Mark Twain Piloting

Young Sam Clemens

Quote: ~
When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
Credit: ~ Chapter 4 , Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

A Permanent Ambition

Quote: ~
“Do you know what it means to be a boy on the banks of the Mississippi, to see the steamboats go up and down the river, and never to have had a ride on one? Can you form any conception of what that really means? I think not. Well, I was seven years old and my dream by night and my longing by day had never been realized. But I guess it came to pass. That was my first vacation.” A  pause. “One day when the big packet that used to stop at Hannibal rung up to the mooring at my native town, a small chunk of a lad might have been seen kiting on to the deck and in a jiffy disappearing from view beneath a yawl that was placed bottom up. I was the small chunk of a lad.

“They called it a life-boat,” said Mr. Clemens, “but it was one of that kind of life-boats that wouldn’t save anybody. Well, the packet started along all right, and it gave me great thrills of joy to be on a real sure-enough steamboat. But just then it commenced to rain. Now, when it rains in the Mississippi country it rains. After the packet had started I had crawled from beneath it and was enjoying the motion of the swift-moving craft. But the rain drove me to cover and that was beneath the yawl. No. It was not a life boat, for the manner in which that rain came pouring down upon me from the bottom of that yawl made me wonder if I was ever to return home again. To add to the fun the red-hot cinders from the big stacks came drifting down and stung my legs and feet with a remorseless vigor, and if it hadn’t been a steamboat that I was on I would have wanted be safe at home in time for supper. Well, it kept on raining and storming generally until toward evening, when, seventeen miles below Hannibal, I was discovered by one of the crew.” A very deliberate pause.

“They put me ashore at Louisiana.” Another pause. “I was sent home by some friends of my father’s. My father met me on my return.” A twinkle in the steel-blue eyes. “I remember that quite distinctly.” Then as an afterthought: “My mother had generally attended to that part of the duties of the household, but on that occasion my father assumed the entire responsibility.” Reminiscently: “That was my first vacation and its ending”–he bit his cigar,” and I remember both.
Credit: ~ Interview in the New York World, September 7, 1902.

Samuel Clemens  circa mid~1850s

Sam left Hannibal for the first time in June 1853, when he was seventeen, working initially in St. Louis as a typesetter, until late August when he traveled to New York by train. During the next three and half years he worked as a journeyman printer, moving between New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Muscatine (Iowa), St. Louis, Keokuk (Iowa), and Cincinnati.

In February of 1857, he took passage on the Paul Jones from Cincinnati to New Orleans, intending to embark for the Amazon River, to seek his fortune in the thriving coca trade. He was 21 years old. His plans changed when he met pilot Horace Bixby. Before reaching New Orleans, Sam’s boyhood dream to become a steamboat pilot had been revived. He convinced Bixby to take him on as a Cub Pilot for $500, with $100 in advance and the balance from future wages.

Sam’s first trip up to St. Louis was a journey of revelation. As each boat carried two pilots, the work was four hours on, fours off, day and night, assisting his chief and “learning the river”, all the time trying to take in every feature (he would soon keep a detailed notebook).

Sam and Horace Bixby ~ 1857

Quote: ~ I entered upon the small enterprise of ‘learning’ twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi River with the easy confidence of my time of life. If I had really known what I was about to require of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin. I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of a trick, since it was so wide.
Credit: ~ Chapter 6, Life On The Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

Quote: ~
To the new “cub” it seemed a long way to St. Louis that first trip, but in the end it was rather grand to come steaming up to the big, busy city, with its thronging waterfront flanked with a solid mile of steamboats, and to nose one’s way to a place in that stately line. He borrowed the $100 from his brother-in-law to seal his contract with Bixby. … But he was in the depths again, presently, for when they started down the river and he began to take account of his knowledge, he found that he had none. Everything had changed ~ that is, he was seeing it all from the other direction. What with the four-hour gaps and this transformation, he was lost completely. How could the easy-going, dreamy, unpractical man whom the world knew as Mark Twain ever have persisted against discouragement like that to acquire the vast, the absolute, limitless store of information necessary to Mississippi piloting? The answer is that he loved the river, the picturesqueness and poetry of a steamboat, the ease and glory of a pilot’s life; and then, in spite of his own later claims to the contrary, Samuel Clemens, boy and man, in the work suited to his tastes and gifts, was the most industrious of persons. Work of the other sort he avoided, overlooked, refused to recognize, but never any labor for which he was qualified by his talents or training. Piloting suited him exactly, and he proved an apt pupil. Horace Bixby said to the writer of this memoir: “Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river. He had a fine memory and never forgot what I told him.”
Credit: ~ The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain, by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Samuel Clemens ~ Cub Pilot  circa 1858

