On March 15, 1884, Nathaniel C.T. Love published the first issue of the Comet newspaper in Johnson City, Tennessee. Attorneys Robert Burrow and Robert L. Taylor (later Tennessee governors) served as the newspaper’s editors. The paper’s salutatory piece affirmed its perspective: “In politics, we are democratic; in religion, we are orthodox.” At the time of the Comet’s first issue, the town had just one other newspaper, the politically independent Enterprise, established the previous year.
By July 1884, editorial control at the Comet had passed to Taylor and C.J. St. John, Jr. Just under a year later, an announcement was made that Cyrus “Cy” H. Lyle and Robert Burrow had purchased the paper, but Taylor would remain as editor.
The Comet covered political issues and local affairs and offered entertaining short stories and poems. In a town served by two railroad lines (later three), the paper unsurprisingly devoted much column space to train schedules and railroad news.
The Comet's Letterhead
On political issues, Taylor’s staunch support of the Democratic Party and his strong political ideology were clearly apparent. In the October issue before the 1884 presidential election, the Comet, which supported Grover Cleveland for president, featured a front-page story that included a sketched portrait of Taylor.
The article complimented Taylor’s speech condemning the Republican Party and sang his praises as a presidential elector. Taylor later ran for governor of Tennessee against his brother, Republican Alfred A. Taylor. This occasionally heated, but mostly cordial race later became known as the “War of the Roses.” Bob won the race and served as governor from 1887 to 1891 and again between 1897 and 1899.
In 1891, Robert Burrow retired from the Comet when the partnership between him and Lyle was dissolved, leaving Lyle as the sole proprietor. In the April 9, 1891 issue, Lyle announced his intention to publish the Daily Comet, beginning the following week.
The Daily Comet was “a morning paper with full Associated Press Service.” He continued to publish the weekly every Thursday. However, a couple of years later an article in the June 29, 1893 issue of the weekly Comet, announced that the daily would cease publication, declaring that, “The Daily Comet is simply off its orbit” and that “Publishing a daily paper in Johnson City is like running a free lunch counter in Washington, DC. It is well patronized, but not profitable.”
To compensate for the closure of the daily paper, the weekly one was increased to eight pages. An elaborately illustrated masthead, which is what people generally remember about it, was introduced featuring a comet descending over industrial and rural landscapes with a train at the center, pulling a car labeled “progress.”
The weekly Comet built up a large circulation in its first decade. By 1895, the paper had 1,000 active subscribers in a town whose total population was approximately 4,000.
Over the first decade, the Comet employed inventive means to increase subscriptions. In 1885, the paper ran a promotion offering new and renewing subscribers the chance to win one of the several prizes such as a silver watch, a sewing machine, and the grand prize, a parlor organ from the Chicago Cottage Organ Company. An ornate illustration of the organ accompanied several of the promotional announcements.
The Comet remained in publication at least through 1918, but surprisingly the exact date of its demise apparently was never recorded.