William Newton Byers (1831–1903) founded the first newspaper in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain News (1859–2009) and was Denver’s biggest booster during the city’s early days. Byers used his newspaper as a platform for his advocacy, as his knowledge of the territory allowed him to broker land deals. His coverage of Colorado and stories of the West drew people to Denver and consequently brought money to the city. Byers is best known for helping to expand the population of Colorado and contributing to the development of public services in the region, such as post offices and transportation.
William Byers was born on February 22, 1831, in Madison County, Ohio, where he grew up on a farm and attended West Jefferson Academy. After graduating at age seventeen, Byers worked for a few years transporting railroad ties for the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad. When his family moved to Iowa in 1850, Byers quit the railroad and decided to take a job with a federal surveying party. These groups traveled the country surveying land, mapping borders, and scouting geological resources. While working for surveying parties, Byers traveled through Oregon, Washington, California, and Nebraska.
In 1854 Byers married Elizabeth Minerva Sumner and settled in Omaha, Nebraska. There the couple had two children, a daughter named Mary Eva and a son named Frank. Byers was elected to the First Nebraska Territorial Legislature.
News in the Rockies
In July 1858 gold was found in the South Platte River near what’s now Denver, starting the Colorado Gold Rush. Denver City was founded on November 22, 1858. The population was small in number, and most residents lived in camps and roughly constructed lodgings. Denver lacked social services, such as a post office or a newspaper, and was therefore far removed from happenings elsewhere in the country.
Looking to capitalize on the growing number of gold seekers, Byers joined the rush to Colorado with the intention of establishing a newspaper. By April 1859, he was on track to start the first newspaper in Colorado. Just one week after moving, Byers and his new business partners, George C. Monell and Thomas Gibson, purchased a printing press from “a starved-to-death newspaper” in Nebraska. Byers had the press shipped via ox cart from Nebraska to Denver. Although he had no prior training as a journalist or printer, Byers printed the first edition of the Rocky Mountain News on April 23, 1859. Nicknamed “the Rocky,” this was the first newspaper printed in Colorado, beating another publication, Merrick’s Cherry Creek Pioneer, by just twenty minutes. Merrick sold out to Byers that day for thirty dollars.
Early news articles focused on gold mining in Colorado and drawing people to Denver, claiming that the city was one of the most desirous establishments in the West. Byers sketched a sunny vision of Denver’s future, using flowery words and cunning marketing to promote agriculture in the area. He made it seem possible, or even inevitable, that farmers would make the “Great American Desert” into a productive garden. Byers also published a trail guide, Handbook to the Gold Fields, to help travelers settle in Colorado. This publication was useful, but also full of misinformation that topographers later corrected.
The Rocky Mountain News proved successful from the start, owing in large part to Byers’s own personality and charisma. When the paper’s growing staff lost employees at the outbreak of the Civil War, Byers filled the gaps by hiring disappointed miners returning from the mountains. The paper moved locations three times and was flooded once. Nonetheless, Byers persisted. He saw his work as a civilizing force in the West. But not everyone approved of Byers’s tireless promotion of himself and his city. Byers made his fair share of enemies and kept a revolver close by at all times.
To counter rising competition, the Rocky began publishing daily editions in 1860. This made it the most frequently updated newspaper in Denver. However, Byers found that he was often short of new content. At the time, the nearest post office was at Fort Laramie in present-day Wyoming, a full week’s journey from Denver. Byers couldn’t abide the delay in getting news from the rest of the country, so he pressed for the establishment of a Denver post office—ideally with himself in charge so that he would have early access to incoming news. In 1864 Byers was selected to be the Denver postmaster.
Byers’s practices in business and in journalism were standard in the 1860s but are viewed less sympathetically today. His emphatic, at times hyperbolic, descriptions of Denver’s agricultural promise and productive mines often stretched or simply disregarded the truth, as eastern newspapers often pointed out. The Rocky Mountain News was far from the only outlet peddling these exaggerations, but it did play a key role in shaping early settlers’ ideas of the West. Byers remained convinced that the city benefited from his boosterish promotion.
