On This Day in History, March 16: The Eagle Falls Silent
On March 16, 1955, the original Brooklyn Eagle officially ceased publication. The last issue of the 114-year-old newspaper had rolled off the presses on Jan. 28, 1955. At that time there was still hope that the newpaper would be able to survive, but after a labor strike that even federal arbitration could not settle, the Eagle fell silent as the borough’s voice.
Publisher Frank D. Schroth was unable to come to a labor agreement with the New York Newspaper Guild, and on March 16 wrote a letter to the Guild: “As of today the Brooklyn Eagle has not published for 47 days. So after 114 years without ever having missed an edition, we are giving up … In these circumstances there is no hope for us. The Newspaper Guild problem is malignant…So the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper of Whitman, Van Anden and McKelway has been silenced forever, and Brooklyn, the largest community in America without a voice, will indeed be doomed to be cast in Manhattan’s shadow.”
In the Beginning
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed its very first issue on Oct. 26, 1841. At that time, Brooklyn had a population of 35,500, and “Fulton Street was the single business thoroughfare. Court Street was unknown. Sands Street was the residence of the aristocrats; the Heights were a bluff merely; Fulton Street, beyond City Hall, was a country road, and Myrtle Avenue an adventurous highway of travel to Fort Greene.”
This was how the Eagle remembered the Brooklyn of its origins in a history they published in 1892. They had reason to be in awe at the changes. In the five decades since the Eagle printed its first issue, Brooklyn had grown exponentially, not just in population — becoming the third largest city in the country — but in consequence, with a volume of industry that rivaled any working waterfront in the nation.
The Eagle grew right along with Brooklyn, continually expanding its longtime Fulton Street, and later Washington Street, headquarters, buying newer and more state-of-the-art printing presses, opening more and more branch offices, and drawing in more readers. By the Civil War, the Eagle had “the largest circulation of any evening paper in the United States,” a fact the paper made a point of printing in the top left corner of page 2 every day, followed by, “Its value as an advertising medium is therefore apparent.”
That the Eagle became such a resonant and lasting voice in Brooklyn would have come as a surprise to its founders, who intended the paper to be a temporary endeavor, as a voice for the Democratic Party in Brooklyn through the election season following the death of President William Henry Harrison. But one of the founders, a printer named Isaac Van Anden, saw the paper’s value and took it over as the sole proprietor after the election.
Van Anden was born in Poughkeepsie, NY, in 1813. At an early age he learned the printing trade, and came to Brooklyn in 1836. He ran the paper until his death in 1875, although five years earlier he had sold the paper to a group of investors. To his employees he was known as “Mr. Van.” William Hester, Van Anden’s nephew, succeeded him as president and remained in control of the paper until he died in 1921.
By far the Eagle’s most famous editor was Walt Whitman, though he only served the post a short time (1846-48). He had a falling out with Van Anden over the issue of slavery — Whitman was a supporter of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited the extension of slavery to new territories. Seven years after he left the Eagle, Whitman published the first edition of his groundbreaking Leaves of Grass at a printing shop just around the bend from the Eagle’s offices on Fulton Street.
While at the Eagle, Whitman supported free trade and higher wages for dock workers, was critical of the “Nativist” movement (which was hostile to immigrants) and was in favor of prison reform. One of his editorials was headlined “Are We Never To Have Any Public Parks In Brooklyn?” His crusade resulted in the creation of Fort Greene Park and the reburial there of the Prison Ship Martyrs, who died aboard the British prison ships in New York Harbor during the American Revolution.
The Eagle rallied to many causes throughout its long history, perhaps most notably in favor of building the Brooklyn Bridge. (Several of the founders of the New York Bridge Company, the entity entrusted with building the bridge, were also co-proprietors of the Eagle itself, such as Van Anden, editor Thomas Kinsella, politician Henry C. Murphy and contractor William C. Kingsley.)
In the late 19th century the paper came out against political bosses, picking fights with Brooklyn Democratic “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, and Gravesend “Boss” John McKane.
The Eagle unsuccessfully fought the movement to consolidate Brooklyn with New York City, with this warning: “If tied to New York, Brooklyn would be a Tammany suburb, to be kicked, looted and bossed.” (Brooklyn became a borough of greater New York in 1898.)
During the 20th century, more successful Eagle campaigns helped bring a central library to Grand Army Plaza, and secured the demolition of the elevated train (nicknamed the “Black Spider”) that rattled noisily up Fulton Street, darkening the main shopping boulevard.
The Eagle had two long-time editors, Thomas Kinsella (1861 to 1884) followed by St. Claire McKelway (1886- 1915), who had the greatest influence upon the paper’s style and voice, and oversaw the paper through the height of its influence.
None other than Joseph Pulitzer himself had this to say about the Eagle in 1911:
“This is what I sincerely feel about the Brooklyn Eagle:
In the first essentials of any newspaper to be respected and be respectable — integrity, independence and intellect — I consider it among the foremost newspapers of the nation — and there are very few indeed I would call foremost.
Secondly – As a newspaper emphasizing the word ‘news,’it is absolutely unique, because I do not know of any journal in New York City or in the whole country using such lavish liberality in space and printing the local news of Brooklyn with such impartiality, non-partisanship and broad variety.
Thirdly – On the editorial page, I find it courageous, non-partisan, able and free to attack abuses in both parties. My ideal. In specially difficult situations which test courage, character and capacity, I find the Eagle rises to the importance of the occasion and brings out great latent strength in reflecting the moral sense and public opinion of the community, which it largely creates.”
Over the years the newspaper won the Pulitzer Prize four times, once for exposing corruption in the police department during the administration of Mayor William O’Dwyer.
The author and newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, who used to deliver the Eagle after school, once observed, “It had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.”
For a few months in 1960, the Eagle resumed publication as a weekly, and it was published daily for a year, ending in mid-1963.
As of Aug. 21, 1996, publication of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was resumed by publisher J. Dozier Hasty.
— Phoebe Neidl
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