Quote: ~
My chief was presently hired to go on a big New Orleans boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so far above the water that I seemed perched on a mountain; and her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that I wondered how I could ever have considered the little Paul Jones a large craft. There were other differences, too. The Paul Jones’s pilot-house was a cheap, dingy, battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin yarns and ‘look at the river;’ bright, fanciful ‘cuspadores’ instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope; bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned, black ‘texas-tender,’ to bring up tarts and ices and coffee during mid-watch, day and night. Now this was ‘something like,’ and so I began to take heart once more to believe that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all.

The moment we were under way I began to prowl about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel; she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every stateroom door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers; the clerk’s office was elegant, the bar was marvelous, and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible cost. The boiler deck (i.e. the second story of the boat, so to speak) was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me; so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of deckhands, firemen, and roustabouts down there, but a whole battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers! This was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines–but enough of this. I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment of natty servants respectfully ‘sir’d’ me, my satisfaction was complete.
Credit: ~ Chapter 6, Life On The Mississippi, by Mark Twain.

In 1858, Sam encouraged his younger brother Henry to join him on the Pennsylvania, as a Mud Clerk (unpaid but with prospect of promotion). Sam later left the boat after an argument with a Pilot named William Brown, whose abuse of Henry he had objected to. Within hours, the Pennsylvania exploded near Memphis. Sam rushed to Memphis, in time to be at Henry’s bedside when he died, from steam inhalation or perhaps an incorrectly administered dose of morphine. Whatever the reason, Sam blamed himself. He recalls the tragic events in Chapter 20 of Life On The Mississippi.

Samuel Clemens ~ Pilot  circa 1859-60

After two years as a Cub Pilot, Sam was granted his license on April  9, 1859, at the age of 23*. He would be a pilot for another two years, receiving enviable wages of $150-$250 per month, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he worked steadily on many of the Mississippi’s finest boats due to his reputation as a safe helmsman.

Sam relished the steamboating life; the ever-changing scenes, the travelers coming and going, the cursing, swearing Mates as they rushed to move freight, the good-natured stewards, the bells and noises that stirred him from sleep, the many landings, the moonlit nights, the enchanting dawns over the river, and the pilots and visitors yarning in the pilot-house. It was a life that he seemed born to.

*Albert Bigelow Paine, in Mark Twain: A Biography, records the date that Sam was granted his license as September 9, 1858, after eighteen months as a Cub-Pilot. Sam’s certificate differs.  If Albert Bigelow Paine is correct, the formal certificate was issued later.

Quote: ~
“It is the fashion to-day to disparage Sam’s piloting. Men who were born since he was on the river and never saw him will tell you that Sam was never much of a pilot. Most of them will tell you that he was never a pilot at all. As a matter of fact, Sam was a fine pilot, and in a day when piloting on the Mississippi required a great deal more brains and skill and application than it does now. There were no signal-lights along the shore in those days, and no search-lights on the vessels; everything was blind, and on a dark, misty night in a river full of snags and shifting sand-bars and changing shores, a pilot’s judgment had to be founded on absolute certainty.”
Credit: ~ Horace Bixby, in Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine.

In April of 1861, when the Civil War caused the suspension of civilian river traffic on the Mississippi, Sam’s career as a steamboat pilot came to an abrupt end.

