Great Falls Forum: 175 years of recorded history through journalism

LEWISTON — In 1965, the same year that a wrecking ball demolished the historic DeWitt building on the corner of Park and Pine streets, which once hosted famous gunslinger “Wild Bill” Hickok, Lewiston received worldwide attention for a one-minute-long bout between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston.

The Ali-Liston fight would live on as a defining moment in sports history, covered by around the globe, but it was also covered for weeks by local reporters before and after the fight.

It was among several notable events in local history that were closely watched and written about in the pages of the Sun Journal and its predecessors over the past 175 years, which was the subject of a Great Falls Forum on Thursday.

With help from David Chittim, director of the Androscoggin Historical Society, Sun Journal staff members Steve Collins and Judy Meyer discussed the role the daily newspaper has in the history of Androscoggin County. Saturday marks the 175th anniversary of the first edition of the Lewiston Falls Journal, published on May 21, 1847.

As part of the celebration, the Sun Journal will be resurrecting some notable news coverage from over the years for this Saturday’s edition, including the original coverage of the Ali-Liston fight.

In this May 25, 1965, file photo, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali is held back by referee Joe Walcott, left, after Ali knocked out challenger Sonny Liston in the first round of their title fight in Lewiston, Maine. The bout produced one of the strangest finishes in boxing history as well as one of sports’ most iconic moments. (AP Photo/File)

During the discussion Thursday, Collins said the fight, held in the building that is now the Lewiston Colisee, was a title rematch that came to Maine due to concerns for violence against Ali. With many people still finding their seats, the Sun Journal said “Ali winged Sonny” with what was called a “phantom punch” because it happened so quickly many people missed it.

In the following days, the Journal sports editor said the match would be debated for years due to its record as the shortest heavyweight title fight in history. The paper questioned whether the fight was fixed, Collins said. It’s since gone on to be part of local lore, and produced perhaps the most famous sports photo of all time.

Chittim shared another piece of local history concerning Ali that occurred years later: a letter Ali wrote to the “many in one coalition” in response to competing demonstrations over immigration fears. The letter is on display at the Androscoggin Historical Society.

It came in response to a 2002 letter to the Somali community from then-Mayor Larry Raymond. It appeared in the Sun Journal under the headline “Maxed-Out” and contained a plea for “some breathing room” for the city. It asked Somalis to stop coming to Lewiston, stating the city had been “overwhelmed” and that more immigrants would lead to “negative results for all.”

The letter ultimately got the attention of white supremacists, and led to competing demonstrations — though Chittim said it wasn’t much of a competition. He said 36 people attended the rally against immigration, and 4,200 people rallied in support of the Somali community at Bates College, calling it “a very strong statement about the way we feel in Lewiston.”

Collins said the moment and the Sun Journal’s coverage “captured the community’s fears and showcased its hopes.”

Chittim also hit on some lesser known history that received newspaper attention, including an infamous 1879 election involving Lewiston native Alonzo Garcelon. The incumbent governor came in a distant third in the election, and when no one received the required majority, he resorted to unseemly tactics like purging Republican votes, including that of Nelson Dingley, then owner of the Lewiston newspaper.

Chittim called it “a black stain on Maine’s history” and a puzzling chapter in Garcelon’s story, who was otherwise lauded for his public service.

Other pieces of history mentioned were the Lewiston City Hall fire in 1890. Chittim said the cause was believed to be from straw and refused that had accumulated in an elevator from a poultry show held in the building. There was also a dog show at the same time. He said the dogs were rescued, but the fowl were not. At the time, the building also served as the city library, and only 300 books out of thousands were saved. The current City Hall was built on the same site.

“Today’s news is tomorrow’s history,” Chittim said.


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