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Special Feature

A Chronicle of a Low Water Trip

by Michael H. Marleau
© 2009

"it’s all owing to my own enterprise"

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 "so warped and twisted" her timbers that her hull now leaked. This incident of his "own enterprise" so humiliated Clemens, 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 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, 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 were 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 continued 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 up state 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. Pilots had reason to be apprehensive of the local inspectors who could by law impose a fine or suspend their license for carelessness or unskillful management of a vessel (4).

The next sets of notes in Clemens's notebooks were recorded as "2d highwater trip" made between the 29th of January and the 5th of February 1861. Between these two trips the Child had compiled a trip south under similar river conditions from St. Louis to New Orleans, with the up trip to Cairo between the 4th to the 11th of December 1860, in which there are no notes recorded. Due to the deteriorating river conditions between Cairo and St. Louis, the Alonzo Child was laid up with a number of other vessels at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers until January 1861. When the Alonzo Child resumed her round trips between St. Louis and New Orleans, so did Clemens's up river notations, beginning with the "2d highwater trip." They then continued without interruption for the next four trips into the month of April 1861. Accordingly, the only interruption since Clemens began his notes is between the recorded notes of his first and second highwater trips. The interval of this gap in the notebook introduces the possibility that Clemens served aboard a different steamboat during this time frame. This possibility is supported by evidence of someone who signed himself "SAM" in a newspaper letter which detailed an interesting trip to Cairo. Or, in the vernacular of the river, having a "glorious time of getting out of the river" (5).

"nothing else to do but to drop you a line"

Edgar M. Branch, in his published study of Samuel Clemens’s steamboat caree, wrote that letters and notebook entries document his employment on the Child that season, except its fourth trip. The trip in question is the one represented by the omission in Clemens's notebook. Contained in the river column of the December 15, 1860 issue of the St. Louis Missouri Republican is correspondence from someone who signed his letter "SAM" chronicling a recently completed steamboat trip from St. Louis, Missouri to Cairo, Illinois -- a distance of about 150 miles on the Mississippi River. This trip was made in the Sunshine, a new vessel some "210 feet on deck, 34 feet beam, and 17 feet hold" built at Pittsburgh for the Missouri river trade. Being made for low water she was "heavily planked and timbered, and only draws when light 24 inches." Fitted with three 38 inch boilers, 24 feet long, powering two engines with 18 inch cylinders with a 9 foot stroke that drove a pair of paddle wheels 28 feet diameter with 10 foot buckets. Rated as a "first class passenger craft" the Sunshine was portrayed "as handsomely and richly furnished a steamboat as there is at the landing." From St. Louis the first commercial trip of the Sunshine was not up the Missouri but down the Mississippi. The Sunshine departed St. Louis on December 6, 1860 and after an grueling trip under dismal conditions arrived in Cairo six days later (6). This correspondence signed by "SAM" humorously reports on the troubles of the steamboats as they tried to navigate the low water:

St. Louis Missouri Republican
December 15, 1860
[By Express]

Cairo, Ills., December 13, 1860.

