(KC 1900 Series: # 5)
The previous post looked at the role of the Commercial Club, one of the driving forces behind the Convention Hall project. Now we look at the man and the institution that brought the project to the people, and then pushed it forward every step of the way – William Rockhill Nelson and The Kansas City Star.
In a modern world, it gets harder to remember that once, cities had many papers, and the bigger the city, the more newspapers. Competition for eyeballs was keen, and the market was large for news at all levels, but particularly local. Like other cities, Kansas City had newspapers for different faiths, different ethnicities, different parts of town, different social strata, and different professions and special interests. Newspapers came and went. But none approached the status of a newspaper for the whole city, and an authority for the whole area, like the Kansas City Star, and its morning sister, the Kansas City Times, all thanks to the confidence and determination of the driven, opinionated and self-assured publisher behind the newspapers, William Rockhill Nelson. This 19th century newspaper baron and his part in the Convention Hall project serve as a reminder that the persuasive powers of the press are not just a product of modern communication.
First, it’s important to know that there was such a thing as a “golden age” of newspapers – several of them, in fact. One of the better known periods runs from about 1870 to 1920. In American history, it’s a time when the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era would overlap, and newspapers were a large part of the shift between the two. By 1880 – the year Nelson starts his Kansas City newspaper empire – the Gilded Age was tarnishing. The wealth gap, the flagrant disregard for the workforce, the hubris of the corruption, the accidents and disasters, the strikes and protests, had changed what the public thought of when they heard the names Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie. But sometime before 1900, the mood started to shift, and the America people – not just the workers – looked for change at a larger scale. Americans starting taking an interest in doing better. Professional disciplines emerged, research and innovation were becoming part of the norm. Cities established new departments with new programs designed to be – fingers crossed – the rising tide that would lift all boats. The ability of a large part of a nation to embrace even the possibility of change is no small matter. But they did for a time, and a large part of that shift was the impact of the newspapers.
A quick note or two about someone who preceded Nelson as king of the Kansas City daily. Robert Van Horn ran the Republican-leaning Kansas City Journal from 1858 to 1942. Van Horn was a man of many accomplishments. He learned printing as an apprentice in his native Pennsylvania, and was trained as a lawyer in Ohio, both by his twenty sixth birthday. He came to Kansas City at the age of thirty one and by thirty three, he was a member of the city’s board of alderman, and city postmaster. The next year, 1858, he started publishing the Journal. He had been in Kansas City only three years.
Van Horn was the city’s mayor in the years before (1861), during (1863), and after (1864) the Civil War. Simultaneously, he served with the Union Army in the 25th Regiment of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry. Right after the war he served in the Missouri Senate, then immediately went on to represent a Kansas City district in the 39th, 40th and 41st Congresses through 1871. He remained active in national, state and local politics in the Republican Party, then returned to serve again in the US Congress from 1881 to 1897, when he retired. During his terms in Congress he was Kansas City’s man in Washington when it came time for negotiating the regulatory, legal and contractual requirements to secure the Hannibal Bridge for Kansas City, the single most important economic project in Kansas City up to that time.
Van Horn used his paper to encourage support for projects that, while sometimes benefiting his own interests, were still fundamentally good projects for Kansas City. Van Horn understood what Nelson would later understand as well – that newspapers could be effective tools of change, particularly at the local level. When it came to the Convention Hall, however, the Star had better timing. Van Horn was just a few years away from retirement. In 1897, just as the Convention Hall project was gathering momentum, he retired as editor of the paper. He was 73. At the same time, Nelson was a youthful 56.
William Rockhill Nelson came to Kansas City from Indiana in 1880, specifically to start a newspaper in what he deemed to be a city on the verge of great growth, and facing the problems growth brings. Nelson had three guiding principles for his newspaper. He freely admitted that his voice and the editorial voice of the Star were one and the same. As posthumously quoted in the Star’s own fifty-year retrospective edition, Nelson unapologetically admitted, “I am publishing the Daily W.R. Nelson. If people don’t like my paper they can buy another.” He also believed that newspapers should be about the important topics of the day. In Harry Haskell’s fine book, Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and its Star,” he quotes from an interview in which Nelson said, “Anybody can print the news, but the Star tries to build things up. That’s what a newspaper is for.”
In these two guiding principles, Nelson is aligned with his contemporaries, Hearst and Pulitzer. But in the third, Nelson’s aim could not have been more antithetical to the others. Pulitzer and Hearst appealed to the masses by dropping scandal, lascivious crime, and defamatory stories in and amongst the real news. Nelson proclaimed his paper to be a “family” paper. Nelson once said, “You can always trust the people to do what is best when they know what is best.” Of course, Nelson was certain of what was best and was unequivocal in his position, once taken. And no doubt at various points in his career he used his powers of editorial persuasion strategically to his personal benefit as well. But at its core, The Kansas City Star fairly declared itself “a paper for the people.”
But Nelson expected something from the citizenry in return. He was an agenda setter, a rabble rouser and an iconoclast, but at every turn he urged Kansas Citians to take responsibility for their part in the growth of the city. On October 7, 1894, under the editorial heading, “Kansas City’s Opportunity,” he writes,
“The manifest destiny of Kansas City is to be the Chicago of the Southwest. But the fulfillment of this destiny rests with the people who live here – not the people who have lived here nor the people who shall live here in the future – but the people now on earth. The conditions are all favorable; the beneficiaries must place themselves in an attitude to take advantage of these conditions. As genius has been defined to be the faculty for taking infinite pains, so success is the result of constant vigilance and untiring effort.”
The editorial continues for several column inches – Nelson was a man of many words and barrels of ink, after all. But among the remaining paragraphs, one stands out for its foreshadowing:
“The conditions which favor Kansas City today are more promising than those which confronted Chicago after the great fire of 1871, and Chicago’s chief progress dates from that period.”
Time would tell if Kansas City’s progress would date from its own day of reckoning.
Next post, we’ll look at how Nelson’s editorial influence was put to use for the Convention Hall project, by following selected editorials and articles designed to persuade the community.
(Editor’s note: Most of the information used for this profile was gleaned from Boss-Busters and Sin Hounds: Kansas City and its Star, by Harry Haskell. I highly recommend the book. It’s a thorough look at the history of The Star and its founder, as well as the perfect framework for understanding Kansas City history – its politics, its culture, and its major events – from 1880 to the 1960s.)
Top Photo: Page one of the Kansas City Star the evening after the Convention Hall fire, April 4, 1900.