The bold story of North Platte’s oldest surviving newspaper

Maggie Eberhart and Seth Mobley’s first issue of the Platte Valley Independent on Jan. 1, 1870, is the oldest surviving copy of a newspaper published in North Platte. Moved to Grand Island later in 1870, the paper remains in business as the Grand Island Independent.

Updated 10 a.m. Saturday, June 27, to add detail

One of North Platte’s early wild episodes, 150 years ago this month, centered on the oldest surviving newspaper founded in North Platte.

But it lives on in Grand Island, not here.

North Platte’s history of continuous newspaper service begins with a North Platte schoolteacher and a Civil War veteran who organized the Platte Valley Independent — today’s Grand Island Independent.

Even that paper wasn’t the first one published in North Platte. That was the Pioneer on Wheels, which operated here from November 1866 to June 1867 and moved west with the original Union Pacific Railroad track gangs.

No Pioneer on Wheels copies have been found, making the Platte Valley Independent of Jan. 1, 1870, the oldest known issue of a paper published in North Platte.

Its founders were fiery sorts in both towns.

Margaret “Maggie” Guerin Eberhart, born in Ireland in 1846, came to America with her family at age 3. By the time she arrived in North Platte in 1869, she had taught school in Peoria, Illinois, and married and divorced in Omaha.

She signed a $75-per-month teaching contract with the North Platte school board that September, early historian Archibald R. Adamson wrote in The Telegraph’s 1910 book “North Platte and Its Associations.”

Teaching wasn’t all that occupied Eberhart, credited in the 1882 “Andreas’ History of the State of Nebraska” as having “exhibited literary taste” while in Peoria.

She acted on it in North Platte when she met Seth P. Mobley, who learned the printer’s trade as a youth in Iowa and briefly published the Fort Kearny Herald at the end of a three-year U.S. Army stint in 1865.

Their paper’s birthday isn’t entirely settled. Even longtime North Platte journalist Ira L. Bare lists both 1869 and New Year’s Day 1870 in “An Illustrated History of Lincoln County, Nebraska, and Her People,” his 1920 two-volume work with William McDonald.

But Eberhart and Mobley — her name appeared first — numbered that Jan. 1 issue as the Independent’s Vol. I, No. 1. Its publication made the 23-year-old teacher Nebraska’s first female newspaper editor.

They immediately served notice that their weekly Saturday paper would stir things up:

“The Platte Valley Independent will be a strictly independent Newspaper, in every sense of the term; will be bold in the right, and strong in the denunciation of wrong ... regardless of party, creed or consequence ...”

No other copies of the Independent’s North Platte issues exist in the North Platte Genealogical Society’s searchable database of early local papers. They exist, however, on a similar database available online through the Grand Island Public Library.

For the next six months, Bare and McDonald wrote, the couple — they would marry in Grand Island in 1871 — ran “a red-hot western paper and called things by their right and common name, generally ...

“It is related of the editor of this paper (apparently Mobley) that when asked about his circulation, (he) replied, ‘My paper circulates everywhere, and it is as much as I can do to keep it from going to h-ll.”

They didn’t go to hell, but they were forced to go to Grand Island.

The Independent’s issue of June 11, 1870, carried “a bitter attack on J.P. Marston,” foreman of North Platte’s Union Pacific shops, August F. Buechler and Robert J. Barr wrote in their 1920 “History of Hall County, Nebraska.”

Their work doesn’t reprint the attack, but it says Marston — listed in North Platte histories as the shops’ original master mechanic — sued Eberhart and Mobley for libel.

Among other allegations, the couple's Page 2 editorial accused Marston of "carrying lumber, brick, &c., from the company's shops, with which to construct his own houses," working at 2 a.m. so as not to be seen. 

Eberhart and Mobley also denounced Marston for telling U.P. employees "not to throw their money away" by subscribing to the Independent, "as it contained nothing but humbug."

"He has had considerable to say against our moral character," the editorial said. "All the reply we have for this is that if our character were as BLACK AS HIS, we would leave town, and never set foot on North Platte soil again."

In the editorial's wake, “an angry mob gathered in front of the newspaper’s North Platte office" to obtain just that result, according to a Feb. 28, 2007, Grand Island Independent story by Sarah Schulz.

Former Independent Executive Editor Bill Brennan, writing on March 30, 1999, called it “a near riot” and said Eberhart had written the piece that offended the railroaders.

“North Platte residents also wanted to tar and feather Seth Mobley,” who sought protection from local soldiers, Brennan wrote in quoting a Grand Island Times article from April 4, 1883.

Under a “peace agreement,” Schulz wrote, the couple agreed to leave North Platte. Buechler and Barr say they arranged to sell their North Platte assets on June 25 to Col. Josiah B. Parke and Guy C. Barton — a sale that Marston’s libel suit put at risk.

Fortunately, “the withdrawal of (the) suit and the dismissal of Marston as foreman of the Union Pacific shops averted that course,” the Hall County historians wrote.

Mobley stayed behind for a time, editing the paper that Parke and Barton renamed the Lincoln County Advertiser.

But on July 2, 1870, a week after the sale in North Platte, Eberhart published the first issue of the Platte Valley Independent in Grand Island.

Mobley eventually joined her there — first in business, then in matrimony — and the couple did battle in a lively Grand Island newspaper war until they sold the Independent in 1883.

Maggie Mobley, who divorced Seth in the 1890s, died in 1907 at age 61. Her “acid tongue and fierce pen” made many enemies, and she “cowhided” a rival editor in December 1873, Brennan wrote.

The lineage of her original North Platte paper died out in May 1881, a month after The Telegraph debuted on April 14 of that year.

But their Grand Island Independent has been a sister paper to this one since 2008, when the Omaha World-Herald bought it eight years after buying The Telegraph.

Happy 150th birthday to our colleagues downstream on the Platte. And don’t forget where your paper got its start.

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