Mark Twain, the American author and humorist, grew up a short walk from the Mississippi River in Hannibal, MO. The river, with its constant yet ever changing course, provided a perfect outlet for the young boy’s imagination and sense of adventure. Before he became one of the world’s best-known authors, he was a Mississippi riverboat pilot.
Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, was born in the village of Florida, MO, in 1835. When he was four years old, the family moved to Hannibal. Following the death of his father, Samuel dropped out of school after completing the fifth grade and worked as a printer’s apprentice, typesetting for a local newspaper. At the age of 18, he traveled east to work on newspapers in New York and Philadelphia, printing and writing articles, but returned to Hannibal in 1857 to begin his training aboard a steamboat.
Steering a paddlewheel riverboat was a lot harder than it looked. During his two years as a cub pilot, or pilot-in-training, he had to know all bends, islands, towns, sandbars, snags, currents, and anything else peculiar to the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans and back. He was trained by steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby, who had an excellent reputation as a master in his profession. Bixby would have Twain recite the course of the river as it appeared in the dark and daylight, and in all types of weather.
His pen name, Mark Twain, was taken from a term used for the depth of the water. Depth was measured in fathoms by a sounding line with one fathom equal to six feet. “Twain” means two, so when a steamboatman called out “mark twain,” it meant the boat had cleared two fathoms or twelve feet and was in water deep enough for safe passage.
Twain received his pilot’s license in 1859 and continued as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Years later, he wrote a non-fiction account of his days as a riverboat pilot in the book, Life on the Mississippi (1883). In Chapter 14, “Rank and Dignity of Piloting,” he summed up his opinion of piloting in this way: “If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing. The reason is plain: a pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.”
His knowledge of the river and surrounding landscape are important elements in two of his novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Twain gave Hannibal the fictitious name of St. Petersburg in the books and describes the bluffs, islands, and typical river traffic through the eyes of Tom and Huck. In Tom Sawyer, the widow Douglas kept a lamp burning in her window on top of Cardiff Hill to guide steamboat pilots. In real life, there was no lighthouse there until one was erected as a memorial to Twain in 1935. It still stands today and has never been used for navigation.
The Hannibal riverfront offers paddlewheel boat tours of the Mississippi, giving visitors the chance to experience the river that captivated Twain’s interest. These tours complement the historic buildings that are a part of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum.
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