Now beginning its 162nd year of publication, the Mountain Democrat is one of 19 newspapers published in El Dorado County before 1858, according to the 1949 reminiscences of former Democrat publisher Clarence Barker.
It is the lone survivor of that remarkable period, and is now the oldest newspaper in California in continuous publication.
By its own account, the earliest paper in the county was the El Dorado Republican, originally founded as the El Dorado News in June 1851. This date was mentioned in the early issues of the Mountain Democrat, although an 1858 survey by the Sacramento Union pegs the first issue of the El Dorado News as July 19, 1851 as well as a 1949 doctoral dissertation filed at Stanford University by Chester Barrett Kennedy. The difference in dates may be attributable to a prospectus publication, a sample printed up to sign up advertisers and subscribers before regular publication began.
Only three editions of the El Dorado News remain extant, on file in a museum in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. Backdating those issues confirms the July 19, 1851, first publication.
For about 80 years until 1983, it was believed the Mountain Democrat began in 1852. We had a big sign that proclaimed that. But research through the old papers found that printers had messed up the volume numbers in 1890 and 1905, adding an extra number each time. In clearing that up we discovered our 1851 origins as the first newspaper east of Sacramento.
Thomas Springer moved the El Dorado News from Coloma to Placerville and renamed it the El Dorado Republican on Dec. 6, 1851, according to the early files of the Mountain Democrat.
When Springer sold the Republican, including its subscription list and press, to Dan W. Gelwicks and William A. January, the Mountain Democrat acquired what had been the first press in El Dorado County. With that sale the El Dorado Republican became the Mountain Democrat on Feb. 25, 1854.
Springer’s press was the first one in the interior of California outside Sacramento, according to the History of El Dorado County by Paolo Sioli written in 1883.
The offices were on Coloma Street over the graves of Irish Dick and other outlaws hanged by vigilantes. The site is now a parking lot for the Liars Bench, the last bar in downtown Placerville.
In 1879 the Democrat moved to the south side of Main Street two doors west of the Cary House. That later became a funeral parlor and furniture store.
Next to hardware store
In 1889 the paper moved next to Placerville Hardware and stayed at that location for 102 years until moving to 1360 Broadway Dec. 7, 1991.
Dan Gelwicks went on to become the state printer, serving from Dec. 2, 1867, to Dec. 3, 1871. Gelwicks married Francis Slater in March 1861 in Sacramento. He was 39. He had been born Dec. 16, 1821 in Hagerstown, Md., and came overland to California, arriving in 1849. He had fought in the Mexican-American War with a company of volunteers from India. According to the Pioneer Card filled out by his wife, he was an “extreme partisan Democrat” and known as “honest and conscientious.”
In fact, Gelwicks’ strong support of the South in the Civil War and his criticism of Abraham Lincoln caused the federal government to deny the Mountain Democrat access to telegraph services for some time during the war, cutting the paper off from boilerplate stories to fill out the back pages.
When he died at age 63 on Nov. 24, 1884, both Republicans and Democrats attended his funeral.
William A. January went on to become El Dorado County clerk from 1860 to 1861 and then served at least 22 years as tax collector of Santa Clara County, still in office at the age of 89, according to a report in 1915.
The Mountain Democrat has had three women editors — Bine Ingham as publisher from 1889-1894, Mollie Carpenter from 1902-1910, Bine Ingham and Mollie Carpenter jointly from 1910-1921, Mollie Carpenter 1921-1922, and Ursula Smith as editor, 1978-1986. A fourth, Pat Lakey was managing editor 2003-2011 under Editor Michael Raffety. Raffety, editor since 1986, has served in that position longer than any editor, with Larry Ballenger’s 20-year tenure, 1958-1978, being the next longest.
The McNaughton family has owned the Mountain Democrat since 1964, the longest period of any ownership of the paper.
The Mountain Democrat began publishing twice a week on Oct. 5, 1977. Beginning Oct. 1, 1978 it added a third publication day of Sundays. It returned to twice a week publication April 8, 1979. Then on Nov. 2, 1981, it returned to a thrice-weekly publication by adding a Monday edition. On Oct. 4, 1990, it began publishing four days a week by adding a Thursday edition. That Thursday edition was discontinued after the Feb. 26, 2009, edition.
19 early competitors
The Mountain Democrat went on to be the only survivor of 19 newspapers published before 1858.
Other papers from that period that we know of include:
The Miner’s Advocate, published from the summer of 1852 through November 1853, according to Mountain Democrat files.
The Empire County Argus, published from Nov. 5, 1853 through Feb. 17, 1855, according to the State Library.
The Times and Transcript, mentioned in the Mountain Democrat of 1854.
