In 1979, a century after Russell A. Kistler founded the Optic, beloved Optic editor Lois Beck wrote of her predecessor: “Kistler had unabashed contempt for all other racial and ethnic groups but his. ‘Mexicans’ were barely tolerated by him, positively not considered ‘Americans’ even after Kearny told them they were. This racial dementia was so much a part of him that he disclosed it unconsciously, as well as deliberately. No, Russell and I didn’t belong in the same century and certainly not in the same town.”
Lois Beck was observing the Optic’s centennial, and was the wife of publisher Stuart Beck, who with his brother Robert H. Beck, purchased the Optic in 1967, as will be related later.
Few men in Las Vegas history did more to create a racial divide along the Gallinas, than did Russ Kistler, who founded the Optic in July 1879, arriving on one of the first trains that entered the new rail town which would become East Las Vegas.
A man of his times, Kistler was at once a brilliant journalist and a shameless racist. His Optic’s invective nurtured and sharpened the racial separation — and peculiarly symbiotic existence — which persisted between East and West Las Vegas, and within New Town itself, for almost a century.
As our tale of two cities continues, we will recount the history of Las Vegas newspapers, beginning with the steadfast Optic — not our town’s first periodical, but certainly its most enduring. It is unclear what newspaper was first published here, but according to Lynn Perrigo’s “Gateway to Glorieta,” between 1869 and 1935 (the terminal date of Perrigo’s book), “no less than thirty newspapers emanated from Las Vegas,” though most were short-lived, and few survived more than a decade.
Later columns will recount other noteworthy and durable Las Vegas newspapers, including the Daily Gazette, Kistler’s early rival, founded in 1872 at the southeast corner of Moreno and South Pacific streets; La Revista Católica, published by the Jesuits at their college on South Gonzales Street; La Voz del Pueblo, published by Felix Martinez, Antonio Lucero and Ezequiel C de Baca, which catapulted the latter into the governor’s office; and Secundino Romero’s El Independiente, which the unrivaled patron wielded unmercifully against his foes. (We will also tell the story of another more contemporary periodical, La Revista Norteña, published sporadically in the mid-1960s by Donaldo A. “Tiny” Martinez, Ezequiel C de Baca’s grandson, and important for its espousal of civil rights and racial equality during that tumultuous era.)
We begin with the newspaperman who so ignobly molded the tale of two cities, and so brazenly insisted on the separation of the Anglo and Hispanic people of Las Vegas. Little is known about his early life, but Russell A. Kistler will always be remembered for his chilling and foretelling pronouncement, made in a maiden issue of his daily Optic on Thursday, Nov. 20, 1879: “East Las Vegas is an American town and will be governed by Americans only.”
What we know of Kistler’s early years is from Milton W. Callon’s seminal chronicle, “Las Vegas, New Mexico, the Town that Wouldn’t Gamble,” published in 1962. According to Callon, Kistler was born near Evansville, in southernmost Indiana, about 1853 — making Kistler only 26 when he arrived in Las Vegas and founded the Optic. (Callon’s book also notes that in his youth in Indiana, Kistler worked for a local newspaper as a copy boy and printer’s devil, and that he yearned to travel west.)
Kistler later lived in St. Louis, Mo., for about four years, then moved to Granada, Colo., a small community which grew as a rail town when the railroad moved into Colorado in the mid-1870s. In Granada, with money borrowed from his brother Chet, Kistler bought a printing press and apparently started a periodical of sorts in the small town. (With a current population of about 640, Granada still exists in southeastern Colorado, northeast of Raton, about 12 miles from the Kansas border.)
As the railroad pushed south from Colorado into New Mexico, Kistler quickly departed Granada, loading his printing press and belongings on a train, and following the AT&SF into Otero, the first rail town established (and named) in New Mexico, five miles south of present-day Raton. There Kistler unloaded his press, and started the Otero Optic, publishing his first issue on May 22, 1879.
Within two months, Otero was abandoned by the railroad, and by the restless Kistler, as the budding newspaperman again loaded his printing press on a train car and moved south. He followed the AT&SF to its newest rail town, about a mile east of the existing “Mexican” settlement of Las Vegas — and Russ Kistler unloaded his printing press for the last time.
Publishing his first Las Vegas Optic on Wednesday, July 30, 1879, Russ Kistler would quickly set the tone for the racial divide which was to define Las Vegas for almost a century.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.