To­day marks 170 years and count­ing for The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor, founder Robert Smi­ley's 'mighty en­gine'

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - jwells@thes­pec.com 905-526-3515 | @jon­jwells

THE SPEC­TA­TOR’S longevity, and the tech­nol­ogy that fu­els it, would have amazed Robert Smi­ley, its found­ing pub­lisher and ed­i­tor. Or would it? “Where the in­flu­ence of this mighty en­gine is to end or what new in­ven­tions it may grasp to mould to its pur­pose, it is idle to spec­u­late upon,” Smi­ley wrote in his news­pa­per that was printed on linen, ran four pages, and sold for a penny in Hamil­ton, pop­u­la­tion 6,832.

A man of wis­dom and vi­sion — a po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tive who in his pages vig­or­ously op­posed scourges of his time such as slav­ery and pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions — he might have of­fered sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments in 2016.

Each pub­lish­ing day The Spec­ta­tor is de­liv­ered to 100,000 door­ways and 230,000 peo­ple put their eyes on its printed pages.

And at least 1.6 mil­lion on­line readers visit thes­pec.com ev­ery month, typ­i­cally far more than that.

“That which not long since ap­peared vi­sion­ary to the ra­tio­nal mind is now sim­ple to a child,” Smi­ley con­tin­ued, “and the el­e­ments have been made mes­sen­gers to con­vey speedy tid­ings for the News­pa­per.”

Every­thing has changed. And not all that much.

IN THE BE­GIN­NING there was a boy who em­i­grated to Canada with his fam­ily from Ire­land, who as a teenager ap­pren­ticed as a printer in Kingston, and later worked as a print­ing fore­man in Mon­treal.

In the spring of 1846, at 29, Robert Smi­ley was ap­proached by a mem­ber of the Con­ser­va­tive Party to launch a news­pa­per in Hamil­ton.

Back then, news­pa­pers were openly par­ti­san and the party yearned for a pub­li­ca­tion in town that would cham­pion the con­ser­vatism of a promis­ing young lawyer in Kingston named John A. Macdon­ald — not yet Sir John A.

The sales pitch might not have sounded ter­ri­bly at­trac­tive to Smi­ley: Hamil­ton al­ready had four pa­pers: Her­ald, Gazette, Jour­nal and The Sen­tinel, and about 20 oth­ers had ear­lier been tried and failed.

Smi­ley set up an of­fice on James Street North at York, but first he had to bor­row money from a lo­cal Tory to pay the freight on the $140 sec­ond­hand cast iron print­ing press he had or­dered, that had been de­liv­ered by steamship and was stuck on the docks in Hamil­ton Harbour.

He chose to name his news­pa­per af­ter The Spec­ta­tor that was founded in Eng­land in 1711 by es­say­ist Joseph Ad­di­son and Ir­ish writer and politi­cian Sir Richard Steele. Their mag­a­zine’s “prose style, mar­riage of moral­ity and ad­vice with en­ter­tain­ment were con­sid­ered ex­em­plary.”

For a mast­head motto, he se­lected the words of Scot­tish poet To­bias Smol­let: “And hearts re­solved and hands pre­pared, the bless­ing they en­joy to guard.”

One of the sto­ries on the in­au­gu­ral front page was about prob­lems with the post of­fice, an­other on free trade.

In later edi­tions, Smi­ley as­sailed the city for pick­ing on dog own­ers with li­cens­ing while other an­i­mals were not: “One pig is more trou­ble­some than a dozen dogs and yet an imag­i­nary fear causes the cor­po­ra­tion to con­fine the lat­ter whilst the for­mer wal­low through the streets with per­fect im­punity.”

Within a year the Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor and Jour­nal of Com­merce, as its full ban­ner ini­tially read, boasted 270 sub­scribers, more than any of its com­peti­tors.

It was a heady time in Canada’s his­tory, in the wake of the Up­per and Lower Canada re­bel­lions and union of the two prov­inces in 1841.

The Burling­ton Canal was just 16 years old, there was no rail­way run­ning through Hamil­ton and the in­ven­tion of the tele­phone was 30 years away.

