Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

"Cooling Our Bottom on the Sand Bars": A Chronicle of Low Water Trips on the Mississippi River, 1860

Academic journal article Mark Twain Journal

"Cooling Our Bottom on the Sand Bars": A Chronicle of Low Water Trips on the Mississippi River, 1860

Article excerpt

A "glorious time of getting out of the river"

In November 1860, Sam Clemens, pilot of the steamer Alonzo Child, was running up river "in the fog," trying to make some time "in order to beat another boat." It was about seventy miles from New Orleans, on the "coast" with its burning sugar cane bagasse piles creating the smoky fog of late fall, when Clemens "grounded the 'Child' on the bank" at the Houmas Plantation. The steamer General Quitman came up and tried to pull her off the bank but was unsuccessful. Here the Alonzo Child remained until the river rose enough to float her free after losing "28 hours on the coast." Exposed as she was on the bank her timbers "so warped and twisted" that her hull now leaked. This incident of his "own enterprise" so humiliated Clemens that he decided to keep a record of that portion of the river on paper to supplement his memory.1

On his watch in the pilothouse after the Alonzo Child finally floated free Sam Clemens began writing in a notebook. In this book he made detailed sets of notations of up stream piloting and navigating instructions for a section of the Mississippi River from above New Orleans to the vicinity of Cairo. The first of these notes is designated "1st high water trip of the 'Child'" for a portion of the trip made after he grounded the Alonzo Child, between the 12th and 17th of November 1860. Upon arriving at St. Louis on November 18, Clemens "jumped aboard the 'McDowell' and went down to look at the river" as it was "falling slowly" down to Cairo. The steamer Sovereign was scheduled to take the place of the Alonzo Child in the Railroad Line's operations.2 The steamer Augustus McDowell, under Captain William Wilcox and with Clemens aboard, was seen above the St. Mary's River a day out of St. Louis. A few hours later the McDowell ran upon a sand bar where she "stayed aground 24 hours." On November 20, having grown tired of being stuck on the bar Clemens decided to return, probably hailing an upbound steamer, arriving in St. Louis the next day. A seemingly mended Alonzo Child "looking gay as a lark, was at the Railroad Line wharf-boat, foot of Market Street" where she was scheduled to leave the next evening. All the next day snow "fell in large flakes and without ceasing," making the streets and the steamboat landing "miserably sloppy." As a consequence of the inclement weather the departure of the Alonzo Child was delayed until the following morning. In a letter written to his brother upon his return to St. Louis from the McDowell, Clemens penned a curious line since the Alonzo Child was now inspected, certified and preparing to depart the next day. Clemens wrote that he regretted returning, would have rather hailed a downstream boat while the McDowell was grounded and continue down to inspect the river since he "would have had plenty of time."3

In referring to having "plenty of time," Sam Clemens was possibly suggesting that he might not be going south with the Child. In this letter to his brother, Clemens mentioned the possibility of his going upstate to Memphis, Missouri, where his brother resided. He talked of money matters, of using his wages to speculate in produce and eggs and was now "strapped." Perhaps because of the grounding which occurred in the jurisdiction of the local inspectors of the fourth supervising district covering the southern Mississippi river, Captain O'Neal might have feared that Clemens's license could be revoked when they reached New Orleans on account of his carelessness. Consequently, Clemens might have been advised to stay on the upper river in the fifth supervising district, forestalling an investigation of the grounding and its circumstances by the inspectors. He could then avoid having to report and give testimony before the inspectors in New Orleans and continue piloting on the upper river. If so, Captain O'Neal, himself a pilot, could have taken over for Sam or hired another pilot to take Clemens's place on the Child until the matter was resolved. …

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