The Placerville Herald, April 30, 1853-Nov. 5, 1853, according to the State Library.
The Placerville American, a Know Nothing Party paper, July 1855-winter 1856, according to the Sacramento Union’s 1858 survey published Dec. 25, 1858.
The Placerville Appeal, published six weeks from March 1853, according to the Sacramento Union’s 1858 survey.
The Georgetown News, Oct. 19, 1854-May 23, 1856, according to the State Library.
The Index, Feb. 13 1858-September 1858, according to the Sacramento Union 1858 survey. Squatter Journal, mentioned in the Mountain Democrat.
The True Republican, 1857-1858, according to an 1858 survey by the Sacramento Union.
The triweekly Argus, 1857, according to the Heritage Association of El Dorado.
The triweekly Register, 1857, according to the Heritage Association of El Dorado.
Other papers since 1858 have included:
The semiweekly Observer, 1859-60, according to the Heritage Association of El Dorado.
The Central Californian, begun Aug. 4, 1860, according to Sioli.
The (El Dorado County) Union begun June 28, 1861 according to Sioli.
The (El Dorado County) Daily Union, 1861, according to the Heritage Association of El Dorado.
The Placerville Weekly News, begun Aug. 14, 1861, according to Sioli.
The Placerville Daily News, advertised in the 1862 Placerville Directory printed by the Placerville Republican.
The El Dorado Times, 1861, according to the Heritage Association of El Dorado.
The (Lotus) Press, begun June 27, 1882, according to Sioli.
The Weekly Observer, Jan. 18, 1885-Jan. 23, 1889; merged with the Mountain Democrat.
The Republican begun June 26, 1862, a brief existence, according to Sioli.
The Republican, revived 10 years later.
The El Dorado Republican, 1901-1923.
The daily Nugget, 1901-May 5, 1909, absorbed by the El Dorado Republican.
The Placerville Republican, Jan. 2, 1924, which replaced the El Dorado Republican and continued publishing until Dec. 31, 1941 after war was declared; the Mountain Democrat acquired the Republican June 6, 1935.
The Georgetown Gem, April 12, 1872-April 9, 1880, according to Sioli.
Placerville Times, June 1936-April 1958; absorbed by the Mountain Democrat May 8, 1958.
Since the Mountain Democrat absorbed the Placerville Times in 1958 there have been 20 other newspapers that began publishing. Five of them continue to publish, including a daily and monthly in South Lake Tahoe, a weekly in Georgetown, and two subsidiary papers published by the Mountain Democrat in El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park:
The Georgetown Gazette, April 1880-September 1935; no issues published July 30-Sept. 11, 1886, Aug. 31-Sept. 21, 1893, Sept. 21, 1922-June 21, 1923; suspended May 1, 1924-Dec. 15, 1933. The Gazette was acquired by the Mountain Democrat in 1922 and again briefly in 1935; reactivated in 1972; renamed El Dorado Gazette, 1984. Renamed Georgetown Gazette sometime before 1994. Sold to the Mountain Democrat in December 2006 and continued as Georgetown Gazette.
Georgetown Town Crier, January 1961-December 1971, absorbed by the Georgetown Gazette.
Lake Tahoe News, June 21, 1961-1983 absorbed by the Tahoe Daily Tribune 1984. Tahoe Daily Tribune, 1959-present. Publication schedule changed to three times a week in 2009.
Georgetown Rural Review, Feb. 7, 1963-1965.
Pony Express Courier, June 1, 1934-May 1937, published in Placerville in summers by the Pony Express Association.
The El Doradan, March 1975-1976.
Foothill Times, 1981-1985.
The Sierra Breeze, 1965-1987.
The Reporter 1960-Oct. 26, 2002, Jan. 9, 2003-Feb. 22, 2003.
The Divide Harvester, biweekly October 1981-(monthly 1998)-2000.
The Foothill Examiner, 1980; absorbed by the Foothill Times.
Sierra Citizen, late 1970s-1988.
Mountain Trader (monthly in Somerset), 1986-December 1988, revived as a monthly magazine March 1991-1998.
Scenes of the Mother Lode, January 1984-March 1987.
The Journal of El Dorado County, July 1, 1988-July 21, 1988.
The Outlook, Aug. 3, 1988-Oct. 9, 1991.
Village Life, El Dorado Hills, May 1, 1995-present.
Cameron Park Life, monthly, Oct. 2. 1995-present.
Tahoe Mountain News (monthly) 1994-present.
Folsom Life, Nov. 7, 2002-Oct. 9, 2008.
Foothill Focus (monthly), El Dorado, December 2007-2008.
And Three Forks Times, a bimonthly newsletter of the Fairplay-Mt. Aukum Community Hall Association, from August/September 2010-present.