely selfish where
its own advantage lies then the newspaper can never be
anything more than an organ and one out of tune at that.
The newspaper that becomes an institution does so
by immersing itself in the life of a community and becoming
an integral part of its growth and prosperity. It has a broad
perspective and keeps its policy always in advance of the growth
and development of its community. The Tulsa World is that sort. -- Eugene Lorton, Feb. 26, 1919