Digitized archives make it easy to find eyewitness accounts

This page from The Vidette-Messenger's souvenir edition on Oct. 14, 1917, includes an account of how an editor helped bring electricity to Valparaiso.

File, The Times

When electricity came to Valparaiso, the Daily Vidette was a part of the story. The newspaper office at 157 Lincolnway, where Fluid Coffebar is located now, was the first to see the benefit of electrification.

A story about this was published in The Vidette-Messenger on Oct. 14, 1927, shortly after the Daily Vidette and the Evening Messenger merged.

We know about this because The Vidette-Messenger archives are now online and easily searchable. The Times acquired The Vidette-Messenger in 1995. Reading contemporary accounts of historical events aids appreciation of how events were seen by eyewitnesses before the benefit of hindsight.

You take electricity for granted now, because all you have to do is flip a switch, but that wasn’t always the case.

Charles R. Talcott, who died in October 1927, was editor of the Daily Vidette when this 1883 experiment happened. The drama of that event comes through in the account published just days after Talcott’s death.

A dynamo was hooked up to the engine that powered the printing press. The tension built quickly.

“Talcott, game to the last, took the governors off the engine. At last, a light. The gauge showed 120 pounds. For 20 seconds it showed and then the boiler started to go through the ceiling. Everyone in the place thought they were doomed and there was a genuine scare. Everybody poohed and laughed. They wanted to know who would want such a light as that,” the story said.

The next day, the dynamo was hooked up to a tractor engine, and enough light was generated to convince the mayor and the council to grant entrepreneur George Conover, who owned the city’s telephone franchise, the right to generate electricity for the city as well.

Technology keeps improving, and the news business keeps pace, including with its archives.

On May 8, 1954, The Vidette-Messenger published an article saying the newspaper was preserving its back issues for posterity by having them microfilmed.

“It is the custom of all newspapers periodically to have the daily paper bound into large awkward-handling files for future reference,” the story said.

That’s no longer the custom, although microfilm still is.

But bound or microfilmed, researchers needed clues to narrow the dates before tackling the archives.

Now that is has been digitized, that microfilm is much more easily searched.

When our new online archives were launched, back issues of The Times — variously called The Hammond Times, The Lake County Times or simply The Times — were included. A collection of pages from The Vidette-Messenger was added, but that collection was incomplete and difficult to read.

So a few of us at The Times boxed up our microfilm collection from The Vidette-Messenger and sent it in to be scanned. The result is that large gaps were filled. Any issues or pages still missing are because we didn’t have them in our own collection.

Making the microfilm archives searchable meant I could finally look up a story I wrote early in my career about a medical student from Valparaiso who was on the island country of Grenada when U.S. forces invaded.

Philip Kilmer, 29, was attending a medical school there when U.S. forces landed on the island. I interviewed him several times by phone during that military action. He told me that confused U.S. soldiers had poor-quality maps from the military, so he gave them directions and his motor club maps.

After Grenada, the Pentagon learned it had to provide better maps to troops on the ground, and the civilian population eventually got the benefit of GPS mapping as a defense spin-off.

Looking at old advertising can offer perspective, too. A few days ago I ran across an Oct. 19, 1942, ad that let readers know daily milk deliveries would cease because the dairies were under orders to conserve rubber for the war effort during World War II.

You can learn more about The Times’ online archives and explore them yourself at nwi.com/archives.

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter/LaPorte County Editor

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.