Friend Reporter: Supposing that in these stirring times of secession, no money and low water, you would be pleased to hear something in regard to the state of the lower (one might almost say the lowest) Mississippi, I take the opportunity of having nothing else to do but to drop you a line. We left St. Louis on Thursday, 6th inst., at 5 P. M. Passed E. M. Ryland aground at the head of Cahokia bend; found the Dan. G. Taylor and the C. E. Hillman in the same predicament, at Cairo cliffs; spent the night assisting the Hillman. Friday, 7th, passed the diminutive side wheel Colona high and dry at the mouth of the Meramec; parted company with the Hillman at Plateau Rock where she put out 1704 sacks of corn, to enable her to get out of the river; lay all night at Fort Charters. Saturday, 8th while taking on flour at Chester, the D. G. Taylor passed down; overhauled her at Sheep island, hard and fast aground; lay all night waiting for her to get out of the way; Anglo Saxon and Lebanon at the lower crossing, in the same delightful position; however during the night they got off. Sunday, 9th, passed the Lebanon aground at Tower island; found the Anglo Saxon and Sam Gaty lighting at Crawford’s; J. D. Perry aground at the same place; lay at Crawford’s and the Tea Table cooling our bottom on the sand bars, in company with the following boats, until Tuesday, 11th viz: The J. D. Perry, C. E. Hillman, D. G. Taylor, J. H. Dickey, Champion, Carrier, Lebanon, Lehigh, Saxon, Wood, Sam Gaty, South Wester, Hannibal, and
E. M. Ryland bound down; John Warner and Arizona bound up. When we finally concluded to leave, the following boats were doing their best to follow our example: C. E. Hillman and D. G. Taylor above the bar; J. H. Dickey and Hannibal double tripping it; Ellie Wood and Lebanon laying below. The Taylor had secured the services of the Chester ferryboat Wild Duck as a lighter. While laying at the Cape, Polar Star and Lebanon passed down; lay all night at Cape LaCruz. Wednesday, 12th, found the Champion at the head of Powers Island; in company with her, we crossed the bar, finding 5 feet scant. At the foot of Goose Island we again overhauled the Lebanon aground. Met the Minnehaha and Prairie Rose above Widow Brookes’ Point; a day out of St. Louis the South Wester laying at the bank putting out her freight so as to get over the bar; met the E. W. Ryland on her return from Columbus below; Anglo Saxon and Sam Gaty above Cairo on their way to Tea Table to pick up the freight they left behind. Arrived at Cairo at 3, P.M., where we found the J. C. Swon, Ed. Walsh, Choctaw, City of Memphis, and Emerald, all bound for New Orleans. We will leave for St. Louis to-morrow morning, where we will arrive as soon as possible, if not sooner--sand bars, etc., notwithstanding.

Yours, &c.,

P.S. Since the above was written, the Taylor and South Wester have arrived; the latter will go back for freight she left behind. I notice in your issue of to-day a report of our swinging down on the Sam Gaty and doing considerable damage to both boats. The only damage done to the Gaty was the knocking down of her stern derrick; the damage done the Sunshine was the staying of her pantry room; although the crash was loud enough for one to suppose that both boats were essentially done for.


Evidence indicating this letter was written by Sam Clemens

"Friend Reporter," "Friend River Reporter," and "Dear Reporter" were common greetings of correspondents to the river columns of St. Louis newspapers. Sam Clemens writing under the name of "Rambler" while on the steamer John H. Dickey used the salutation "Friend River-Reporter" in his letter published in the Missouri Democrat of September 1, 1858. The complimentary closing of "Yours, &c.," is much more unique. It was utilized in the Captain Isaiah Sellers note concerning the level of the river and published May 7, 1859, in the New Orleans Daily True Delta. Sellers's original complimentary closing; "Yours with out enney hasitatin," was reduced to "Yours, &c.," as was occasionally done by newspaper editors. Later that month Sam Clemens mimicked with the closing "Yours, etc.," in his "Sergeant Fathom" burlesque of Sellers and his note. Clemens had recently published a sketch with the title "The Mysterious Murders in Risse" dated August 1, 1859, in the form of a letter to a newspaper in which he closes as in the "Special River Correspondence" with, "Yours, &c, SAM." From Nevada Territory in February 1862, Clemens used "Yrs &c, Sam" in closing a letter to his mother and sister (7).

