WILLIAM F. McCLANAHAN: PIONEER PUBLISHER OF SABINE PASS, TEXAS
By W. T. Block
When the centennial anniversary of the Beaumont "Enterprise" was celebrated on November 9, 1980, as well as in golden and diamond anniversary editions which preceded it, it has been customary to eulogize some of the early printers of Jefferson County who enjoyed successful careers as newspaper publishers. Perhaps it is equally well to remember some who, unlike the founders of The Enterprise Company, John W. Leonard and Thomas F. Lamb, never quite made it to the successful rung of the economic ladder in life. W. F. McClanahan of Sabine Pass was born into that special fraternity of humans whose veins flow a mixture of printer's ink and blood.
He was born in Mississippi in August, 1838, and grew to adulthood in typical plantation traditions, enjoying a common school education. After a hitch in the Confederate Army, he settled at Sabine Pass, Texas, where he met and, in February, 1871, married Miss Kittie Ketchum, the daughter of a pioneer Sabine steam sawmiller and boat builder. His father-in-law, Isaiah Ketchum, and two partners had founded the Spartan Mill Company, a steam mill with three circular saws, in 1848. The publisher's brother, Tom McClanahan, was a Sabine schooner master for many years.
In 1870, Sabine Pass was a war-scarred community of 460 souls that could ill-afford one weekly publication, let alone two. Federal troops, who only seven years earlier had burned all of the town's industry and many homes, now occupied the seaport that was only a shadow of its pre-Civil War self. Charles Winn, the customs collector, established the Sabine "Union" there in 1868 and quickly became the voice of the Radical Republican regime of Gov. E. J. Davis in Austin, which held its sway by force of Union bayonets and Carpetbagger government.
In February, 1870, McClanahan founded the Sabine Pass "Beacon" in an effort to counter the "Union," and along with George W. O'Brien of Beaumont, he became an ardent spokesman for the "New Democracy" in Southeast Texas. The only surviving copy of the "Beacon," an issue of June 10, 1871, is now in the archives of the New York State Historical Society and is the second-oldest surviving newspaper from Jefferson County.
Those were truly the Reconstruction days of the Old South. A battalion of Federal occupation soldiers were headquartered at Sabine Pass, and the corrupt 'State Police' of Gov. E. J. Davis were in evidence everywhere in East Texas. The hated police wore no uniforms or identification, but every stranger in town with no obvious means of support, who hang around the courthouse, saloons, or sidewalks seeking scraps of information, was suspected of being one. The rebirth of the Democrat Party, then known as the "New Democracy," was branded as the same treasonous party of Southern rebellion, responsible for the slaughter of 600,000 men in the American Civil War. While the publisher of the "Union" used every occasion to "wave the bloody shirt" of guilt at his adversaries, McClanahan allowed no circumstance, even at great risk to himself, to prevent his paper from speaking out against the "scalawags" that he hated. A typical McClanahan political barb from the issue of June 10 reads as follows:
The 1871 issue of the "Beacon" also carried long columns about the rebirth of the "New Democracy" in Orange County and the platform of the reorganized Democratic Party in Texas. Although the "Union" had already folded, the Sabine Pass "Beacon" was apparently unremunerative either, at least to the extent that McClanahan could support himself with it, and perhaps it even lost money for the publisher, although there appeared a considerable number of advertisements in the four-page weekly. Ads in the same issue indicated that McClanahan also sold books, insurance, and sewing machines, and was the Sabine agent for sheet music and instruments for the Goggan Music Company of Galveston.
In 1872, McClanahan and O'Brien combined the Sabine Pass "Beacon" and the "Neches Valley News" into the Beaumont "News-Beacon," with O'Brien, McClanahan, and W. L. Haldeman as editors-publishers. Political views and editorial policy remained the same, and the well-known motto, "We Paddle Our Own Canoe," was imported from Sabine Pass to the new Beaumont publication. About twenty copies of the latter two newspapers were among the prized historical items in the files of the late Beaumont attorney Chilton O'Brien.
In 1876, the "News-Beacon" ceased publication when O'Brien sold his press and equipment to John W. Swope, who founded the Beaumont "Lumberman." Swope was likewise unsuccessful as a publisher, and the "Lumberman" folded in October, 1880, when O'Brien foreclosed on an unpaid lien. A few days later, he sold the press and type to John W. Leonard, a young Beaumont attorney, and the "Enterprise," which is now more than a century old, was born in November, 1880.