Still, tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances had al­lowed news­pa­per­ing to leap into the fu­ture.

Less than a decade be­fore The Spec­ta­tor was founded it had taken 43 days for the news to reach Hamil­ton that Queen Vic­to­ria had as­cended to the throne.

But now At­lantic cross­ings were re­duced to two weeks, and the re­cent in­ven­tion of the mag­netic tele­graph al­lowed mes­sages to be in­stan­ta­neously trans­mit­ted to Hamil­ton from Toronto and New York.

It meant the Spec could also ac­cess in­for­ma­tion from Euro­pean news­pa­pers — although not un­til those news­pa­pers phys­i­cally reached New York by ship, be­cause a sta­ble crossocean tele­graph link would not ap­pear un­til 1865.

Ac­cess to tele­graph in­for­ma­tion “will doubt­less be a great ad­van­tage,” Smi­ley wrote, “but like other lux­u­ries, we must pay for it hand­somely.”

ONE OF THE FIRST fe­male jour­nal­ists at The Spec­ta­tor was Ella Reynolds, hired in 1912 in the busi­ness of­fice, and then named so­ci­ety ed­i­tor. She also wrote a col­umn she called “The Wren’s Nest,” ap­pear­ing un­der the pen name Jen­nie Wren.

She wrote theatre and mu­sic crit­i­cism, per­haps the first woman to do so in Canada, ac­cord­ing to Hamil­ton ar­chiv­ist Mar­garet Houghton.

Later in her ca­reer, Reynolds rode street cars to as­sign­ments un­til she got wise to “the young whip­per­snap­pers” in the news­room who were tak­ing taxis, and fol­lowed suit.

A Spec­ta­tor Christ­mas gift pro­gram was launched in her name — “The Jen­nie Wren Shoe and Stock­ing Club” — and on Christ­mas Eve she handed out pack­ages along with other staff to kids tromp­ing through the of­fice.

One of the most colour­ful per­son­al­i­ties to make his name at the pa­per at the turn of the cen­tury was a reporter and city ed­i­tor named Ed­ward Mor­ri­son. He was known for his “vit­ri­olic pen” and for bring­ing his large greyhound with him on as­sign­ments. He also drew il­lus­tra­tions for sto­ries, in the days be­fore pho­to­jour­nal­ism.

Mor­ri­son served in the First World War, com­mand­ing Cana­dian sol­diers at Vimy Ridge, Pass­chen­daele, and other bat­tles, earn­ing a knight­hood.

Af­ter the war, Mor­ri­son re­lated how one of his sol­diers had sent him a let­ter, telling of a poem he had writ­ten “partly to pass the time be­tween the ar­rival of two groups of wounded and partly to experiment with dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of the me­tre.”

The sol­dier un­der his com­mand had been Lt.-Col. John McCrae, and the poem was “In Flan­ders Fields.”

Re­port­ing on Hamil­ton’s role in two world wars, and the losses suf­fered, was one of The Spec­ta­tor’s most crit­i­cal and sober­ing tasks. Apart from let­ters home, and the mil­i­tary it­self, the Spec was the prime source of in­for­ma­tion for fam­i­lies wait­ing to read of news from over­seas fight­ing.

They were fam­i­lies like the Rank­ins, who yearned in the spring of 1944 for news about 19-year old son Jack, who was serv­ing as a tail gun­ner in a Lan­caster bomber over Nazioc­cu­pied France.

“R.A.F. Smashes Mass­ing Nazi Armies/Bri­tish Lose 49 Planes in Great Night Raids,” read a head­line on May 4 that year.

Two days later, a teenage boy rode up on his bike to de­liver a tele­gram at the fam­ily’s home on Glen Road in West­dale, that told them Jack was gone.

And there had been the head­line read anx­iously by far too many fam­i­lies, three years into the war: “Cana­dian Troops Lead Great Com­mando Raid.” And then the story the next day, al­lud­ing darkly to “heavy ca­su­al­ties.”