This correspondence of "SAM" was written from the prospective of the pilothouse, and like some steamboat memoranda it gives a good outline of the trip. The correspondence contains some lines of information humorously written more to inform then to amuse, it’s a cross between the Western Boatmen’s Benevolent Association Memoranda and the humorous Pilot’s Memoranda by Sam Clemens and his fellow pilot that were both published earlier that year in the Republican. Unlike memoranda published in the local press this correspondence chronicles a trip from St. Louis, while the vast majority are of trips to that city. Of the few published exceptions of a down river trip was his memoranda for the pilots’ association:

Steamer City of Memphis left St. Louis, Thursday, the 14th at 3 P.M., 7 ½ feet; found 10 ½ at Barrack’s crossing, 12 do at Marramee, 9 ½ do at Bridgewater, 8 do at Crawfords, 8 do scant at Tea Table, 8 do at Vancil’s 8 at Devil’s Island; took on 1,000 bbls of lime at Cape Girardeau, which made us draw 7 feet 9 inches; had 7 feet at Power’s Island--rubbed very hard; 8 feet at Goose Island--rubbed very hard; 10 ½ feet at Buffalo Island; 12 feet at head of Dog Tooth Bend.
Wesley Jacobs,
Sam’l Clemens, Pilots (8)

This memoranda contains information on river conditions (in mid April) down river to near Cairo, and no mention of steamboats met, compiled strictly for the use of fellow members of the pilot’s association. When it was published in the Republican over a month after the City of Memphis had left St. Louis it was only a curiosity and of no use to non-association pilots as river conditions had already changed. Since the "SAM" correspondence is in the form of a long memoranda it is not lacking in details, yet with the help of additional published memoranda from other vessels traveling in the river an even more complete account of the trip can be documented. The reference to "stirring times of succession" was alluding to the up coming convention in South Carolina to decide the issue of that state leaving the union. The following chronicle recounts the adventures of "SAM" with "no money and low water," in navigating the river at that season of the year when it "was never known to be lower" (9).

"All of these boats will have trouble"

Operating a steamboat was not a routine endeavor, a trip on the river could become a perilous and arduous adventure. Looking out from the St. Louis levee on the morning of December 6, 1860 the river with its level slowly falling was "well spotted and streaked with floating ice." When the steamer Sunshine departed from the levee that afternoon her officers were well aware of the condition of the river down to Cairo. There were reports of four and half feet in the channel with a number of boats aground between St. Louis and Cairo. They soon passed the E. M. Ryland that left the day before and was now aground at the head of Cahokia bend. The steamer’s Daniel G. Taylor bound for New Orleans and the C. E. Hillman for the Cumberland river had also "hurried out" from St. Louis, to get "out of the way of the constantly increasing ice." These two vessels were noted by Sam on the Sunshine to be "in the same predicament" as the Ryland, both hard aground since the night before below Quarantine Station at "Cairo cliffs." The Hillman it was observed, simply had "too much freight for the water" while the Taylor was "some distance out of the channel," and no chance of getting off by herself. Captain Henry G. Carson of the Sunshine offered the assistance of his boat (for a fee) in removing some of the cargo of the two grounded vessels to enable them to float free from their predicament. The captain of the Hillman accepted the offer of the Sunshine while the officers of the Taylor were awaiting the arrival from St. Louis of the shallow draft sidewheeled steamer Blue Wing, dispatched to assist them (10).

On Friday morning, December 7, the Sunshine, Hillman and the Taylor, were observed at the cliffs "all tied to the bank." It had been an active night in the area of these vessels. The previous evening the Blue Wing had arrived "with a barge to lighten" the steamboat Taylor. Under the flickering glow from the torch baskets deck hands labored in putting out cargo to lighten the grounded boats. The crew of the Sunshine "spent the night assisting the Hillman." After having "lightened the C. E. Hillman of 1500 sacks of corn" the Sunshine then found herself grounded and also in need of assistance. The Taylor with the flat in tow, had put out a similar amount of corn and "a quantity of flour," was now free from the bar. The grounded Sunshine was then lightened off by the Blue Wing which had to work in close to the stranded vessel evidently by being skillfully steered around a sand bar newly revealed by the receding river. After lightening her load and working herself free, the Sunshine was reloaded by the already exhausted crews. With its work done the Blue Wing returned up river to St. Louis (11).

