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Steamboating on the Mississippi: Samuel L. Clemens

Name:
Samuel L. Clemens
Transportation Mode:
Shipping/Waterways
Era:
Pre-1920s
Gender:
Male

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboat man.
- Samuel Clemens [a.k.a. Mark Twain]

There’s not a person alive who hasn’t heard of the famous American author, Mark Twain. However, very few people know that he was a steamboat pilot along the Mississippi in his youth, which later served as the inspiration for many of his classic tales.

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, in 1835, but he grew up along the banks of the Mississippi in Hannibal. At the age of 21, he took a voyage to New Orleans down the Mississippi where a steamboat pilot named Horace E. Bixby encouraged him to to enter into the piloting profession. Over the next two years, he memorized the entire river from St. Louis to New Orleans before he received his steamboat pilot license in 1859. He continued to work as a river pilot until the American Civil War broke out in 1861 and interrupted commercial traffic along the Mississippi.

In 1864, Clemens moved to San Francisco to work as a reporter. There he wrote the story that would make him famous: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. However, he never forgot his experiences in Hannibal and on the Mississippi, which inspired such classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When Samuel Clemens died in 1910, the era of riverboat travel had all but vanished from the American landscape. Yet, Samuel L. Clemens - better known as Mark Twain - used his writing genius to beautifully describe one of America's most iconic images that will live on in perpetuity – steamboating on the Mississippi.

Samuel L. Clemens, alias Mark Twain Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Clemens relaxing on the porch Image credit unknown
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