Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mark Twain / America's Famous Steamboat Pilot

 If there ever was a man who lived so many different lives in a span of 75 years, it was Samuel Clemens who we often refer to as Mark Twain. Who was Samuel Clemens? Who was Mark Twain? Using both of his names he was an author..he was an American humorist...he was a newspaper journalist...he wrote travelogues...he received several honorary degrees...he traveled the world and he was a steamboat captain. Add to that having a U.S. Postal stamp issued in your name. Quite a lot of adventure in one man's lifetime. The biography of the young Mark Twain is quite amazing.

There are many sites in America where one can learn more about Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain. Travel to Missouri and visit the town of Hannibal where the young Samuel Clemens spent his boyhood. This is the setting for his Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer novels. Add to your vacation trip planner the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. 
There is also the Steamboat Mark Twain in Hannibal of which you can take an enjoyable river cruise. If your travels include a California vacation there is the Mark Twain Monument located at Angels Camp, a very unique old California mining camp which is now a tourist destination and very near to Yosemite National Park about 120  miles east of San Francisco. Angels Camp is also home to the Jumping Frog Jubilee held every year at the Calaveras County Fair.

At 12 years of age Samuel Clemens after losing his father, an attorney and local judge, in Hannibal became a printers assistant and typesetter working in such cities as New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis.  The picture to the right is of Samuel Clemens at the young age of 15. Samuel Clemens was self educated spending days after days at the public libraries absorbing books of the greatest variety of subjects available.  His explanation was that he felt this regimen would provide a wider scope of knowledge than one could attain in a public school. There was always something about the young Mark Twain that yearned for nonconformity.


At about the age of 22, Samuel traveled by steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a planned Amazon River journey with a $50 dollar bill he found on the street. The upper Amazon River had recently been explored with much fanfare and Clemens was caught with the bug to go there. While on this Mississippi trip he was awed at the skill of the steamboat's pilot and the steamboat's pilot gave Clemens the inspiration to begin training to become a pilot himself. It probably didn't take too much urging since Samuel was infatuated with the pilots job to begin with. In those days a steamboat pilot was paid about $250 per month which is the equivalent to about $75,000 today. Not a bad sum of money and with it came the prestige of calling yourself a steamboat pilot. Young Samuel Clemens jumped in with both feet. Clemens eventually convinced his younger brother Henry to join him on the steamboats. Henry did but met with misfortune when he was killed during the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania in 1858. Samuel had been with his brother on the Pennsylvania but transferred off shortly before the explosion.  I need to point out that steamboats, while appearing serene and relaxing the relative slow way they travel down a winding river, were known to be quite dangerous during their heyday. Thousands of people were killed during this era while traveling on steamboats. Records show that the biggest danger was from exploding boilers. Two such disasters were the Saluda Explosion in Lexington Missouri and the Sultana Explosion just a few miles north of Memphis Tennessee. Steam boilers during the middle of the 1800's were a new technology in as much as the safety mechanisms in place were not sufficient. The problems regarding steamboat boilers were that pressure instruments were unsatisfactory as was in many instances the physical oversight of the boilers by the riverboat crew. In other words, unmonitored boilers could build up too much pressure and explode. Often an explosion would occur because the boats captain would order maximum speed or in these cases too much speed for the boilers to operate safely. A boiler explosion within the confines of a boat's structure would be devastating to those on board. It's one thing having a boiler explode in the open and quite another down deep within the boat's structure as shown in the picture below left. Boilers were located down in the bowels of a riverboat. In steamboat history the problem of providing safety became so dire in the 1850's that Congress, because of public pressure, had to pass several regulatory acts to try to make things safer on our rivers. An interesting side note about Samuel Clemens is that he supposedly had a dream beforehand of the explosion that killed his younger brother and after the disaster became involved with paranormal associations.


Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain after eighteen months of apprenticeship obtained his steamboat pilot license which was his dream since childhood. In his later writings he would reflect that the riverboat pilot's job was the most satisfying work of his life. He felt that the riverboat's pilots These and other thoughts of Twain's are in his literary work, Life On The Mississippi. He felt that the riverboat pilot's job offered more freedom than other positions where one toiled all day under the watchful eye of a boss or master. He enjoyed the prestige, freedom and of course the high salary paid to pilots on the Mississippi. It was common that steamboat pilots would gather at local watering holes and trade stories and Twain was one of these. The young Mark Twain was able to help his family financially out of his generous salary. It should be noted that during his eighteen month apprenticeship he was not paid a salary so when he achieved the goal of licensed river pilot that was quite a big event both financially and prestige wise. His childhood ambition was achieved at the age of 23.
Just like his penchant for book reading, the river was a great addition to his education about people and human nature in general. Samuel Clemens spent four years on the river and stated that in those four years of river schooling he got to know every bit of human nature that you would find in fiction, biography or history.


Shortly after he became a licensed pilot and Abraham Lincoln's election the Civil War broke out. Pilots were trying to decide which side to join. His partner and earlier river pilot teacher and mentor, Horace Bixby, sided with the North. Clemens couldn't decide and had to think about it. At first he joined a Confederate regiment from Missouri but after a short while got tired of it and eventually changed sides to the Northern cause. While on the Northern side he befriended a man high up in the Lincoln administration who was destined to become governor of the new Nevada Territory. Samuel Clemens journeyed west with this group using much of his riverboat pilots savings and ended up in the new territory. This is where another chapter of Clemens life started. It was in Nevada Territory where Samuel Clemens not only took on a new profession as a newspaper journalist in the silver mining town of Virginia City Nevada but also took on the pen name of Mark Twain.

Whether it's a visit to Hannibal Missouri and the Boyhood home of Samuel Clemens or to Angels Camp California, there are many ways to learn more about Mark Twain, a very unique American. These sites will make excellent additions to your western U.S. road trip.








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