Mark Twain / A Young Journalist and a Virginia City Duel

The life and legend of Mark Twain and Mark Twain stories have more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road. The bio of Mark Twain includes the exploits of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, the young riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River and the dangers involved with that 1800’s occupation. In fact, the brother of Samuel Clemens died in the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 21,1858 just a short time after Clemens himself left that profession.

A young Mark Twain

It was Samuel Clemens that helped his younger brother gain employment on a steamboat and the guilt was said to have stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Mark Twain adventures carried on after that early steamboat career, ended mostly because of the start of the Civil War, to a life in the wild west of Nevada and the gold mining towns of California.

The Birth of Mark Twain in Virginia City Nevada

Mark Twain adventures were aplenty. Mark Twain made the decision to head west when his older brother Orion accepted a job as secretary to James W. Nye, appointed governor for the Nevada Territory. The group traveled via stagecoach from Missouri to Virgina City Nevada, a two month journey. During this rather uncomfortable trip, Clemens made notes of the journey that would later be put into an interesting story.

After an unsuccessful try at the mining profession, In 1863, Samuel Clemens found himself employed as a journalist working for the territory’s first newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. The paper was founded in 1858 and for the first two years published out of Genoa Nevada. In 1860, the newspaper relocated to the booming mining town of Virginia City. The younger Samuel Clemens had experience working for Orion’s newspaper as a typesetter and therefore knew a bit about the newspaper business. From his reporters job in Virginia City Nevada would grow many of the Mark Twain adventures we have come to know.

With Samuel Clemens new residence and employment, the rough and tumble atmosphere of a mining town offered quite a lot of subjects to observe and report on. The town was quite different to what Samuel Clemens had been used to. Being a little over twenty miles south of Reno Nevada and at an elevation of 6,100 feet, Virginia City was a booming town with all the characters a booming mining town would attract.

Virginia City Nevada, 1867

At the same time, Samuel Clemens himself was known for his cutting and to the point writing style. One tale is the time Clemens was allegedly mugged in November 1863 in Virginia City and years later reported on it in his publication “Roughing It”. Roughing It by Mark Twain was his first publication after his stint as newspaper reporter. The story of the mugging as I understand it is that the robbery was a joke put on by some of Clemens friends. The reason for the mugging was later said so to to give Clemens something more to write about. The newspaper in Virginia City apparently went along with the prank. When Clemens finally discovered the joke, he reportedly wasn’t amused but he did get back his money and valuables. It was in Virginia City Nevada that the pen name Mark Twain was adopted by Clemens after he used it as a byline on an article he had written. The name stuck and was used continually throughout his life.

The book by Mark Twain, “Roughing It”, is somewhat of an autobiography while he traveled the west in the 1860’s via stagecoach and afterward. The fake mugging incident in Nevada City was mentioned in this publication, still with little amusement on Twain’s part. The book even includes his observations of a trip to the then Kingdom of Hawaii. It was during this time in Virginia City and then later in California that the career of Mark Twain as a writer and humorist was born.

The Duel That Wasn’t in Virginia City

Why did Mark Twain leave Virginia City Nevada and move to San Francisco?

Mark Twain gained somewhat of a reputation in Virginia City for writing about whatever fancied him, including about things that didn’t actually fancy him. The tale about what hastened Twain’s rather speedy departure from Nevada Territory has a bit to do about writing an article after a few drinks. Probably never a good thing to do. Nothing good could come out of something like that. At the time, Twain apparently had been managing the Territorial Enterprise while his editor was out of town.

Hotel Angel, Angels Camp California

The article in question, written by Twain, had to do with charitable money being raised by some of Virginia City’s social elite for Civil War relief organizations and questioning what the money was really used for. At the same time, the somewhat liquored news story questioned whether the rival paper ,The Daily Union, was actually making it’s contribution to the cause. The tale of how the story itself actually made it into print is interesting. Mark Twain had apparently laid it on a desk in the newspaper office and while away it was picked up by the pressman and, thinking it was just waiting to be printed, set it on the press and the rest is history. At this point, like in several Mark Twain stories and tales of yore, there are a few conflicting versions of what occurred next.