It was reported that ice still floated in the river but it was soft and offered "but little resistance to boats" while the water was "4 ½ feet scant in the channel out to Cairo." In company with the Hillman, the Sunshine then streamed down river. These two vessels soon came upon the steamer E. M. Ryland "aground out of the channel." Another vessel which our river correspondent referred to as the "diminutive side wheel Colona" was "high and dry" near the mouth of the Meramec River. The Colona was out of fuel and her crew had spent the morning "carrying wood on board in a yawl." No assistance was rendered to these stranded vessels, in most cases it was every boat for itself. The 1500 sacks of corn the Sunshine had lighted from the Hillman were unloaded at Brickley’s Landing near Plateau Rock. At the landing the Sunshine and our correspondent "parted company with the Hillman" as the deck hands of the latter vessel put out an additional "1704 sacks of corn, to enable her to get out of the river." With the approach of dusk the pilot of the Sunshine rounded to and "lay all night at Fort Charters" (12).

Saturday morning, December 8, found little ice in the river. In passing Fort Chartres, the steamer B. M. Runyan bound up to St. Louis, noted the presence of the Sunshine prior to her getting underway. If the officers on watch from these two vessels conversed across to each other the deck officer on the Sunshine could have learned of conditions below as the Runyan had seen the "Gaty and Lebanon hard aground at Sheep Island." The river was four and a half feet at that place, and "the channel very hard to find," and the last they saw of the Edward Walsh, "she was trying to knock a sand bar out of its place at Sheep Island bar." Grounded boats in the river usually just reversed engines and backed off, the pilot might seek a better spot and try again or like the Edward Walsh try to ram and plow its way through the gravel and sand of the bar. Later that day as the crew of the Sunshine was "taking on flour at Chester, the D. G. Taylor passed down." When the Sunshine "overhauled her at Sheep island" the Taylor was "hard and fast aground," they had to "lay all night waiting for her to get out of the way." The Edward Walsh had knocked her way through while the Anglo Saxon and the Lebanon could be seen "at the lower crossing in the same delightful position" as the Sunshine, "however during the night they got off." The sternwheeler Lebanon had been reported aground at Sheep Island for a number of days (13).

Sunday morning, December 9, the Sunshine was seen from the steamer Augustus McDowell near Underhill’s having gotten past the Taylor and resumed her impeded voyage. When the McDowell came upon the Taylor still aground at Sheep Island she was hailed and picked up part of the Taylor’s crew bringing them "up to Chester to take the ferry boat down to assist in lightening her." Before noon the Lebanon was passed, now "aground at Tower island." The "river was never known to be lower at this season of the year" it was reported, as there was "four feet in the channel out to Cairo, and no more water." By afternoon the Sunshine met the steamer Platte Valley passing up and might have learned that below there was three and a half feet of water at a series of sand bars known as Crawford’s and a little below that, the Devils Tea Table. The Platte Valley "found it impossible to get up with all her freight" having to lighten off most of it and then "was eighteen hours getting over Tea Table" (14).

"Nearly all the boats in this river are aground." The officers and crew of the Sunshine found both the Anglo Saxon and the Sam Gaty aground and lighting off at Crawford’s. The John D. Perry which came "over with a lighter" was now "lying at the bank" also aground. Nearby was the steamer John Warner up from Cairo. At the Devils Tea Table the steamer South Wester had come down on December 6 after being aground at Crawford’s and was soon again hard aground. When the steamer John Warner came up late the next day, she found the South Wester in the way and the crews began "working at her trying to get her off." The Warner had "worked 22 hours" trying to pull her off before succceding in "getting her over the bar." The exhausted deck hands of the Warner then "procured a coal barge and proceeded to lighten" their vessel as she "lay all night at the foot of Crawford’s" (15).

Detail of map of the Mississippi River showing Crawford's to Devil's Tea Table, a distance of about four miles,
where the
SUNSHINE encountered a traffic jam of steamboats stuck in low water.

