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Originally published March 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 17, 2009 at 12:48 AM

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Pioneers, statehood, fires, wars: It was all in the Seattle P-I

Seattle Times staff reporter

1863: Planting roots in the frontier

The Civil War was still raging and the logging town of Seattle had barely a couple hundred residents when James R. Watson arrived from the much bigger settlement of Olympia in late 1863 and printed the first issues of The Seattle Gazette.

The headquarters Watson chose for his enterprise, in a Henry Yesler-owned building in Pioneer Square, had two key attributes: The rent was free, and it was upstairs from a saloon.

Thus began a connection between a newspaper and a town during which, over the next 146 years, each would mark their share of successes and challenges.

Then, as now, financial realities shaped the newspaper industry: Even with encouragement from local businessmen, Watson was unable to make the Gazette profitable, and it changed hands several times in its early years.

Despite his newspaper's difficulties, Watson lived long enough to see the 1867 completion of a project his the paper had advocated: a road over Snoqualmie Pass.

1881: Becoming the P-I

Seattle still was two years away from incorporating as a city when a printer named Samuel Maxwell moved north from San Francisco in 1867, purchasing the Gazette for $300 and renaming it the Weekly Intelligencer.

The "P" and "I" came together in 1881, when the Intelligencer, no longer owned by Maxwell, purchased a 3-year-old competitor, the Seattle Post.

Newspapers tended to appear and disappear rapidly in the late 1800s, but the P-I had staying power: It reportedly didn't miss an edition when the 1889 Great Seattle Fire left 25 blocks downtown in smoldering ruins.

The Seattle Times, which would become the P-I's main competitor over time, emerged in 1896 when the entrepreneurial Col. Alden Blethen, a native of Maine, purchased the Press Times. He dropped "Press" from the title, acquired the local Associated Press wire service and created a publication known for its bold — some said "splashy" — headlines.

1921: Enter Hearst

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William Randolph Hearst's family may not have followed the most orthodox path into journalism, if there were such a thing: His father acquired The San Francisco Examiner as payment of a gambling debt.

But it was the younger Hearst who created a publishing empire, parlaying his success with newspapers in San Francisco and New York into a nationwide string of 28 papers in the 1920s, including the P-I, which he purchased in 1921.

Before Hearst, the P-I had gone through a string of owners, each with his own political bent. Hearst steered his publications to conservative stances, supporting Republican presidential candidates in 1924 and 1928. But in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, he touted Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt as more in touch with the common man.

The newspaper missed reporting Roosevelt's second presidential victory: In 1936, a strike by the American Newspaper Guild halted the P-I's publication for nearly four months.

1948: Under the globe

A 30-foot-tall lighted globe, bearing the slogan "It's in the P-I," was hoisted into place above the newspaper's new home at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Wall Street in 1948.

Seattle had just become a two-newspaper town with the 1947 closing of The Seattle Star, marked in its latter years by rabid anti-Japanese-American sentiment.

The P-I globe was in place only five months when it was rocked by a powerful 7.1-magnitude earthquake that shook the entire Northwest on April 13, 1949, killing eight, injuring dozens and damaging thousands of structures.

In many respects, the postwar era was a time of solid growth for Seattle's two remaining dailies and the community they served, with Seattle enjoying a sustained boom through the 1950s and gaining international attention for the 1962 World's Fair and its iconic centerpiece, the Space Needle.

1983: Coming of the JOA

After decades of outright competition, the Times and P-I announced an agreement in 1983 and Seattle learned a new set of initials: JOA. The federally approved Joint Operating Agreement allowed the papers to maintain competing news staffs while The Times managed advertising, circulation and production for both.

No longer needing presses, the P-I in 1986 leased space in a new building on Elliott Avenue — bringing its trademark globe.

A Newspaper Guild strike in 2000-2001 and a nationwide downturn in newspaper ad revenue heightened financial pressures on both papers. In 2003, The Times sought to end the JOA, triggering a lengthy legal battle that culminated in a 2007 settlement, and the JOA still in place.

Amid mounting losses, Hearst officials announced Jan. 9, 2009, that the P-I was for sale. Having found no buyer in the intervening two months, the newspaper is publishing its last printed editions today and plans to continue as an online publication.

Sources: Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer archives; Washington state archives; HistoryLink.org; Bill Kossen collection; Bob Warcup collection; "A Century of Seattle Business" by James R. Warren, 1989; "Newspapers of Washington Territory" by Edmond S. Meany, 1923; "Newspapering in the Old West" by Robert F. Karolevitz, 1965.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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