Willie Arthur Chalfant couldn’t help being a newspaper publisher any more than he could help being a historian. He was born to it.
His father, Pleasant Arthur Chalfant, had been one of the ill-fated Death Valley Party of 1849, many of whom perished crossing the desert. Luckily he was with the group that left the main party and took the Beckwourth Pass route north to the gold fields.
It was his father, too, who started the family tradition of newspapering. In 1870 he established the Inyo Independent, and in 1835 he and his son founded the Inyo Register at Bishop.
By the time he took over the paper from his father in 1887, Chalfant, then 18, already had two publishing ventures to his credit: the Juvenile Weekly printed on the small press given to him by his father when Chalfant was 8 and the Owens Valley News-letter started when he was 13.
Chalfant deeply loved Inyo County. In 1923 he wrote of it: In the things that nature has provided, in wondrous surroundings of scenery, of lack of monotony in the daily prospect, of a climate not surpassed and seldom equaled, in being a region where life is livable in comfort, it is the land of heart’s desire.
Even in the midst of heartbreaking setbacks, he foresaw a great future for it. “We believe in this county,” he wrote in 1922. “Isolated it was, and to some extent will be; but no reason exists why here, amid the magnificence of climate and scenery and resources that we have, should not be achieved everything that goes to make human welfare.”
But that future was in serious danger. On August 3, 1905, appeared the first of thousands of stories about a grave threat to its future — this time not from Indians as in the 1860s and not from earthquakes as in 1872 — but from man’s greed. The story was headlined “Los Angeles Plots Destruction — Would Take Owens River, Lay Lands Waste, Ruin People, Homes and Communities."
Inyo County had experienced its first boom as the result of the discovery of gold and silver in the mountains southeast of Lone Pine. But it was those seeking a different kind of riches in the soil that gave the area its permanent settlers.
The 100-mile-long Owens Valley, sheltered by great mountains, needed only to harness the flow of water from High Sierra snows to become a farming paradise.
The early homesteaders located eight reservoir sites and sought government permission to build dams for storage and irrigation. They welcomed U.S. Reclamation Service engineers sent out in 1903 to study irrigation possibilities and happily relinquished rights to their dam sites.
What they could not know was that one engineer — Fred Eaton — lusted for that water, not for Owens Valley, but for himself and the City of Los Angeles and nearby San Fernando and San Gabrielvalleys, 230 miles away.
Surreptitiously he bought up land and water rights for the city and himself for a proposed aqueduct and 140-foot dam at the headwaters of Owens River. More purchases followed; land values plummeted as the valley’s rights to its own water were denied; and discouraged settlers, many bankrupt as loans were called in, departed. This was the first of many betrayals that eventually made the Owens Valley a vassal of the giant city to the west and dried up its rich farmlands and lush peach and pear orchards.
Chalfant and his paper fought valiantly — both the marauders from Los Angeles and “the traitors” in their own back yard who gave in to the city’s pressure. The arch villain was Chief Engineer William Mulholland of the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct, and front-page cartoons in The Register lambasted him continuously in 1924.
“The dominant genius of the whole undertaking was William Mulholland,” wrote Chalfant, “whose attitude was typified by his remark (here expurgated) that there were not enough trees in Owens Valley to hang its people on. To him the Inyo people were outlander enemies to be conquered.”
Stories, editorials, cartoons — all filled the columns of The Register as the fight continued, but a different kind of story — reports not about the present and future but about the past — had begun to appear in 1904.
Chalfant had become concerned about preservation of Inyo County’s history before the 1870s when written records began to be kept, and he became the self-appointed chronicler of the county’s robust pioneer years.
In the early 1900s many of the pioneers still lived. Chalfant sought them out for personal interviews or entered into correspondence with those no longer in the area.
In at least two instances, he was just in the nick of time.
Three years after he went through a lode of valuable materials collected by pioneer assayer Henry G. Hanks that constituted virtually the complete history of the county’s early years, the collection was destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906.