For nearly two days the Sunshine had laid at "Crawford’s and the Tea Table," in which our correspondent "SAM" simply described the situation as "cooling our bottom on the sand bars." But things were not that simple for any of the vessels that were aground in this section of the river. On the morning of December 10 the John Warner worked her way up over the bar and reported the Sunshine as being aground along with the New Sam Gaty and the Angle Saxon at the head of Crawford’s. The E. M. Ryland had come down in the night and was at the "head of the bar with her freight on the bank preparatory to starting over." The luckless Lebanon having also made it was lying above the Ryland, while the Champion was "rounding to to sound" for the channel. Sounding was done in the boats yawl with one of the pilots or a steersman using a long pole or in this case "with a stick" to probe for the channel. In the area of Crawford’s and the Devils Tea Table steamboats were described as "aground and laid up, and sounding and sparring in the river." As one wag put it in depicting a vessel aground, they had "fine prospects of getting off -- when the river rises" (16).

Several days before in order to get over one of the bars at Crawford’s the Edward Walsh, "put out her stock then sparred over" the bar, other boats would be doing the same. Sparring was a means of actually lifting the bow of a steamboat as if on crutches, up and off a sand bar with stout spars, block and tackle, and the use of the paddle wheels to lift and move the boat through successive stages, over the bar. This booming a boat off a bar was by it’s very action know as "walking the boat" and "grass-hoppering." Two long sturdy spars were forced forward from the bow on each side of the boat into the sand of the bar at a high degree of angle. Near the end of each spar a block was fastened with a strong rope or hawser passing through the pulleys which went down through a pair of similar blocks secured on the deck near the bow. The end of each hawser went to a capstan, which when turned would tighten and with its weight on the spars, slightly lift the bow of the boat. Engaging the paddle wheels forward and by the placement of the spars caused a lifting of the bow off the sand bar and moving the boat ahead perhaps a few feet. This was laborious and dangerous work for the crew even with a steam driven capstan (17).

The first to try the down stream crossing that day was the E. M. Ryland which having lightened herself made it over. When the chance came for the Sunshine and the Anglo Saxon to try, these two boats soon became "aground on the bar," again cooling their bottoms. A shallow draft light steamer the Lehigh bound down, crossed over the bar with little trouble and noted the difficulties these vessels were having with the "river in an awful sick condition." The steamboats Lebanon, Champion, Carrier, New Sam Gaty, J. H. Dickey, D. G. Taylor, and C. E. Hillman were all "sounding and lighting above Crawford’s bar" waiting for their chance to cross. The D. G. Taylor, was seen that day with the "passenger packet Wild Duck behind her" with the lightened off cargo on board. After the Lehigh crossed Crawford’s bar she soon found the R. M. Ryland aground on yet another sand bar (18).

Other steamboats had arrived on the scene and, as they attempted their crossings of the bar, only those vessels that were of light draft or had lightened enough freight made it over without much difficulty. When the Sunshine finally got over the first bar there were still others to cross, as well as other difficulties to contend with. At "some point near Crawford’s" the Sunshine and the New Sam Gaty were near each other in the stream between sand bars, when the Sunshine "swung around against the New Sam Gaty." Both vessels were only slightly damaged "although the crash was loud enough for one to suppose that both boats were essentially done for." This incident might have occurred preparatory to kedging over the bar that is securing the boats anchor to the river bottom beyond the bar and hauling in the cable with her steam capstan and dragging herself over aided by the power of the churning paddle wheels. By swinging on her cable before butting against the bar, the Sunshine could have swung around on the New Sam Gaty in the narrow channel. Perhaps the cable broke and after the resulting collision the crew would have been "hunting her anchor." Some steamboat captains and pilots did not like to be crowded so the collision could have been a deliberate act. Most likely when trying to work her way over, the Sunshine -- with all her steam on -- came driving down upon the bar, when near she "smelt the bar," became hesitant and then started to "sheer" away. However, upon meeting the bar "strikes and swings" around into the other boat. In the vernacular of the river, steamboats were always expressed as living things (19).

