Great Falls Forum: 175 years of recorded history through journalism

LEWISTON — In 1965, the same year a wrecking ball tore down the historic DeWitt Building at the corner of Park and Pine streets, which once housed famed gunslinger “Wild Bill” Hickok, Lewiston drew worldwide attention for a one-minute fight between Mohamed Ali and Sonny Liston.

The Ali-Liston fight will live on as a defining moment in sports history, covered by journalists around the world, 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 have been closely watched and written about in the pages of the Sun Journal and its predecessors over the past 175 years, which have been the subject of a Great Falls Forum Thursday.

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

As part of the celebration, The Sun Journal will resurrect notable media coverage over the years for this Saturday’s edition, including original coverage of the Ali-Liston fight.

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

During Thursday’s discussion, Collins said the fight, which took place in the building that is now the Lewiston Coliseum, was a title rematch that came to Maine due to fears of violence against Ali. While many people were still finding their seats, the Sun Journal said “Ali winged Sonny” with what was called a “phantom punch” because it happened so quickly that many people have missed.

In the following days, the Journal’s sportswriter said the match would be debated for years due to his shortest heavyweight title fight record in history. The newspaper wondered if the fight was set up, Collins said. It has since become part of local lore and produced perhaps the most famous sports photo of all time.

Chittim shared another piece of local history regarding Ali that happened years later: a letter Ali wrote to the ‘many in a coalition’ in response to competing protests 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 as ‘Maxed-Out’ and contained a plea for ‘a little respite’ for the city. He called on Somalis to stop coming to Lewiston, saying the town had been “overwhelmed” and that more immigrants would lead to “negative outcomes for all”.

The letter eventually caught the attention of white supremacists and led to competing protests – although Chittim said it wasn’t really a competition. He said 36 people attended the anti-immigration rally and 4,200 people rallied in support of the Somali community at Bates College, calling it a “very strong statement about how we feel in Lewiston”.

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

Chittim also touched on a lesser-known story that captured newspaper attention, including an infamous 1879 election involving Lewiston native Alonzo Garcelon. The incumbent governor came third in the election, and when no one got 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 history” and a confusing chapter in the history of Garcelon, who was otherwise lauded for his public service.

Other elements of history mentioned are the Lewiston Town Hall fire of 1890. Chittim said the cause was believed to be straw and trash that had accumulated in an elevator during a poultry show organized in the building. There was also a dog show at the same time. He said the dogs were saved, but not the poultry. At the time, the building also served as a municipal library and only 300 books out of thousands were saved. The current town hall was built on the same site.

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

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