William F. Prisk led The Union into the 20th century
July 17, 2014
Over the course of its first 30 years of service to western Nevada County, the Grass Valley Daily Union had the names of 10 different owners atop its masthead.
Just one of those owners — Charles H. Mitchell, who published the paper from 1866-1893 — managed more than a few years at the helm.
But when one of Grass Valley’s own homegrown talents returned to town in 1893 to take over ownership, the newspaper was suddenly in the hands of an innovator who led the paper into the 20th century and provided steady leadership for the next 53 years — eventually even from the distance of Long Beach, where he further extended his interest and career in journalism.
William F. Prisk was a lifelong newspaperman, starting out as a paper boy at the age of 10. A few years later, he had advanced to typesetting before becoming a partner in 1888 with the Grass Valley Evening Telegraph at the age of 18.
“Although my home is now quite far distant, my interest in The Union continues and will until the end of time.”
William F. Prisk in 1934
Prisk was born in Grass Valley on April 2, 1870. His parents, William and Mary Hoskins Prisk, had migrated to the United States in the 1860s from their native Cornwall, England, eventually settling in Grass Valley.
“The senior Prisk was a miner and had planned for young William to be apprenticed to a local shoemaker,” the late historian and lifelong newspaperman Bob Wyckoff wrote in a 2007 column for The Union.
“Fortunately, the youngster decided that newspapering was for him and like so many before him, began his career by delivering newspapers. His first employer was the Grass Valley Tidings.”
While still a student at Grass Valley High School, Prisk gave up his newspaper route and became a printer’s apprentice, Wyckoff wrote. Shortly thereafter, he began to learn other jobs around the office, including taking on a stint as a reporter. After graduation from high school at age 17, he “became publisher of his first newspaper, in partnership with Rufus Shoemaker. Their newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, made its first appearance … Feb. 23, 1889. Prisk was typesetter, reporter and business manager.”
After two years, Prisk sold his interest in the Telegraph and moved to San Francisco to take a job as a market reporter. According to the Media Museum of Northern California, he later acquired a half-interest in the Fresno Review but subsequently disposed of his share and accepted notes in payment for the undercapitalized publication. He next spent a brief stint as a reporter for the Sacramento Union and covered the state assembly.
He went on to work for various newspapers in San Francisco and Sacramento before returning to Grass Valley in 1893, at the age of 23, to become the editor and publisher of the Grass Valley Daily Union.
“In appearance, in treatment of news and in its method of production, The Union of today bears little resemblance to its first issues or, as a matter of fact, The Union which served its readers for the first 30 years of its existence,” Prisk wrote in a 1934 column on the paper’s 70th anniversary.
In fact, Prisk proudly proclaimed shortly after assuming ownership that under his hand, the newspaper would move toward much more modern methods.
“The new ‘Union’ … (will discard) the ancient and worn out type,” Prisk wrote in a June 23, 1893, column. “We do not exaggerate … when we state that typographically speaking, the UNION is the handsomest paper north of Sacramento.”
Prisk installed the revolutionary Mergenthaler Linotype typesetting machine that became a standard in all but the smallest newspaper composing rooms for more than 60 years.
“It took five men to set the equivalent of what one man now accomplishes on one of the three machines in The Union’s present plant,” Prisk wrote in his 1934 column.
“In contrast with the modern perfecting press, which is now used, if I mistake not, The Union’s first press was a Washington hand press, able to print but two pages of the paper at a time, the reverse side being printed in a second operation. This was followed by the installation of a Campbell press, which was supposed to be run by water power.
“The office of publication was on the second floor of the building at the southwest corner of Main and Mill streets. The water pressure was often insufficient to operate the press and man power had to be supplied. A colored man named Ferguson was usually the motive power and when old ‘Ferg’ got tuckered out the printers in the office used to ‘spell’ him. I frequently took a hand in turning the crank, which was a handle to the main wheel operating the press.”
On June 12, 1894, nearly one year into Prisk’s ownership, The Union became the first of its size (under 1,000 circulation at the time) to become a member of the Associated Press and receive its telegraphic dispatches, according to Wyckoff. In 1895, Prisk was publishing both a daily and weekly edition of The Union.
“The Union was the first newspaper in California, if I am not mistaken, to receive telegraphic news by telephone,” Prisk wrote in his retrospective.
“Arrangements had been made for the wire service just a few weeks before the famous (American Railway Union) strike in 1893. No trains were running, the automobile was a mere dream and outside papers coming by wagon did not reach Grass Valley, Nevada City and surrounding towns for several hours after The Union had been delivered to its subscribers.