After getting over the sand bars at Crawford’s the Sunshine still had to negotiate those of the Tea Table. Captain Carson had the deck crew again lighten the Sunshine of her cargo so they could begin the work of "double tripping it" over the bars. That is putting out enough livestock and freight on shore to make the vessels’ draft shallow enough in the water to allow it to work its way over the bars, then unloading the remainder of the cargo and returning back over the bars to retrieve the balance, thus "double tripping." "When we finally concluded to leave," our correspondent wrote, other "boats were doing their best to follow our example." Both the J. H. Dickey and the Hannibal were double tripping it over the bars. Having "secured the services of the Chester ferryboat Wild Duck as a lighter" since Sheep Island, the D. G. Taylor was in a better situation to cross. Other boats would also lighten, leaving a portion of their cargo on shore, go on to Cairo, unload, then come back for the balance. The Wild Duck, after unloading the cargo of the Taylor, was soon "above the bar at Crawford’s ready to lighten over any boat at the rate of $30 per day." On December 11 the "Arizona bound up" noted the Sunshine "at the foot of Tea Table taking on freight." Some of the other boats had already worked their way over the Tea Table, and the day before the steamers R. M. Ryland and Lehigh had made it as far as Cape Girardeau. When finally loaded with all her freight the Sunshine departed the Tea Table and went on her way rejoicing (20).

"a fair prospect of soon getting off"

With the river at its lowest level in memory, steamboats bound down river tried to avoid "all the worst bars and shallow places" which was no small accomplishment for the pilots and crews of these vessels. The steamer J. H. Smith bound up river from the Tennessee river found the R. M. Ryland "aground at Powers Island" with the New Sam Gaty and Carrier at Cape Girardeau. She next found the Anglo Saxon wooding up and the Champion sounding at Kinney’s Point, where a few day before the steamer T. L. McGill had struck some submerged snags and logs breaking over one hundred of her timbers and had to return to Cairo. The J. H. Smith next met the "Sunshine a little above" Kinney’s Point, about five miles from Cape Girardeau. Soon the Sunshine made Cape Girardeau, and the Polar Star and Lebanon were seen passing down. The Lebanon had left "one-half of her freight out at Crawford’s" and was going out to "Cairo with the balance." Late that day the D. G. Taylor and the C. E. Hillman finished loading after double tripping it over the Tea Table. The Memphis packet the John H. Dickey having made it over and it was humorously "understood she was bound for ‘South Carolina’" -- an allusion to Captain Daniel Able's southern sympathies. Our correspondent "SAM" and the Sunshine laid "all night at Cape LaCruz" (21).

Under way again on Wednesday morning, December 12, the Sunshine came upon the steamer Champion "at the head of Powers Island." Then "in company with her," as "SAM" recounted, "we crossed the bar, finding 5 feet scant." Proceeding on, the Sunshine came to the "foot of Goose Island" were she "again overhauled the Lebanon aground." While the Sunshine and the Champion were sounding "above Widow Brookes’ Point" near the head of Dog Tooth Island they met "the Minnehaha and Prairie Rose" bound for St. Louis. The steamer Minnehaha reported the "Polar Star aground at the head of Dog Tooth," that place being one of the shallowest on the river. Our correspondent "SAM" on the Sunshine noted the "South Wester laying at the bank putting out her freight so as to get over the bar" at Dog Tooth. The pilot of the Sunshine was able to negotiate the sand bars of Dog Tooth and soon left the Champion and South Wester to make their own way. In the vicinity of Two Sisters Island she "met the E. W. Ryland on her return from Columbus below." Nearly out of the river now the Sunshine was met by the Anglo Saxon coming up at Able’s Tow Head, with the New Sam Gaty not far behind both "on their way to Tea Table to pick up the freight they left behind." The memoranda of the Anglo Saxon noted the Champion, South Wester and the D. G. Taylor all at the "Sister’s." After nearly a six-day trip the Sunshine arrived at Cairo at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on December12, 1860, where "SAM" found the steamers "J. C. Swon, Ed. Walsh, Choctaw, City of Memphis, and Emerald, all bound for New Orleans." That same afternoon the steamer Henry Von Phul arrived at Cairo, "four days and twenty-three hours from New Orleans" an indication that the lower Mississippi was in a fair condition for navigation (22).