That was the Dieppe Raid, Aug. 19, 1942, where 200 Hamil­ton sol­diers died, 197 of them from the Royal Hamil­ton Light In­fantry.

THROUGH THE 1950S and 1960s the Spec con­tin­ued to play the role of prime news provider, in the days be­fore tele­vi­sions were in ev­ery home, and long be­fore the dig­i­tal age.

A sign above the King Street East of­fice pro­claimed “Ev­ery­one Reads The Spec­ta­tor” and that wasn’t far off the mark.

In 1958, a 15-year old copy boy with a red brush-cut named Robert Han­ley, hus­tled through the of­fice in jacket and tie, brogues and fe­dora, tear­ing sheets of news and sports re­sults from the Tele­type ma­chine.

Then he hung plas­tic let­ters that spelled out head­lines on a big mes­sage board in The Spec­ta­tor’s win­dow on King Street.

Out­side, peo­ple read about events of the world ap­pear­ing mag­i­cally be­fore them, and later in the af­ter­noon boys hawked the pa­per on street cor­ners call­ing “Fi­nal!”

“If some­thing big was go­ing on there would be a crowd out there read­ing the head­lines,” says Han­ley, who went on to a 44-year ca­reer at the pa­per as pho­tog­ra­pher and reporter.

“That was at a time when, if you heard a story any­where else, it was ru­mour un­til you saw it in The Spec­ta­tor.”

Mean­while, the Spec con­tin­ued evolv­ing as a project that was more than a news­pa­per. It even es­tab­lished an em­ploy­ment bureau dur­ing a re­ces­sion in 1913.

“Please Mr. Spec­ta­tor Em­ploy­ment Man, will you try aw­ful hard to get my daddy some work,” read a let­ter hand-de­liv­ered to the pa­per a week be­fore Christ­mas.


was home to such things as a needle­craft depart­ment, credit union and cook­ing school. It has al­ways been a hub to which Hamil­to­ni­ans turned for an­swers to ques­tions big and small, call­ing the news­room to ask what chan­nel the hockey game is on, or for le­gal ad­vice and even dur­ing med­i­cal emer­gen­cies.

Cur­rent pub­lisher Neil Oliver says

One of the sto­ries on the in­au­gu­ral front page was about prob­lems with the post of­fice, an­other on free trade.

the Spec has al­ways had a “sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship” with the com­mu­nity. “Readers let us know what they don’t like and what they do like; many think of our ed­i­to­rial team as fam­ily, some­times they get up­set, but at the end of the day they un­der­stand our com­mon goal is to make Hamil­ton a bet­ter place to live.”

MAK­ING THE CITY a bet­ter place was also part of founder Robert Smi­ley’s mis­sion.

He called for per­sonal free­dom and tol­er­ance, and pub­lished let­ters urg­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal fore­sight, for ex­am­ple, to stop dump­ing raw sewage in the harbour, which had been a pol­icy ad­vo­cated by the city en­gi­neer: “Per­haps the great ad­vo­cate for deep wa­ter pol­lu­tion, Mr. Whit­combe, when tak­ing his sum­mer va­ca­tion at the beach, might like to take a dip. He would find the bay wa­ter balmy and lu­bri­cat­ing, also re­fresh­ing to his ideas.”

Smi­ley’s news­pa­per made him a wealthy man, but he never stopped rail­ing against poverty, call­ing it a “civic dis­grace.”

In 1852 the Spec went daily — like other news­pa­pers it had started as a semi-weekly. And on May 10, 1855 it ex­panded the di­men­sions of its pages, bet­ter to fit more ar­ti­cles and bill­pay­ing ad­ver­tise­ments.

Smi­ley moved into a grand home at 16 East Ave. N., near King Street and King Wil­liam. With his wife, Mar­garet Switzer, he had a son who died young.

He chris­tened the house “Rose Ar­den,” built on what was the edge of town, near swampy land and in­lets from the harbour that ex­tended as far south as King Street, but the build­ing was com­monly known as “Smi­ley’s cas­tle.”