The first version, which is detailed in the book, Wild West Shows, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, is that the Daily Union’s owner, James L. Laird, was challenged to a duel by Twain. For the record, dueling was against the law in Nevada Territory. The first version according to the above mentioned book has Twain arriving at the dueling site chosen along with his second. The tale goes on to say that Twain couldn’t hit anything, including a barn door, with a sidearm and that his second demonstrated the gun to him by shooting a bird in mid flight. Twain’s second handed the gun back to him at just the same moment that Laird and his second appeared. Laird allegedly asked who it was that shot the bird and Twain’s second replied that it was the man who was then holding the gun. The story ends with Laird refusing to duel Mark Twain.

The second version is different in as much as it states that there was no duel to begin with. It states that James L. Laird never had any intention of dueling Twain and that a duel would not have taken place because it was strictly forbidden by law. and that Laird would not have been present.

1940 Mark Twain U.S. Postage Stamp

What story does fit both versions, and what was true, was that Mark Twain left Virginia City quite fast and relocated west to San Francisco California. Some say that he quit his job and left Nevada to avoid being arrested for proposing a duel. Others contend that he left to further his literary career in California which he surely did. It’s unclear which version is true or perhaps a bit of each is the real story. Again, what we do know is that Mark Twain bid good bye to Virginia City in a rather hasty manner.

The Aftermath

After Virginia City, Mark Twain journeyed to the Kingdom of Hawaii. Upon his return he wrote his book “Roughing It” which told the story of his western adventure. Everything from the stagecoach ride west from Missouri to his Virginia City exploits to his Hawaiian trip were put into this book. Mark Twain then heard a story, it’s said, about a mining camp gambler, while he was staying at the Hotel Angels in Angels Camp California. Mark Twain’s literary career took off not long after when a California publisher printed Twain’s short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog“. This turned into the highly popular 1865 story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. All of this was believed to be inspired from the rumors he heard while at the Angels Camp hotel.

A Trip to Calaveras County California and Frogtown

Today, Calaveras County California, located in the old gold mining foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, celebrates an annual event at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds which features a frog jumping contest. In fact, the Fairgrounds are also referred to as “Frogtown“. The old Calaveras County gold mining town of Angels Camp honored Mark Twain with a statue of his likeness just north of the downtown area. The city of Angels Camp California holds a special place in the literary history of California and the literary career of Samuel Clemens, more often referred to as Mark Twain. Angels Camp is located south of Sacramento and about 130 miles east of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful and historic place to visit while vacationing in the California gold country. If you have the opportunity to make a trip to Calaveras County and the old gold mining town of Angels Camp, it’s well worth the time. The Angels camp hotel is still standing and the winners of the annual Jumping Frog contest have plaques embedded in the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

If your western road trip takes you near Virginia City Nevada, the Mark Twain Museum located in the old Territorial Enterprise newspaper building is another great addition to a Nevada trip planner.

(Photos from the public domain)

The Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Missing Engineer

The history of steamboats is fascinating. Steamboats helped America expand westward. It was able to travel where there were no roads. It carried people and needed supplies to hard to reach places. During the mid 1800’s, this remarkable invention in transportation had only one problem, and it was a big problem. It’s boilers could and would explode. The boilers that powered the steam boat engine were a huge concern. The explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 13, 1858 is very representative of the dangers river travelers faced during the period. Steam boat history is filled with stories like it.

steamboats in memphisDuring this era steam boilers the size required to run a steamboat were a relatively new creation. Pressure instruments were not what they are today and the strength needed in the materials used in boiler construction was a bit sketchy. This required that the boilers be physically monitored. Simply put, if too much pressure were allowed to build up, the boiler might explode. And explode they did and with great numbers of people lost. In the case of steamboats, boilers naturally were placed down within the infrastructure of the boat. Explosions therefore had a catastrophic effect occurring deep inside a wooden vessel. Steamboats would literally blow apart in a ball of fire and hot steam. In many cases, those who didn’t die during the explosion itself often drowned after jumping or being thrown into the water. The huge loss of life was even more significant when you consider how much smaller the general population was in the mid 1800’s.

Steamboat mishap statistics during the mid 1800’s tells quite a story. During the years 1838 and 1870 a total of 2,200 people were killed.and hundreds injured. The largest explosion ever recorded was that of the SS Sultana just north of Memphis Tennessee in April 1865 with an estimated 1,800+ loss of life. The Sultana was grossly overloaded with returning Union soldiers from the recently ended American Civil War, most of whom spent the past few years in Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville Prison. The Sultana was supposed to be their ticket home after the war. In addition to these statistics concerning steamboats, there were 111 deaths attributed to industrial boiler explosions during the period. A picture of the Sultana in early 1865 just prior to the explosion is shown below right.