The Alonzo Child was seen at Cairo, having arrived from New Orleans a day before the Sunshine got out of the river. Captain O’Neal of the Alonzo Child traveled by train to St. Louis, in order "to find a light steamboat to go down to Cairo, and bring up the Child’s freight, . . . but did not succeed." Her freight was then stored at Cairo. O’Neal had intended to load for a return trip to New Orleans, but instead the Alonzo Child was laid up for nearly a month at Cairo. The John Walsh like the other big New Orleans packets could never make the Cairo to St. Louis trip with the river in its present condition. Arrangements were made for the John Walsh to reship her freight on the Sunshine for the trip to St. Louis. The Sunshine was to leave for St. Louis the next morning, where they hoped to "arrive as soon as possible, if not sooner--sand bars, etc., notwithstanding." It was reported in St. Louis that there "was no boat aground in this river when the last steamers passed up, excepting the Lebanon at Goose Island" (23).

"up the river, through the ice"

Returning up river to St. Louis was uneventful. The Sunshine took a lot less freight and a lot less time as the pilots now knew where the channel and the sand bars were located, her officers reported "four feet scant at Crawford’s," and arrived at St. Louis on the evening of December 15. After unloading the cargo of the John Walsh at the St. Louis levee the Sunshine was made ready for another trip down river. It apparently had been arranged for the Sunshine to take a load of freight down to Cairo for the John Walsh, but a day or so later the captain of the Walsh had concluded "to give up her trip . . . and has laid up." The question concerning the owner and captain of the Sunshine now was "where to steer" the boat. A few days later the steamer John Walsh at Cairo was reported as preparing to go to New Orleans, so "360 tons of freight and some passengers" were loaded aboard the Sunshine to be taken down river to that vessel. While loading for the trip the weather turned intensely cold, the ice coming down the river described as "a perfect rush" and it began to snow heavily. The outlook for commerce on the river to safely continue was such that insurance underwriters "refused to insure freight on boats leaving port." River traffic from St. Louis was "consequently suspended, until a change in the weather" (24).

As navigation was considered "closed for the season" a number of steamboats were laid up and were laying at the levee or in winter quarters at various points along the river on down to Carondelet. A few boats were still on the upper river such as the Dr. Kane which was humorously described like its namesake as being "on an Arctic Exploring Expedition" somewhere between St. Louis and Keokuk. However, the Sunshine left for Cairo on December 22, in a river that was falling and full of floating ice. Early the next day the Sunshine was observed at Salma. Coming up on St. Genevieve the Sunshine became hard aground in the bend. Unable to get off and the river falling she soon was "almost out of the water, with the shore on one side and the ice gorged on the other side." Seeking help, some officers "left the boat and reached St. Louis by a circuitous land route" arriving the day after Christmas. That same day the New Sam Gaty coming up from Cairo, came upon the Sunshine and picked up "her passengers and a portion of her crew" and brought them to St. Louis arriving on December 28. If our intrepid pilot Sam Clemens had been on the Sunshine he arrived back in St. Louis by the land route, where he wrote his petition, dated December 26, for candidacy in the Polar Star Lodge of Masons (25).

