In 1933, Fowler took the stories he had collected during his time with the Post and worked them into Timber Line, an absurdly entertaining and mostly true tale of the rise of the most outrageous newspaper in the West. (The book’s title refers to the point of elevation above which trees cannot grow—an apt metaphor for the Post’s hazardous and breathtaking history.) Structured chronologically, told anecdotally, the book covers the period between Bonfils and Tammen’s purchase of the Post and Bonfils’ death 38 years later. But the story Fowler tells is grounded in the region that birthed it.
While most people came to Colorado with picks and pans and dreams of striking gold, William Byers came toting a printing press. In 1859, he unpacked it in the small mining settlement that would become Denver; the city and the Rocky Mountain News were founded almost simultaneously. Other newspapers followed—The Denver Tribune, The Denver Times, dozens of weeklies and monthlies. In Voice of Empire, William Hornby describes how the city’s dailies were tied to entrenched political and business interests. They were published by respectable men who ran their papers the way Eastern publishers did: to influence and serve the power elite.
They were writing for a limited audience. By the end of the century, Denver had more than 100,000 residents, mostly provincial types who, though they may have been interested in politics, were never going to be active participants in it. The citizens of Denver spent their days laboring at jobs that were dangerous and often deadly. Their leisure hours were spent chasing carnal and spiritual intoxicants. And while Denver’s papers promoted the city as a mountain oasis, with fine cultural amenities and the healthiest climate in the country, the reality was somewhat different. In Queen City, his excellent history of the city’s early years, Lyle W. Dorsett describes late-19th-century Denver as “crude, dirty, disorganized, expensive, and culturally deprived,” with sooty skies and muddy, malodorous streets trod by drunkards, juvenile delinquents, and aggressive packs of wild dogs. Henry Doherty, a crooked utilities baron forced to flee the city in 1906, put it succinctly: “Denver has more sunshine and sons of bitches than any place in the country.” Fred Bonfils and Harry Tammen were two of the biggest. And in founding a paper by and for the sons of bitches, they struck gold.
Tammen came to Denver as a bartender, but soon found more lucrative employ peddling ersatz arrowheads and Western curios by mail order. He did so in the pages of a magazine-cum-catalog called The Great Divide, in which trinket sales were stoked by romantic, mostly apocryphal stories of the heroes and horrors of the Wild West. Bonfils, for his part, came to Denver after having been chased from Missouri for running a rigged lottery in which he and his confederates always ended up winning the biggest prizes. A West Point dropout who claimed kinship to Napoleon, Bonfils built his fortune one swindle at a time. (When land in Oklahoma City was at its peak, Bonfils sold lots there at one-third the market value. He neglected to mention the lots were located in Oklahoma City, Texas.)
Fowler has great fun drawing contrasts between the two very different partners, who resemble a power-mad Laurel and Hardy. Tammen, energetic and glib, cultivated an image as a lovable scoundrel; Bonfils, brooding and dyspeptic, loved dogs and money and not much else. God only knows why they decided to go into the news business. Neither was particularly interested in journalism, civic activism, or even reading. (One historian suggests that Bonfils was barely literate when he purchased the Post.) They were hustlers and con men, and the paper they created reflected that. As Fowler tells it: “From this friendship was born a blatantly new journalism, called by some a menace, a font of indecency, a nuptial flight of vulgarity and sensationalism; by others regarded as a guarantee against corporate banditry, a championing of virtue and a voice of the exploited working man. The important thing was that everyone would have some opinion of the product of this union.”
Bonfils and Tammen set about advertising the Post with tricks and gimmicks better suited to a traveling circus. (Later, Tammen actually purchased a traveling circus, and used the pages of the Post to build its business by viciously defaming its rivals.) They installed a gigantic, electric American flag outside the newsroom, and a siren on the roof. Pedestrians near the Post office would sometimes see Bonfils, “a sudden wild gleam in his eye, prancing on the balcony, reaching into cloth sacks and pulling out fistfuls of new pennies, flinging them to fighting gamins below and shouting: ‘Lucky! Lucky! The Post brings you luck!’”