On a day’s railroad journey with pioneer lumberman Thomas W. Hill, Chalfant listened to recollections of the days of slow whipsawing in Independence. That evening, Hill was dead of heart failure.
The recollections were checked and rechecked with other accounts and other sources. Between newspaper deadlines, Chalfant traveled the state reading newspaper files, official government reports, survey field notes, state legislative journals, county government records and books, not always happily In “Story of Inyo,” he complained about looseness of wording in the small morocco-covered book in the courthouse containing the early minutes of the Board of Supervisors that described the boundary of a school district as “south of the first section line south of J. W. Symmes.”
“It would appear,” grumbled Chalfant, “that the Supervisors looked on Mr. Symmes as a landmark.”
Chalfant’s research was the basis of stories and columns in the paper until the week of his death.
In the spring of 1921 the Federation of Women’s Clubs of Inyo County and later the Board of Supervisors encouraged Chalfant to collect the material for book publication. The result was “The Story of Inyo,” first published in 1921 and re- published in revised form in 1933.
“The Story of Inyo” was followed by “Outposts of Civilization” in 1928, “Death Valley, The Facts” in 1930, “Tales of the Pioneers” in 1942 and “Gold, Guns and Ghosttowns,” a selection of some of the best of two previous books, in 1947. The last mentioned was published in England by Oxford University Press and went through six editions.
Chalfant, his hat pulled down, striding along the Bishop Streets, was a familiar and respected figure in the town he promoted and defended. He only briefly acknowledged the greetings of his fellow citizens. He didn’t waste his time and didn’t allow others to do so.
Friends remember him as quiet, even reserved. He thought his job was to report public affairs, not participate in them. He had firm opinions on many subjects, but those he expressed in editorial columns, not in public forums.
Co-workers enjoyed his good, dry sense of humor as he sat in the editorial chair, vest half-open, hat cockeyed, sleeves rolled up, adding yet more to the pile of papers and books on his desk. It was his boast that he could lay his hand on anything he wanted there. He had no need to clear off that desk even when he sold The Register in 1942 to George W. Savage and Roy L. French, publishers of the Lone Pine Progress-Citizen and Inyo Independent. He continued as editor until his death the next year — a role he had filled for 56 years.
Savage and French, to honor Chalfant, took the name of Chalfant Press for their three papers.
The Chalfant name lives in other monuments to Bill Chalfant’s contribution to his beloved Inyo County. Chalfant Valley, in the shadow of the 13,000-foot White Mountain Range, is famous for its Indian petroglyphs.
Perhaps John B. Long, manager of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said it best in 1942 when he spoke at a Rotary meeting honoring Mr. and Mrs. Chalfant on their golden wedding anniversary. “Angels Camp had its Mark Twain, the Valley of the Moon its Jack London, San Francisco its Bret Harte, and Owens Valley has its Bill Chalfant.”
Testimonials poured into the newspaper office following Chalfant’s death. Roy Boothe, supervisor of Inyo National Forest, wrote: “Inyo County and the West will miss the sound judgment and courageous opinions that were expressed in his editorial columns over the long period of his service ... as editor. ... Even his opponents in controversial subjects would have nothing but the highest respect for his fairness and honesty of purpose. Time has almost invariably proven the wiseness and straight thinking of his words, whether written or spoken.”
His one-time co-publisher, W.C. Parcher, wrote: Bill, following the teaching of his father and the dictates of his own great heart, made The Register a thoroughly clean and reliable newspaper which throughout the years has commanded the respect of his fellow editors. He conducted the paper with the same integrity and honesty of purpose with which he ordered his life.
He was vigorous and fearless in his advocacy of any proposition he considered in the best interests of the community, and uncompromising in his denunciation of any against that interest. But no matter how intense a controversy became, he stuck straight to the issue and refused to indulge in personalities. He was a judge of human nature, but judged no man.
Well, with the possible exception of Mulholland.