The tragic explosion of the SS Pennsylvania was not only a disaster for the nation but was a personal disaster for the ex-steamboat pilot Mark Twain. It so happened that Mark Twain, who was quite fond of steamboats, was working as a steersman on the SS Pennsylvania up until a few days before the explosion. He had personal differences with the boat’s master and resigned, but not before getting his brother a job on the vessel. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain’s) brother was killed during the riverboat disaster. Understandably, Clemens was haunted with this reminder the rest of his life.

st louis steamboatsConcerning the boiler explosion itself, it seems that the SS Pennsylvania engineer tasked with keeping an eye on the boilers steam pressure was aft, away from his post, speaking with female passengers. According to the New York newspapers at the time, an eyewitness gave court testimony to the fact that the engineer was not at his post in the engine room just prior to the explosion and was seen with the women. All four of the boilers exploded while the SS Pennsylvania was about 75 miles below Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River and about 300 yards from shore. It was estimated that the entire structure of the boat was in flames only about a minute after the explosion. The SS Pennsylvania left New-Orleans on the ninth of the month with one hundred and twenty-five cabin passengers and one hundred and fifty-eight crew. With stops on the way up the river at Baton Rouge, Natchez and Vicksburg, there were a total of about 450 people in all.
Out of this number, 182 were rescued by a another boat, and about 70 others escaped. These numbers included the wounded and burned. About 200 were estimated lost and missing.
The wreck of the SS Pennsylvania floated about two miles down river and burned all the way to the water line.

steamboat sultanaThe SS Pennsylvania explosion unfortunately was one of many during the 1800’s. The federal government was pressured to do something to safeguard the traveling public and as a result passed several maritime bills. The bills tried to set certain requirements and training standards and to some degree they helped but certainly didn’t rectify the problem. Compounding the problem of faulty equipment and poor monitoring was the habit of steamboats trying to make speed records on their runs and in some cases racing. This just overtaxed the boilers and was the cause of more than one disaster. The boilers could be unpredictable as in the case of the Saluda explosion just off the docks at Lexington Missouri on April 9, 1852. The Missouri River was swollen from spring rains and snow melt and the captain was determined to make it upriver around a sandbar. He had been held back by the current previously and this time was determined to make it. He called for maximum boiler pressure while leaving the dock.The resulting explosion which occurred right after the paddle wheel started to turn threw bodies all through the town of Lexington and even killed some standing on the dock.The body of the captain, last seen standing on the roof of the boat, was eventually found on the far side of a dock warehouse. The explosion was so violent that just about all of the passengers, and some bystanders, died. Out of 250+ people on board, most of them Mormons traveling to Salt Lake City, only about 40 to 50 survived. It ranked as one of the worst steamboat disasters.

Over the decades, progress was made it both safety and boiler construction. The string of federal regulations put in place continued into the 1900’s. As dangerous as steamboat travel could be, people needed the transportation especially before road improvements and before the transcontinental railroad. Probably, the area most improved by federal regulations had to do with training. This helped some in the type of people made responsible for boiler monitoring. Boiler construction materials and pressure instruments also improved over the years. What essentially was an unregulated industry became more and more regulated.

There are some interesting historic sites regarding  steam boat history.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is an excellent place to learn more about the early days of steamboats. The museum is located at 400 Grand Blvd in Kansas City Missouri. The side wheeler steamboat Arabia hit a snag in September of 1856 on the Missouri River. The boat sank and was eventually found in 1988 by researchers. The Arabia Steamboat Museum now displays a wide collection of artifacts taken from the old vessel. They have a very impressive collection. Well worth the visit when you travel to Kansas City MO.

Another very good museum is the Howard Steamboat Museum located in Jeffersonville Indiana. According to the Howard Steamboat Museum, their mission is to preserve the Howard family story, their mansion and the history of their shipyards and to foster an appreciation of the development of river steamboats and commerce along inland rivers. The Howard Shipyard was started in 1834. The museum address is 1101 E. Market Street, Jeffersonville Indiana.

(Photos in public domain)