It has since been con­verted into a multi-unit af­ford­able hous­ing com­plex. It is a frayed piece of prop­erty, but from a dis­tance, still im­pres­sive in its Ital­ianate Re­vival-stylings.

In a unit over­look­ing the court­yard and a tow­er­ing maple, lives a woman and her four chil­dren. She em­i­grated a few years ago from Liberia to es­cape vi­o­lence in that coun­try.

A small city her­itage plaque hangs on the ex­te­rior yel­low brick wall com­mem­o­rat­ing the Spec’s founder, but she has not no­ticed it. On this day, a man and woman knock on her door. They are from Food4Kids, a non­profit that helps sup­ply healthy meals and snacks to chil­dren.

Smi­ley would be pleased such help ex­ists, and sobered at the need.

The night be­fore he died, he worked in the news­room late with a reporter on a story. And then, on the morn­ing his cre­ation had lit­er­ally grown in size, he suc­cumbed to “con­sump­tion” — tu­ber­cu­lo­sis — in Rose Ar­den.

“He courted not the favour of the op­u­lent and in­flu­en­tial, but was ever ready to seek re­dress for the in­jured,” read a Spec ed­i­to­rial.

A pro­ces­sion lin­ing the streets watched his cas­ket trans­ported from his home and filled Hamil­ton Ceme­tery — 3,000 peo­ple pay­ing re­spects in a city of 23,000.

It’s not easy find­ing it in the ceme­tery’s Sec­tion D4, where the in­scrip­tions on some of the old­est stones are il­leg­i­ble.

But here it is, at the base of a small hill. It is not the largest marker in the sec­tion, but be­fits a man who could af­ford it: sev­eral lay­ers and a pil­lar reach­ing for the heav­ens.

Many words and names on the white mar­ble have faded; you feel worn grooves try­ing to de­ci­pher let­ters.

But the es­sen­tial news can be read with the naked eye. Smi­ley Died in Hamil­ton May 10, 1855 age 38.

THE PEO­PLE come and go, and so do the build­ings: The Spec­ta­tor has had nine homes.

Af­ter five decades on King East, in 1976 the pa­per moved to a six-acre par­cel of in­dus­trial land where the 403 meets Main Street, mov­ing “500 good jobs out to lonely street, to the new Taj Ma­hal at 44 Frid Street,” wrote colum­nist Paul Wil­son.

The move to a larger build­ing re­flected growth in the news­pa­per busi­ness, and pro­jected fur­ther ex­pan­sion — talk of cir­cu­la­tion ul­ti­mately jump­ing 150 per cent to 350,000.

That never hap­pened, not with the chang­ing me­dia and in­dus­trial land­scape in Canada and the U.S.

On­tario Premier Bill Davis at­tended the rib­bon-cut­ting at the build­ing, which, typ­i­cal for the era, lacked the ar­chi­tec­tural flair of its pre­de­ces­sors.

It did boast a 160-seat cafe­te­ria, and the photo depart­ment had five dark­rooms in the days be­fore dig­i­tal.

Re­porters still wrote on type­writ­ers, but soon “Video Dis­play Ter­mi­nals” — com­put­ers — were wheeled around the news­room to share.

One carry-over from the King Street of­fice was plas­tic or­ange waste bas­kets, de­signed to fold into them­selves if cig­a­rette butts caught fire in­side, from the days when ev­ery desk was an­chored by an ash­tray.

In 1993, a few years be­fore the In­ter­net as we know it took off, the Spec launched an “in­ter­ac­tive elec­tronic bulletin board sys­tem,” on the brink of a world-chang­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions rev­o­lu­tion with­out quite re­al­iz­ing it.

It was hoped the sys­tem would cre­ate “a com­mu­nity of the mind where peo­ple sep­a­rated by time and dis­tance can ex­change in­for­ma­tion and per­haps be­come friends” — five years be­fore Google ex­isted, and more than a decade be­fore the iPhone (2007), Twit­ter (2006) and Face­book (2004).