Between 1876 and 1883, McClanahan was the Sabine correspondent and agent for both the "Lumberman" and the "Enterprise," and he came to depend more and more on his insurance commissions for his livelihood. But in September, 1883, a latent yearning to set his own type, spill his own ink, and speak his mind surfaced in him once again, as a quote from the "Enterprise" reveals:
By 1883, Sabine Pass had doubled its population from fifteen years earlier, and its "peculiar new industry," alligator-hunting and hide sales, would soon add $75,000 in gold to local pockets through the sale of 100,000 hides in two years. For about one year, McClanahan was caught up in the 'industry' himself, when he served as a commission hide buyer for a Northern shoe manufacturer. In 1884, his paper observed:
Although the alligator supply was considerably less than that, the 'industry' did bring hundreds of new residents and a few new stores to the town of Sabine Pass. And for the first time, McClanahan could support himself from the earning of his newspaper alone. He may even have been the first area newspaper to employ women typesetters, as a "Times" quote of 1884 also noted:
Fate, however, never seemed to smile for long on the old Sabine newsman, and on October 12, 1886, a giant hurricane washed all of McClanahan's property, including the entire printing establishment, into the sea. Considering that 86 persons drowned at Sabine, the printer and his wife were fortunate to escape with their lives. The Galveston "Daily News" started a fund among Texas publishers to help him rebuild his printing plant, but whatever the outcome was, the Sabine Pass "Times" did not survive the hurricane.
For a number of years, McClanahan lived elsewhere as he sought to rebuild his fortunes. For brief periods, he was editor of the Orange "Tribune," and subsequently of the Lakes Charles, La. "American." In August, 1888, he and a group of Orange citizens founded the Orange Publishing Company and began the printing of the "Southeast Texas Journal," which the "Daily News" described as being a "spicy eight-page paper as large as the Houston Post."
The "Journal," too, folded after two years, and McClanahan and his family returned to Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, where he started the Westlake "News." Only another of his ill-fated business ventures, he gave up after one year and returned to Sabine Pass.
W. F. McClanahan's last publishing effort was the Sabine Pass "News" in 1895. At the same moment, the Kountze Brothers, a banking firm of New York and Denver, which owned much of the Sabine Pass property, Hardin County, and the Sabine and East Texas Railroad, were developing their new townsite, Sabine, built on the channel about one mile south of the seaport city. They soon employed Frank H. Robinson, an old-time publisher of Kountze, Jasper, and Colmesneil, Texas, to act as land agent of the East Texas Land and Improvement Company and to found a new newspaper at Sabine as the mouthpiece of the Kountze's interests in their canal fight with the new city of Port Arthur. McClanahan wisely foresaw that there was insufficient demand in his small corner of the county for two newspoapers, so he sold out to Robinson.
McClanahan ended his days in the seaport city as a merchant and a commission lumber sales agent and died there on September 4, 1904. His gravestone still stands in the fenced-in Ketchum family plot in Sabine Pass Cemetery.
While the newsman has been dead for most of a century now, and long before this writer was born, McClanahan probably fulfilled every known stereotype of the old-time weekly editor-publisher, such as John Leonard or S. H. McGary of the old Beaumont "Journal," complete with sun visor, rolled-up sleeves, soiled typesetter's apron, whiskers, a chew of tobacco, and hands that were never quite clean of ink spots. His chores extended from the broom to the editor's desk, from sales to reporting, and from composition to distribution sales among the docked vessels on the waterfront. And his passing, however nostalgic, was simply another paving stone along humanity's pathway to progress.
In retrospect, it is hard to pinpoint why five frontier publishers failed for every one who succeeded. Perhaps it was more difficult for the pioneer printers to estimate correctly the business potential of a country town. "Survival of the fittest" is the popular cliche most often presented as the reason for business failures, but one wonders if perhaps "Old Dame Luck" did not play a role barely subordinate to business acumen.
At any rate, the frontier's failures and bankruptcies were also a factor in the development of Southeast Texas, although certainly a lesser one than the histories of its business successes. And however pleasant it may be to write about the achievements and prosperity within the business community, the "McClanahans" of society, who may constitute the majority in numbers, deserve occasional mention just for having started the race.