Quote: ~
He (Sam) went up the river as a passenger on a steamer named the Uncle Sam. Zeb Leavenworth was one of the pilots, and Sam Clemens usually stood watch with him. They heard war-talk all the way and saw preparations, but they were not molested, though at Memphis they basely escaped the blockade. At Cairo, Illinois, they saw soldiers drilling – troops later commanded by Grant. The Uncle Sam came steaming up toward St. Louis, those on board congratulating themselves on having come through unscathed. They were not quite through, however. Abreast of Jefferson Barracks they suddenly heard the boom of a cannon and saw a great whorl of smoke drifting in their direction. They did not realize that it was a signal – a thunderous halt – and kept straight on. Less than a minute later there was another boom, and a shell exploded directly in front of the pilot-house, breaking a lot of glass and destroying a good deal of the upper decoration. Zeb Leavenworth fell back into a corner with a yell. “Good Lord Almighty! Sam;” he said, “what do they mean by that?” Clemens stepped to the wheel and brought the boat around. “I guess they want us to wait a minute, Zeb,” he said. They were examined and passed. It was the last steamboat to make the trip from New Orleans to St. Louis. Mark Twain’s pilot-days were over. He would have grieved had he known this fact. “I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since,” he long afterward declared, “and I took a measureless pride in it.” The dreamy, easy, romantic existence suited him exactly. A sovereign and an autocrat, the pilot’s word was law; he wore his responsibilities as a crown. As long as he lived Samuel Clemens would return to those old days with fondness and affection, and with regret that they were no more.
Credit: ~ Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine.

Interview with Captain Blair ~ 1940

From an interview with Captain Walter Blair in Coronet Magazine, May 1940, by Garnett Laidlaw Eskew:

Quote: ~

I sat talking about Twain with Captain Walter Blair on the verandah of his home in Davenport. It was early fall. The Captain has built his house so that he can see a mile of river in two directions.

“Listen. I’ll tell you about Mark Twain,” he said when I told him the reason for my visit.

“Every pilot that has read Life on the Mississippi is jealous of Mark. They all wish they could have done it. When Mark lectured here in Davenport in 1885 with George Cable, I made it a point to talk with him. That was more than fifty years ago; I was then piloting the J. W. Mills and I had read everything that Mark had written. Away back in ‘Seventy-eight he’d brought out a little paper-back volume called Old Times on the Mississippi.

Later on, in ‘Eighty-four I believe, he’d published his amplified book Life on the Mississippi. After I read it I wrote him a letter saying what a fine authentic book I thought it was, and Livy (that’s what he always called his wife) wrote back and said Sam was on a lecture tour. So it was a lucky chance that my boat was in port that night when he lectured here.

“After the lecture I walked backstage and collided, in the wings, with George Cable.

`Go on back and speak to Sam,’ he said, `He’s right over there and he’ll be glad to talk to a river man.’

“Mark was sitting in an undertaker’s chair, resting after his lecture. He looked dog tired. His big mustache was drooping. I walked up to him.

” `Hello,’ he said, `who are you?’

” `My name’s of no importance, Captain,’ I told him, `but maybe you’ll recognize the handwriting on this letter.’ (His eye kind of lighted up and he sort of grinned when I called him `Captain.’)

“He looked at the letter and drawled: `That’s my wife’s handwriting. Now where the devil did you get that?’

“After he’d read it, he made me sit down beside him and began to ask questions. I never saw a man so interested in boats and the river. He wanted to know everything. He asked all about the way we piloted on the Upper River (he was a Lower River man, you know); about the changes in the channel around St. Louis, where the Upper and Lower Rivers meet, and about a lot of old time pilots who were still at the wheel.

“And he talked interestingly, too. Any river man could tell that he knew his business. The Lower Mississippi to him must have been an open book just like he wrote that it was. (Later on, I was to have it verified from the lips of the one man who knew positively.)

“When I left, `My boy,’ he said and clapped me on the shoulder, and he was mighty wistful, ‘nothing, I ever did in my life was as pleasing to me as piloting a steamboat. Goodbye and good luck!’

“Time moved right along after that. I kept up my piloting and bought an interest in various boat lines. I piloted log rafts for Sam Van Sant from the north woods down to the mills, and then went into excursion boating. In the winter of 1890 I took Mrs. Blair with me down to New Orleans on the fine Anchor Line boat City of Hickman. Two of Mark’s contemporaries were on that boat: Henry Keith, her master, and good old Henry Partee, one of the best pilots that ever turned a wheel on any river. He’d served with distinction in the Confederate Army and he was standing his watch on the Hickman just as game as a boy of twenty!

“We got down as far as Memphis. There Captain Keith showed me a telegram he’d just got saying that another Anchor Liner, the City of Baton Rouge was wrecked at Hermitage Landing away on down the river.

