Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

September 2, 2014
Local historian reflects on time spent as a journalist

Joseph Liddell has a story to tell.

In fact, he has lots of stories to tell.

Liddell is a noted Tooele County historian.

He also has a long and interesting career that was highlighted by his work as newspaper correspondent, staff writer and editor.

Like most people, Liddell started working young — hoeing beets and stocking the local grocery store. He worked as a metallurgical operations clerk for several years.

After a stint in the United States Army, he got a job as a linotypes and teletypesetter at the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin. And he also started work as a newspaper correspondent.

“One day I left at 5 p.m. and did not come home at 5 p.m. nor at 5 p.m. the next day, but at 5 p.m. on day two,” he said. “After that I was ready to leave.”

So he went to work at the Tooele Community Chamber of Commerce in 1960.

One of his prized memories is his efforts for improve the roads up Middle Canyon and Butterfield Pass by hair-pinning a road up the west side of the mountain for the workers at the copper pits. The National Guard helped with the grading and bulldozing.

“I got them a lot of great publicity because of my connections at the newspaper,” he laughed.

He continued to do correspondence work all over northern Utah.

“I went to Wendover, to Salt Lake City — wherever they needed me to go. It was all about the adage, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’” he said. “I covered highway accidents, floods and a fatal plane crash, just about everything.”

And most of the time, he took his own pictures with an SLR camera he found.

“I went into the jewelers here on Main Street and found a single lense reflex 100 camera that was ordered for a soldier who had been shipped out,” Liddell said. “I got it for $9 and took it with me to all my jobs.”

Then his correspondence work turned into a full-time reporting job at the Deseret News.

“I started right before Aug. 16, 1960, the day that Alton Graham made his record-breaking speed ride at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where he was killed,” he said. “I wasn’t there for that, but I did almost get run over by the ambulance he was in as I got off the road going to the airport. Graham was inside, but he was already dead.”

He was also there for another great Bonneville Salt Flats story.

English driver Donald Campbell broke another land record at 325 mph. He crashed. But he lived and Liddell snapped a photo of Campbell arriving at the old Tooele hospital alive with a blood smear across his face. Campbell only suffered a hairline fracture on his skull.

“The National Safety Council used that picture on the front of its cover for two years as an incentive to wear a seat belt,” he said. “Campbell had been wearing his seat belt and lived.”

Another example of the power of the press occurred about 1957, Liddell said, when various state agencies and the Nevada Tourist Board were trying to move the Utah port of entry closer to the Salt Palace. Liddell did his research and found out the new proposed site was actually four miles closer to Wyoming that Nevada.

“When faced with new facts that I had brought to light, and would be printed in the newspaper, the agencies scrapped the whole plan,” Liddell said. “And later on I heard that a professor from Brigham Young University used to use that in his classes as an example of the power of the press.”

He also said he helped keep Wendover a civilian town.

“I helped convinced the Chamber of Commerce to take on the Western Pacific Railroad to prevent the railroad from selling the whole city to a Hollywood playboy and developer.” he said. “Our actions enabled the city of 850 people to buy their lots from the railroad and keep it a civilian-run entity.”

In those days, Liddell was getting paid 20 cents a word, and when he took a photograph, that was worth $3.

“Sometimes I was making $400 a month. That was pretty good money in those days,” he said. “But then sometimes my wife would wake up and have no idea where I was until she turned on the radio and hear the news spot.”

In the ’60s, Liddell was trusted with other responsibilities too.

“One day I was working and the managing editor called down and said, ‘Joe, run down and tell the boys to stop the press and throw away all the papers. The president has been assassinated.’” Liddell said.

In light of president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Liddell was tasked with literally stopping the presses.

“I ran down and told the boys downstairs and they thought it was a joke and kept repeating, ‘the president is dead, the president is dead,’” Liddell said. “Finally I picked up the bar used to set the type and yelled, ‘you do what I told you or I will crash your skulls in.’”

Liddell said the paper had already printed about 5,000 copies they had to throw away that day because of the assassination.

In the 1980s, newspapers reworked how things were run and designed.

“It was a great improvement, it made it so quiet you wouldn’t even recognize it,” Liddell recalled.

By then he was working as an editor in the back shop, where the newspaper is composed. While there, the editors needed someone to cover the Metro Hall and the Justice beat.

“So I got drafted to do that. And then shortly thereafter they needed someone to cover city and committee meetings at the Salt Lake County Building,” Liddell recalled. “And then I covered crime and the 3rd District Court.”

After that Liddell covered Salt Lake County and all its municipalities and also covered their political meetings. And he also covered the crime beat, which meant a lot of Sunday duty.

“At the beginning I was pretty far down the totem pole and had to work every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Fourth of July,” he said. “The good news was that I would get free meals from the diner across the street.”

Liddell said his most significant story was covering the Dugway sheep incident, in which 6,000 sheep were killed on ranches near the Dugway Proving Ground that were connected to chemical weapons tests by the U.S. Army.

“By far the most important story has been the sheep kill out at Dugway. That is because it is still being felt today and people are still talking about it and the issues it brought up. It is actually the core impetus for getting the world’s attention on the destruction of the chemical and biological weapons in the United States and Russia,” he said. “I sat on that story all night and by 11 a.m. I still had a scoop on the whole thing.”

He felt famous, when in 2007, he was doing some research and found a researcher in Washington, D.C., who had written a dissertation on the sheep kill and Liddel’s name was listed as the top source.

Liddell has moved around throughout the newsroom, in and out of the print shop, and all over the state with journalism. Now, he fills his time researching, writing and telling the history of Tooele County.

“When you live a long time you see the horizons change,” he said. “And I have seen a lot change.”

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