Denver: Madideas, 2009. 192 pages. Photos, index. 8-1/2” x 11”. $29.95 paperback.
It began as an ongoing celebration and finished as a funeral dirge.
Heroes, Villains, Dames & Disasters is what remains of the proud and storied Rocky Mountain News. Founded in 1859 almost simultaneously with the city of Denver, the Rocky chronicled Colorado’s development until the paper folded in February 2009.
Longtime RMN staffer Michael Madigan diligently researched 150 years of newspapers to capture the front-page stories that made news in the News. He made it through 103 front pages before the paper’s demise.
For those who lived through the events, this book will bring back memories and emotions of the first we knew of momentous events. Without cable news networks, the Internet and blogs, the morning newspaper was often the first we knew in detail of what had happened. For those too young to have been there, the 173-page book is a good starting point for examining historical events.
The parade unfolds on page one. There are the stories that altered history—“Memphis Assassin Slays Dr. Martin Luther King” (1968) or “Our Nation Saw Evil” (2001). Other headlines in retrospect do not seem so worthy—“Moffat Tunnel Is Opened in Brief Ceremony” (1928) and “Super Bowl Bound” (1978).
Madigan does a good job of recapturing some of the major people and events in the history of the News’ ranging from legendary editor Jack Foster to the switch from a broadsheet to a tabloid format. He covers the “newspaper war” between the Rocky and its hated rival The Denver Post and the last sad day when reporter Kevin Vaughan was assigned to write the paper’s obituary.Vaughan quoted Rich Boehn, a Scripps Howard executive: “’Tomorrow will be the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News. . . It’s certainly not good news for any of you, and it’s certainly not good news for Denver.’” Madigan also effectively ties the News into the national trends in newspapers, such as the advent of new sections to tempt readers and the arrival of “electronic” editions.
Madigan does a less effective job of covering the newspaper’s role in fanning the anti-Indian hysteria of the 1860s culminating in the Sand Creek Massacre. Nor does Madigan fully recall the raucous period in the late 1920s when both Denver newspapers put out morning and evening editions in a real, all-out war to crush each other.
The RMN’s front evolved through the years, from a staid, standard look to a splashy, colorful face that more closely resembled a magazine. There is even a bizarre period in the 1950s and 1960s when exclamation points followed every leading headline, as if the events themselves weren’t enough to make the point: “Yanks Walk on the Moon!”, “Driver Quizzed in Bus Tragedy!”, and “Adolph Coors III Feared Kidnapped!”.
The downside of the book is the poor reproduction of the front pages, no doubt copied from microfilm. Some pages are fuzzy, out of focus and flatly unreadable. Others are only partially reproduced. The later editions of the Rocky, when graphics and color reproduction became a more important element, look far better.
From the first edition on April 23, 1859, a tossed-together collection of stories gleaned from other newspapers and produced in rooms above a saloon, to the last edition (February 27, 2009) with the plaintive headline, “Goodbye, Colorado,” Heroes is a window on the stories that grabbed our attention. Madigan rightly refers to Colorado’s first newspaper as “history’s billboard.”
Dick Kreck was an editor and columnist at The Denver Post for thirty-eight years before his retirement in 2007. He is the author of five books on Colorado history, including the best-selling Murder at the Brown Palace (2003) and Smaldone (2009).