hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News December 2019 - January 2020


Local paper’s roots date to abolitionist era

Maury Thompson


In the fall of 1842, the agricultural muses visited local poets, inspiring “odes” to be read at that year’s Washington County Fair.

“In a sweet healthy air, with a farm of his own, secluded from tumult and strife, the farmer, more blest than a king on his throne, enjoys all the comforts of life,” began “Farmer’s Song,” a three-stanza poem.

Another five-stanza poem proclaimed in part: “Then all hail the American farmer, by whom our land is blest. Of all the sons Columbus boasts, most useful and the best.”

These poems were published on Oct. 13, 1842, on the front page of the debut issue of The Washington Journal. The newspaper was the patriarch of a 177-year line of newspapers that, under various names and owners, published more than 9,000 weekly issues.

For a time this fall, the continuance of that lineage was in question. The newspaper’s most recent incarnation, The Greenwich Journal & Salem Press, ceased publishing at the end of October after the untimely death of co-owner Craig Phalen.

But by late November, Darren Johnson, the owner of the weekly Sag Harbor Express on Long Island, announced he had purchased the Journal & Press from Phalen’s widow, Meghan Phalen, who had handled most of the paper’s day-to-day operations.

Johnson, a veteran reporter, editor and journalism professor, also owns Campus News, a newspaper distributed on community college campuses. The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that Johnson plans to resume production of the Journal & Press in January.

John William Curtis established The Washington Journal in 1842. In that era, Greenwich was known as Union Village.

In 1846, the paper’s masthead read, “A Family Newspaper, Published Weekly, Devoted to Politics, Mental and Moral Improvement, Temperance, Communications, Correspondence.”
Curtis was 21 when he started the paper. He owned and published it for a little over 25 years, until the end of December 1867, before selling it to H.C. Page of New York City.

Curtis was born in Salem on Jan. 29, 1821, the second son of Philo and Sarah Ann Curtis, according to a biographical profile published March 8, 1894, in The People’s Journal, as the paper was known at that time.

He was named after Col. John Williams, a physician, Revolutionary War soldier and politician from Salem.

When the future publisher was 4, his mother died, and he and a sister went to live with an aunt on Long Island. As he approached adulthood, Curtis worked for a time as a store clerk in New York City and then returned upstate and learned the printing trade.

Curtis was working at the Troy Times when Erastus Dean Culver of Greenwich urged him to move back to Washington County and launch a newspaper. Culver agreed to finance the venture.

Culver was a Washington County lawyer, justice of the peace, abolitionist and politician who served in the state Assembly from 1838 to 1840 and in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1845 to 1847 as a Whig. He was involved in establishing the Republican Party.

Culver moved to Brooklyn in 1850, where he set up a legal practice with Chester A. Arthur, the future president, as his law clerk.

In 1854, Culver was elected as a Brooklyn City Court judge, a position he held until 1861. He gained particular notoriety for a ruling in 1857 that freed an escaped slave who had been taken into custody in Brooklyn under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Culver ruled that the New York’s anti-slavery laws took precedence over the federal law, which established a bounty system for returning escaped slaves to the South.

President Abraham Lincoln later appointed Culver to be U.S. minister to Venezuela, a post he held until 1866. He then returned to Greenwich, where he was involved in several business ventures until his death in October 1889.
Curtis, the publisher, died the same year.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.