To­day this tech­nol­ogy means the Spec is part of a uni­verse of on­line voices of­fer­ing myr­iad in­for­ma­tion: so­cial me­dia, blog­gers, web­sites — in a cul­ture where peo­ple are said to have less time or in­cli­na­tion to read.

The Spec’s chal­lenge was sim­i­lar but dif­fer­ent 170 years ago: news­pa­pers kept pop­ping up in Hamil­ton; 65 of them came and went in the 1800s. And back then only 11 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion could read.

LONG AGO, in an ed­i­to­rial mark­ing the an­niver­sary of its found­ing, the Spec opined that com­pared to a hu­man be­ing, “a news­pa­per seems al­most im­mor­tal. Forg­ing its way through decades of trial and di­ver­gent ex­pe­ri­ences, it reaches not old age and en­fee­ble­ment, but per­forms the mir­a­cle of gain­ing in vi­tal­ity as it pro­gresses, and at the end of scores of years, is merely en­treat­ing upon a lusty youth.”

That piece ran July 15, 1926 (“The Spec­ta­tor ap­pears be­fore its readers to­day an oc­to­ge­nar­ian.”)

While some of that reads like an ad for Vi­a­gra — 72 years be­fore it was in­vented, for those keep­ing track — there is a philo­soph­i­cal point in there.

Noth­ing lasts for­ever, but the Spec has seen its sesqui­cen­ten­nial (150 years), and will no doubt see 175 (called a do­drans­bi­cen­ten­nial, ap­par­ently). And if 175, why not the bi­cen­ten­nial (200)?

Will that an­niver­sary be cel­e­brated at a new Taj Ma­hal? Back down­town? Or at no tra­di­tional street ad­dress at all?

Who knows why some busi­nesses last gen­er­a­tions.

One of Hamil­ton’s old­est, that shows no signs of slow­ing down, is G.S. Dunn, a dry mus­tard miller, on Park Street North across from the Cen­tral Li­brary Branch, in town 148 years.

En­ter its unas­sum­ing front en­trance and in back ma­chines hum and shake, and you can de­tect the sweet smell of Saskatchewan mus­tard seeds be­ing ground and pro­cessed into a va­ri­ety of prod­ucts.

In the of­fice, Luis A. Ri­vas, VP of sales and mar­ket­ing, is on the phone, talk­ing Span­ish to a client in Mex­ico.

G.S. Dunn has adapted, evolved, found its niche, and ex­ports to more than 60 coun­tries around the world.

That in­cludes milled mus­tard prod­uct for condi­ments, but also, mus­tard is a binder and emul­si­fier for a va­ri­ety of food prod­ucts — a healthy plant-based al­ter­na­tive in an age that de­mands it, and in re­cent years this has be­come a hot mar­ket for them.

Ri­vas says the com­pany has big news com­ing down the pike, a se­cret at this point, but a new re­search­based ini­tia­tive that will see them ex­pand mus­tard as a broad-based food in­gre­di­ent.

The Spec would seem to have noth­ing in com­mon with a mus­tard miller. Or maybe it does.

A nat­u­ral food prod­uct is el­e­men­tal, time­less, and if pro­duced and mar­keted ef­fec­tively can turn a profit and sat­isfy cus­tomers for a very long time.

For The Spec­ta­tor, the time­less prod­uct is news, to ap­peal to readers and busi­nesses that pay to ad­ver­tise in the pa­per and on­line.

In his en­gag­ing book, “Sapi­ens: A Brief His­tory of Hu­mankind,” Yu­val Noah Harari ar­gues that a crit­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tic of Homo sapi­ens that al­lowed it to be­come the sole sur­viv­ing hu­man species was sto­ry­telling skills, de­vel­oped dur­ing the cog­ni­tive rev­o­lu­tion be­tween 30,000 and 70,000 years ago.

He writes that Homo sapi­ens (Latin for “wise man”), un­like other an­i­mals, per­haps through a ge­netic mu­ta­tion that changed the in­ner wir­ing of the brain, cul­ti­vated an abil­ity to tell in­tri­cate tales, about the world, gos­sip about each other, weave myths and fic­tion, and de­velop his­tory and un­der­stand­ing.