“Each night while the strike was on, I read bulletins giving the news from the balcony of The Union office, while Jo Snyder and Henry Argall circulated amongst the crowd getting subscriptions. It was with greatest difficulty The Union was able to go to press on time in those exciting days and oftentimes Gene Clark, who was conductor at the time, used to hold the Narrow Gauge train on which the papers were dispatched as much as a half an hour so that Nevada City and up-country subscribers might not be disappointed in getting their papers. The real success of The Union dated from this time.”
On the move again
According to Donna Reynolds, a volunteer at the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research, The Union branched out to Nevada City by opening an office there on March 1, 1895, under the leadership of Snyder, who took on the role of office manager.
“The Grass Valley office of the paper was reported to possibly be moving to a tent due to nonrenewal of lease per the Daily Morning Union, March 23, 1895, issue,” Reynolds said. “The tent was to be erected on the vacant lot of George D. McLean, situated between Mewten’s and Protection Hose Company’s house on Main Street.
“The Union was expecting to commence the move on April 13 and operating from the tent a few days later. The March 26, 1895, Sacramento Daily Union newspaper also ran a report regarding this probable move. When or whether this move actually occurred has not yet been established.”
But the Grass Valley office did relocate to the corner of Main and Church streets on Oct. 1, 1895.
“Which corner is unknown since Prisk removed the location of the office from the masthead when the paper appeared with a ‘new dress’ on June 23, 1893, at which time the office was still on corner of Mill and Main,” Reynolds said. “When the location of the paper finally reappeared on the masthead on Sept. 4, 1900, the office was on the corner of Church and Main.”
After Prisk purchased The Nevada City Herald, the two papers were consolidated on Feb. 24, 1901. The paper also acquired The Herald’s former Nevada City home, at what is now 301 Broad St. The paper then became known as the Daily Morning Union and The Herald (shortly thereafter — Daily Morning Union and Herald).
The flag changed to The Daily Morning Union on March 22, 1903. The flag changed twice more, including to The Morning Union” on Aug. 7, 1908.
The last flag change came about on June 18, 1945, when after 81 years of morning publication, the paper opted for evening publication. The word “Morning” in the flag was thereby dropped for the flag we see today … “The Union.”
On July 30, 1903, the Grass Valley office relocated to 151 Mill St., the first building erected specifically for The Union.
At the Mill Street location, Prisk installed what was then a state-of-the-art, Duplex web-fed press. According to Wyckoff’s research, reports were that the press was delivered, placed in the basement and covered with canvas as the rest of the building went up around it.
Throughout his career, in Grass Valley and beyond Nevada County, Prisk continued to look for the next chapter and the challenges that would be offered.
At the age of 27, he tried his hand at politics and in 1897 was elected to the California Senate, where he became the Legislature’s youngest member. But politics was apparently not his cup of tea as he did not seek re-election.
Shortly after moving into the new building on Mill Street, Prisk and his younger brother Charles purchased the Pasadena Star and the Long Beach Press and moved to Southern California. Prisk served as editor/publisher of what became the Press-Telegram for 40 years, until the paper was sold in 1952.
“Prisk’s intense drive to make Long Beach into one of the great cities on the West Coast made him a vigorous champion of harbor development, water development and many other projects,” according to a biography on Prisk by the Media Museum of Northern California.
“For 40 years, his typewriter poured forth a barrage of pleas for harbor improvement, and he lived to see the one-time flat transformed into one of the world’s most active ports and a base for the U.S. Navy.”
A fellow publisher, Carson Taylor of the Manilla Times, told the Media Museum of NorCal that he stood with Prisk on top of a Southern California hilltop in 1920. With a sweeping gesture of his arm, Prisk looked from the bay toward Lakewood and said, “Some day you will see 1 million people living in the range of our vision.” He lived to see that prophecy fulfilled.
According to a Long Beach Press Telegram story published in February on its former editor and publisher, Prisk “was known as Mr. Long Beach because of his dedication to the city.” He is the namesake of Prisk Elementary School in Long Beach. Three years after his death in 1962 at the age of 92, Prisk was inducted into California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Hall of Fame.
Though his journalism career took him hundreds of miles away from his home and his hometown newspaper, Prisk proclaimed to long retain his interest and relationship with both.
“My connection with the paper dates from June 13, 1893. For fifteen years I was editor of the paper, surrendering that position when I came to Southern California,” Prisk wrote in his column on the paper’s 70th anniversary.
“Although my home is now quite far distant, my interest in The Union continues and will until the end of time.”
Brian Hamilton is editor at The Union. Contact him via email at email@example.com or by phone at 530-477-4249.
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