Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On the Fly with John Walker Harrington

"Tobacco Greatest Solace of War Worn Fighting Man"
One of Harrington's first big stories appeared in The Sun in 1917.

Everything grabbed the interest of John Walker Harrington, one of America’s forgotten journalists.

            “Kaiser’s Heir, Prince of Failure: The Sad Military Career of Frederick William, Who Stops Losing Battles Only Long Enough to Accept Decorations and Study the Strategic Value of Frogs”

             “Trotsky Was a Starving Idealist: Bolshevik Leader Left Impress on Thousands in The Bronx by Speeches and Writings”

            “Motor Street Traffic is Big Civic Problem: Wider Highways and Elevated Roadways Recognized as Essential Future Needs”

A quintessential reporter of the early twentieth century, John Walker Harrington was not as well-known as the crusaders Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell nor the daring investigative journalist Nellie Bly.  But Harrington was a prolific and expressive prose stylist.

His news and features appeared regularly in The New York Times, New York Herald, New York Tribune, Saturday Evening Post, Scientific American, Popular Science Monthly, Bankers Magazine, McClure’s, and American Magazine.

Newspaper editors from Kansas to Alabama; Illinois to North Carolina; Nebraska to New Jersey faithfully pulled his stories from the wires.

Given Harrington’s lifelong passion for science and technology, and his enthusiasm about the efficiency and productivity that lay in the future, it’s a neat juxtaposition that his earliest published pieces included sentimental stories for kids.  

Typical newspaper puzzle for children, 1890s 

These appeared, amidst comics and puzzles, in the children’s sections that were part of most Sunday newspapers once upon a time.

Born in 1869 in Missouri, Harrington grew up a child of the Upper Midwest.  He spent the first eighteen years of his life in Logan, Ohio, where his father was a pharmacist and his grandfather a bank president.  As companions he had two precocious brothers, Marshall and Herbert, and a younger sister, Evaline.

Logan was a bustling city on the banks of the Hocking River in the southeast part of the state.  It was the first place that Harrington took in the past and imagined the destiny of the United States.  

Main Street, Logan, Ohio, 1890s

During the 1880s, the boy observed the decline of the Hocking Canal – a branch of the Ohio and Erie Canal – once part of a major transportation system that crisscrossed the state. 

He recognized the essential importance of the railroad, for the Hocking Valley Railway passed through Logan on its way from Athens to Toledo.  Later it became part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.

And he was fascinated by local industry: grist and sawmills, iron and steel, the manufacture of clay products.

Intricacies of the Hocking Valley Railway

Harrington probably started writing when he was quite young.  At the College of Wooster, he edited the student paper, graduated in 1890 and stayed on to earn a Master of Philosophy. *  Then he became a registered pharmacist and briefly went into business alongside his father.

But his heart’s desire was to be a writer – fiction or the news, it did not matter.

By 1895 Harrington had moved to New York City.  There he began to see his byline with satisfying regularity.   

His first story, “Dove Rock Day,” was about Gilded Age summer society at Lake George in upstate New York, where an actress saves the life of a newspaper reporter who is spying on her.  His second story, “An Interrupted Mission” tells of a former slave who escapes being lynched by his two white partners during the Klondike Gold Rush.

In 1898 Harrington married May Lewis, daughter of a former district attorney.  A baby, Ruth, came along in 1899.

In 1900, Harrington published a collection
of his stories for children. 

Perhaps to amuse Ruth, Harrington turned to children’s stories.  First came “The Apple-Butter Cat,” which starred a church mouse from India and characters named Ugly Dog, Nimble Grasshopper, Leap Frog, and Jumping Kangaroo.  There followed “Hoot Owl Invents Golf”; “The Gray Mouse and the Fat Mouse, a Quaint Conceit”; “When the Goat was King, a Mechanical Toy Melodrama,” and “The Gringe and the Spitfire.”

In 1902 “The Man at Old Tom’s,” his haunting adult story about a suicide, was reprinted widely.  Right there in the first paragraph, he fully immersed himself in the main character:

Even the chops looked lonely at Old Tom’s on that December night.  Business had delayed me at the office, for Wall Street was on the verge of one of its frequent crises.  I had slipped out for dinner at the old chop-house.  The exertions of the day and the nervous strain under which I had been placed made me singularly depressed.

Not until 1916 did Harrington hit it big with a full-page story in The Sun.  “Tigers of the Sea” was about sharks preying on fishermen and bathers off the New Jersey Coast.

Now he was off and running.

Illustration for one of Harrington's
newspaper stories for children 

*The College of Wooster is located in Wooster, Ohio.

See part 2, 11/27/19.

July Night