Pilot Proud: The Steamboat Pilot’s pioneer publisher and editor
Editor’s note: This narrative relies entirely on the 1944 book, “The Tread of Pioneers” by Charles Leckenby.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Charles Leckenby, who would play a pivotal role at the Steamboat Pilot, first walked into the newspaper office on a September day in 1889 seeking employment.
Although he was a journeyman printer and had only three years of formal schooling, he would remake himself into a wordsmith and community leader able to shrug off adversity, presiding over both news content and printing of the Steamboat Pilot until his death in March 1950.
His path, from growing up in a family where the parents struggled to find prosperity to becoming an influential frontier newspaper publisher who helped other visionaries to create a special community on the frontier of Colorado’s Western Slope, is remarkable.
Charles, known as Charlie, was the son of Albert James Leckenby, a Union soldier in the Civil War from Allegany County, Michigan, who served in the second Missouri Cavalry for three years. His mother, Arminda Jane Cobb, was born in Barry County, Michigan, where she taught school.
After the end of the war, the family moved to the plains of Nebraska. They were not too far from Grand Island and the newly completed Union Pacific Railroad. But that location did not lead to a successful farm.
Leckenby was born in a sod house. Much later in life, he flashed his talent for prose in describing his beginnings on the plains, writing, “There I made my first feeble protest against what some iconoclastic people called ‘the cockeyed world,’ although I do not entirely agree.”
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The family moved when a banker foreclosed on their half-frame, half-sod house and moved the Leckenby family home — without them — to a new location.
Good fortune arrived in the nick of time when the railroad refused a carload of baled hay, Leckenby wrote in his 1944 book, “The Tread of Pioneers.” Albert scooped up the hay and mixed it with clay soil to build an earthen cabin. Unfortunately, the tarpaper roof proved vulnerable to prairie thunderstorms.
Albert and Arminda were able to provide Charles and his siblings with McGuffey readers. The children walked 2 miles to a one-room country school, which held classes three months every summer.
Weary of the plains, the family moved to Alabama where there was no school system, and their father, once again, had little financial success, this time growing cotton.
Young Charlie’s prospects improved when his family moved on to Columbus, Missouri. That’s where Charlie got the itch to become a printer. He signed up with the Columbus Index newspaper, which came out any time its imbibing owners sobered up.
“I think I was to get $1.50 a week, but payday was uncertain,” Charlie recalled.
He had worked at the Index about three months and was getting to the point where he “could set a pretty good string of type,” when the scene changed again.
In October 1888, Arminda abruptly packed a small trunk of clothes for her son, along with a big basket of food, and put him on a train to Wyoming. She urged Charlie to seek his older brother Harley in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and assured the young man he was sure to be welcomed.
When Charlie disembarked from the train in Laramie, he headed south on a freight wagon to North Park, Colorado, with one large mountain range between him and his destination.
The Steamboat Pilot announced the death of its pioneer editor on March 30, 1950.
“Charles H. Leckenby, editor and publisher of the Steamboat Pilot and prominent in the civic and political life of Colorado for more than a half century, died at his home after an illness of six weeks.
He was born Nov. 5, 1872, near Grand Island, Nebrasks.
Leckenby was survived by his widow, Lara E. Leckenby, son Maurice, who succeeded his father as publisher, two daughters and three brothers.”
With winter already coming on, a prominent man in the 8,000-foot basin that is North Park urged Charlie to seek shelter at the Chedsey Ranch. His benefactor, Johnny Moore, had become well known as the editor of the North Pike Miner during the boom days of the Teller Mine.
Clearly, young Mr. Leckenby was chasing his destiny.
Word of Charlie’s arrival was sent to Harley via more experienced mountain men, and after a three-day slog through deep snow, elder brother appeared on homemade skis, and the brothers settled into a small cabin they’d built. They subsisted on rabbits all winter.
In September 1889, after a second season working at a sawmill in North Park, the brothers packed a burro with bedding and provisions and started over the Continental Divide for Steamboat.
“I left Columbus in October 1889, but didn’t get to Steamboat until 11 months later, in September 1889, following a burro on foot,” Charlie recalled.
A few days after arriving, Charlie went straight to the Steamboat Pilot and signed on with James Hoyle, the newspaper’s founder.
“My wages were $15 a month, payment uncertain,” Charlie wrote. If payday wasn’t a sure thing, young Leckenby was in a position to study under an unrelenting perfectionist.
Ultimately, Charlie found an investor who could help him to buy out competing newspapers in tiny Steamboat and so launched family stewardship of the Steamboat Pilot that would last for three generations.
Tom Ross retired from the Steamboat Pilot & Today in 2018 after 36 years in the newspaper business. He continues to write a regular column for the paper.
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