In that sense news, sto­ry­telling, is in­deed im­mor­tal, even as tech­nol­ogy evolves and changes me­dia.

The Spec still prints on pa­per — wood pulp newsprint, no longer the linen of Robert Smi­ley’s day — and for many sub­scribers there is no bet­ter way to read than hold­ing the pages in your hands.

But it also con­veys in­for­ma­tion on­line through sto­ries, pho­tog­ra­phy, au­dio pod­casts and video on home com­put­ers and lap­tops and wal­let­sized de­vices you can also hold in your hand.

Some have ar­gued, for years, that print news­pa­pers will soon die, all of them, and a few in North Amer­ica have in­deed done so.

On the other hand, con­sider vinyl. If you visit a record store you’ll in­evitably find teenage cus­tomers, even pre­teens, who are into it. They en­joy the retro feel, plac­ing the nee­dle on record grooves, the de­par­ture from dig­i­tal playlists and “favourites.”

Some of these kids, raised on iPads and smart­phones, are also into jour­nal and let­ter writ­ing, on pa­per. And Po­laroid pic­ture-tak­ing, too, part of a trend to­ward tac­tile, au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence.

Maybe there is not a crit­i­cal mass of con­sumers that will make these trends prof­itable.

Or maybe there is. Con­sider that TSwiz­zle (that’s Tay­lor Swift’s nick­name, peo­ple) al­ways re­leases her lat­est mu­sic on old-fash­ioned, dead, vinyl.

No­tably, Spec pub­lisher Neil Oliver does not fall into the camp that says news­pa­pers are fin­ished — at least not his.

“No one knows what the fu­ture holds, but we are com­mit­ted to be­ing around for an­other 170 years to re­port on it,” he says.

The Spec­ta­tor changes, its staff num­bers have de­clined. De­sign and for­mats are re­vis­ited: many moons ago it was a morn­ing pa­per, then for 124 years an evening pa­per, be­fore re­turn­ing to morn­ings, which was an un­pop­u­lar move in some house­holds.

At one point the pa­per pub­lished four edi­tions daily, had a large news bureau in Burling­ton, and smaller ones in Oakville, Mil­ton, Hagersville, Cale­do­nia, Grimsby, Queen’s Park and Ot­tawa.

But the essence of what the Spec does, ob­serv­ing, dig­ging, search­ing for truth, ex­plor­ing the hu­man con­di­tion, and striv­ing, at least, to re­lay it to Hamil­to­ni­ans ac­cu­rately, fairly, and with flair, re­mains.

AN­NIVER­SARIES can be melan­cholic oc­ca­sions, mark­ing times past to which you can’t re­turn, and won­der­ing about the fu­ture.

The Spec is not what it was in the old days, or even re­cent days. It is more, and less, and dif­fer­ent, and will be to­mor­row and next month and next year — just as Hamil­ton keeps chang­ing, too.

In the sum­mer of 1846, when Smi­ley launched the news­pa­per, an Act of In­cor­po­ra­tion had just been ap­proved in par­lia­ment for the town of Hamil­ton.

And so the pa­per was born at the same mo­ment as his adopted home “at the head of an im­por­tant in­land sea,” as he put it, of­fi­cially be­came a city.

Hamil­ton is hard-wired into the Spec’s DNA, its past and present, its peo­ple, vic­to­ries and de­feats, dark­ness and light.

Smi­ley’s “mighty en­gine” has only ever been as com­pelling as its city.

And in that re­spect it had some­thing go­ing for it that no news­pa­per any­where else could: its name­sake, right there on the ban­ner of The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor; the city pro­vid­ing its muse, of­fer­ing not just the can­vas, but the colour, to tell the on­go­ing story.

In 1993, a few years be­fore the modern In­ter­net took off, the Spec launched an “in­ter­ac­tive elec­tronic bulletin board sys­tem.”


Left: The Spec’s cur­rent build­ing on Frid Street. A view of the front, pub­lic en­trance.


Above: The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor build­ing dressed for the 1939 royal tour.

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