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Date Posted:02/17/2009 12:21 AMCopy HTML



During Mark Twain's days as a  Mississippi pilot and a writer of river tales, steamboating was in its hey-day.  As if mourning the passing of this well-loved, romantic figure, a great industry declined. Recent developments have brought new activities to the inland waterways. New engineering methods and new fuels are creating a renaissance in river traffic. No history of the Mississippi River could be complete without relating some of the incidents connected with the life of Mark Twain on that great "Father of Waters." 
Such incidents are particularily appropriate now, for it is this year that we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of this great American.
When "Mark Twain," born Samuel Clements on November 30, 1835, was a
boy, there was but one permanent ambition among his comrades, and that was to be a "steamboat man."  Mark Twain realized that ambition and, in so doing, accumulated numerous anecdotes, amusing and sometimes tragic, about river life in those early days.  Mark Twain traveled the river in the days of wood-burning steamboat, when travel was slower, stops more frequent, and, consequently life on the river much more romantic. Truly, he would be astonished today could he return and see the modern oil-burning or diesel-powered excursion steamers and freight boats plying the river at unheard-of speeds. In the old days, the visits of steamboats to towns along the riverfront were the big event of each day.  Before the arrival of the daily steamer, each day was glorious with expectancy.  After the boat's departure, the day was a dead and empty thing. This spirit pervaded the entire community and affected not only the boys, but the whole population.  Picture a scene before the arrival of the daily boat; the streets are nearly empty, there are two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the levee, a pile of "skids" can be seen on the slope of the stone-paved wharf, and there are two or three flats at the head of the wharf, but no one to listen to the peaceful lapping of the waves against them. Presently, a film of dark smoke appears around the bend and instantly the cry goes up, "Steamboat a-comin'!" and the scene changes. Everything is immediately hustle and bustle!  Drays, carts, men, boys all go hurrying from manyquarters to a common center, the wharf. Immediately the boat's gang-plank touches the landing there is a scramble to getaboard and to get ashore, and to take in freight and to discharge
freight, everything going on at the same time. During this commotion, the mate attempts to speed up the movements with much yelling and shouting of directions.  Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again and in still another ten minutes the town settles back into its normal routine to await the arrival of the next boat.

Mark Becomes A Pilot

Mark Twain writes that on the day he ran away from home to become a steamboat man, he vowed he would never return until he was famous and could come back in glory.  His ambitions, however, met with reverses, and some time  later he found himself in New Orleans, practically "broke" and without a job. 
He resolved then to become a pilot and succeeded in reaching an agreement with the pilot of the "Paul Jones," whereby he would be taught the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis for $500.00, payable out of the first wages he would receive after graduating. He tells amusingly of his first experience in piloting.  It was on the first voyage of his training on the "Paul Jones" just as the boat was leaving New Orleans.  They were moving along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the levee and Twain was handed the wheel and told to "shave those steamships as close as you'd peel and apple." He relates that it seemed to him his boat was about to hit every ship
in the line and he held his breath and began to claw the boat away from danger.  In not many seconds he had a wide margin of safety between the "Paul Jones" and the other ships, but within a few seconds more he was set aside in disgrace and once again the boat was taken into what he thought to be danger.  He afterwards learned that it was necessary, in moving upstream, to stay close to shore in order to take advantage of the "easy" water. Despite many setbacks during the process of his learning to be a pilot, Mark Twain finally succeeded in getting his pilot's license. 
Records show that the original license was issued to him on April 9, 1859, permitting him to ply between St. Louis and New Orleans. Rumor has it, however, that he remained always a beginner in the profession. An old river man commenting on Mark Twain said, "Sam never got to be much of a pilot, but he knew them all and used to write them up in the paper better
than anybody ever could."  Commenting further, this same man related an amusing incident which occurred in the late 1850's while Mark Twain was on the "Blue Bird."  It seems that, on a trip north from New Orleans to Memphis, the "Blue Bird" was racing with the "Yellow Lowhammer."  The water was high and Mark Twain thought that he would take a short cut and come out
two or three miles ahead.  He turned into what he thought was a "chute" and was doing a magnificent job of piloting when the mate came on deck and a conversation something like this took place: The mate said to Mark, "I thought that our destination was Memphis this trip," to which Mark replied, "It is."  The mate continued, "With a side trip to Jacksonport?" 
Mark replied, with a questioning look, "I hadn't heard of it."  The mate's sarcasm was biting: "Then what the ---------are we doing in the White River and 20 miles from the mouth, too?" 
When Mark replied, with a surprised look, "I thought I was in a chute'." The mate advised him pityingly to turn the boat around and head for the Mississippi before the captain learned of his error or he would "have to find the Mississippi in a skiff."  Fortunately, the error was never discovered by the captain and so Mark Twain's career as a pilot continued.


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