`That’s Bixby’s boat,’ Keith told me. `She’s the crack boat of the line. God! I hope there ain’t any lives lost!”

“I don’t think any boat ever made better time than the Hickman on that run down to Hermitage; we showed a clean pair of heels to every boat we passed, and nary a boat passed us. We made it in jig time and there, sure enough, was the Baton Rouge wallowing the muddy water and a sorry looking sight she was! Loaded with a couple of hundred bales of cotton and a lot of miscellaneous freight. Had a big hole snagged in her hull.

“I was up in the Hickman’s pilot house. One of our pilots was sick and Partee had been standing double watch for a couple days and was about worn out.

At last Bixby, the man I most wanted to meet, came aboard. He wasn’t a tall man but he had a full beard and was very dignified and gave you the impression that he was large. His hair was rumpled and his eyes were bleary from loss of sleep. He was sick from worry over the wreck of his boat. He hadn’t closed his eyes for three nights. But with the courtesy of the old-fashioned pilot, knowing that Partee had been on duty so long, he said:

`Let me take her Henry. You go and catch up on your sleep. You need it.’

“Partee hesitated a minute; then he pointed to me:

” `Well look, Horace, here’s that snow digger (meaning an Upper River pilot from the North), Blair. He’s a good pilot in his own part of the country and he’ll be glad to act as your steersman. You can sit right back there on the bench and boss the job!’

“Bixby turned to me and shook hands. `That would be kind of you,’ he said, `but you’re on vacation. Would you mind doing it?’

“You can believe me, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to talk to Bixby although he didn’t seem to be able to think of anything much but his fine boat lying there helpless alongside us. I went down to the cabin and explained the situation to Mrs. Blair. Then came back up and took the wheel. Bixby sat back on the bench and relaxed a little.

“This part of the river was strange to me. I had been south only once or twice before and never ‘professionally.’ But I found that I knew how to steer a big Lower River packet just as well as the little J. W. Mills up home. And with the finest pilot on the rivers sitting there to explain the channel to me–why it was just like getting money from home!

“As we talked along on various subjects, Bixby finally got his mind a little bit off his worries. At last I introduced the name of Sam Clemens. I said:

“‘Captain, I wish you would tell me something. Regardless of Sam Clemens’ ability as a writer, what kind of pilot was he? You know how the other river men speak of him — that he didn’t know his job. I believe you have told some of these newspaper reporters that he was pretty good as a steersman. Well, you probably felt that you had to say that about him for publication, now that he’s famous. But as one pilot to another — between you and me — just how would you rate Sam as a steamboat pilot?’

” `Let me tell you something, Blair,’ he answered, `Sam Clemens (I never call him anything else) was a first rate pilot. Make no mistake about it. I learned him the river; I know. And I don’t think in the whole four years he was steamboating he ever had a serious accident. If he’d stayed longer he would have been one of the great pilots of all time. He had all the qualities that a good pilot should have – nerve and a fine memory and the ability to catch on quickly. A pilot’s got to have those traits. And he was a good talker, too, and as fine a companion as any man riding the river.

” `You know he tells in his book about the way I used to have to cuss him out for being so dumb. Well, he exaggerated that some, to make good reading. But that’s no crime. He knew his river and he loved to steer a fine boat. And don’t let any of these other pilots fool you and try to tell you different.’ ”

Captain Blair leaned over and picked up his field glasses from the porch table. He sighted at a big tow of barges plodding by convoyed by a laboring, noisy towboat.

“That’s the C. C. Webber coming from the Twin Cities,” he explained. After a moment he added:

“So you see all this antagonism to Mark Twain in pilot circles is nothing in the world but plain everyday jealousy. There never was another pilot on the Rivers who could have written a book like Life on the Mississippi. If there was he’d have too much damn sense to remain a pilot. I know. I’ve been a pilot all my life.”
Credit: ~ Interview with Captain Walter Blair, Coronet Magazine, May 1940, by Garnett Laidlaw Eskew.

Walter Blair is the author of A Raft Pilot’s Log: A History of the Great Rafting Industry on the Upper Mississippi 1840-1915 (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930)

Garnett Laidlaw Eskew is the author of The Pageant of the Packets – A Book of American Steamboating (Henry Holt & Co., NY, 1929)

(Interview text and details kindly provided by Dave Thomson.)