Service to Denver aside, Byers was rebuked at the time and continues to be criticized for his views of the Sand Creek Massacre. The “Sand Creek Campaign,” as Byers called it, was an attack on peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples by the US Army in November 1864. Colonel John Chivington led the massacre of roughly 200 people, mainly women and children. Despite evidence to the contrary, Byers consistently argued that the regiment of Colorado volunteers was justified in its actions. The Rocky Mountain News office itself “furnished fourteen recruits for the regiment,” which may explain why the paper sided with the military. Byers published articles sympathetic toward the military for days after the event while ignoring testimony that questioned or criticized their actions. Eastern newspapers condemned the Rocky for this view, but Byers brushed off such chastisements as the work of “self-righteous philanthropists.” Fifteen years later, he continued to maintain that Sand Creek had “saved Colorado and taught the Indians the most salutary lesson they ever learned.”
From Newspapers to Tramcars
Byers’s boosterish promotion of Denver’s potential naturally led him into businesses beyond the Rocky. In the 1860s, he attempted and failed to use his clout at the Rocky Mountain News to sway railway bosses to bring a transcontinental line through Denver. After the Union Pacific chose to go through Wyoming, he declared that the railroad had made a huge mistake “by ignoring the resources of this rich though now struggling territory.” He turned his attention to other ventures in 1864, when he bought the townsite of Hot Sulphur Springs, near Granby, Colorado. He worked to make the town a spa and resort, another dream that never came to fruition.
In May 1878 Byers retired from his nearly twenty-year career as a newspaperman, selling the Rocky Mountain News and all of its equipment to Kemp G. Cooper. He built his family a mansion at the corner of West Thirteenth Avenue and Bannock Street, which was completed in 1883. He continued to be a tireless promoter of Denver, advocating for railways, roadways, and other forms of infrastructure development.
When his words were not enough, he went into business for himself. In 1886 Byers joined with other prominent Denver businessmen, including former governor John Evans, his son William Gray Evans, Henry C. Brown, and Roger Woodbury, to start the Denver Tramway Company (DTC). They convinced the city to grant them a monopoly on transportation by streetcar, and from that foundation their electric streetcars quickly rivaled cable cars and horse-drawn carts. Eventually, Byers’s more efficient electric streetcars pushed the other companies out of business. The streetcars enabled more of the city’s growing population to go downtown for work.
Byers became embroiled in scandal in 1889, at the age of nearly sixty, when his mistress, Hattie Sandcomb, attempted to kill him on a public street. Sandcomb shot at Byers, with the bullet barely missing him and his wife, Elizabeth. Afterward, the Byers sold their Denver mansion to Byers’s business partner, William Gray Evans, and moved out of the city to South Denver (the area around what is now Washington Park). Byers died of a paralytic stroke on March 25, 1903, at the age of eighty-two.
Byers is remembered for tirelessly promoting Denver through his newspaper and for bringing transportation developments to the city. Although his legacy is marred by the Sand Creek Massacre and a scandalous affair, Byers did as much as anyone to advance the early growth of Denver and its outlying neighborhoods. The Rocky Mountain News thrived under his ownership and afterward, until it shut its doors just short of its 150th anniversary in 2009.
Numerous sites in Denver and around the state pay tribute to Byers, including the town of Byers east of Denver, as well as Byers Peak and the surrounding Byers Peak Wilderness south of Hot Sulphur Springs. In 1921 Byers Junior High School (now DSST Byers) opened on the former site of the Byers family’s South Denver estate. In 1981 Byers’s Denver mansion was donated to the Colorado Historical Society (now History Colorado) and transformed into the Byers-Evans House Museum, named in honor of the two famous families who lived there.