The weather was getting worse. Rain, sleet and snow continued falling with ice running in the river. Capt. Willard, the owner of the Sunshine "engaged the steamer Col. Morgan to go down and lighten the Sunshine off the bar" but the weather did not improve and that vessel never left St. Louis. After the first of the year 1861, Capt. Willard and a crew went down in a yawl to St. Genevieve bend to try and refloat the boat. It was a very cold journey in that open yawl out among the floating ice of the river. When the crew reached the Sunshine they found her still "hard aground and icebound." Putting the freight out on the bank and lighting the fires in her boilers and with some intense effort the crew seceded in getting the Sunshine afloat. A day or so after refloating the boat the "gorge of ice in the Mississippi above Cairo had broken up" and the river was rising. The Sunshine without much trouble could now get out to Cairo with her cargo. In a few days she was seen with her cargo on board below Cape Girardeau safely past Crawford's and the Tea Table (26).

With the gorge of ice broken up steamboat traffic between St. Louis and Cairo once again began to move. Insurance underwriters in St. Louis required boats "not to load to over four feet" of draft. Vessels laid up at Cairo were loaded with freight consigned to St. Louis from other boats unable or unwilling to make the trip in still relatively low water. Captain Wilcox of the Augustus McDowell traveled to Cairo with pilots to bring her up to St. Louis. The Republican reported that Captain O’Neal and his chief clerk W. B. McBride were also making their way to Cairo to bring up the Alonzo Child but there was no mention of them being accompanied by any pilots. The St. Louis Evening News stated that the "Crew of the Alonzo Child has left for Cairo." Because of the low water the river had undergone many changes and the Republican commented that "pilots will be under the necessity of learning a portion of the river over again" (27).

The Sunshine arrived at Cairo with her cargo early on January 8, 1861. That same day the Alonzo Child departed Cairo for St. Louis, as Captain O’Neal, who also held a license, had apparently engaged a pilot who knew the changes in the river. Going up river the Alonzo Child came upon and ran in "good deal of ice floating in the river," all the way to St. Louis. When the Alonzo Child arrived in St. Louis "the pilots" reported "finding about 4 1/2 feet on the more formidable of the bars below. The Child was drawing four feet three inches." Some years later when the pilot that O’Neal had employed reminisced to a pilot friend about that trip with the captain, he recounted, you "ought to have seen him & me bring the . . . Alonzo . . . Child . . . up the river, through the ice, drawing all the water." This up river trip was the only journey under those conditions the Alonzo Child made from Cairo to St. Louis that winter arriving on January 11, 1861 and Sam Clemens was her pilot (28).


The evidence indicating that the newspaper correspondent "SAM" who was aboard the steamboat Sunshine is Sam Clemens is circumstantial. The writing style of the newspaper report of his trip is in the style of Sam Clemens. The date of Sam Clemens's letter from St. Louis to the Polar Star Lodge fits perfectly with the itinerary of the officers of the Sunshine during the inclement weather. Clemens's personal notebook entry recalling the action of the Blue Wing during the low water traffic jam indicates an eye witness account. All these pieces of the puzzle add up to a strong argument that Sam Clemens did spend a few weeks of his professional career as a Mississippi River pilot aboard the Sunshine.



(1) Incorporating all the important information concerning every steamboat mentioned in this article would inflate these notes to burdensome proportions therefore if one desires to check on a vessel it will be noted by its directory number from, Frederick Way Jr., Compiler, Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1983, Ohio University, Athens, 1983. Alonzo Child, Way #0197, General Quitman, Way #2270. Letters quoted are from Edgar M. Branch, Michael Frank, and Kenneth E. Sanderson (eds.), Mark Twain’s Letters, Volume 1, 1853-1866, University of California Press, 1988. This edition is now available online and links are provided to the entire text of the letter. SLC to Orion Clemens and Family, 21 November 1860, p.103 (Letters). St. Louis Missouri Republican, "River News Column," Nov. 16, 1860, & Nov. 19, 1860.

(2) River Notebook #2 & Typescript of River Notebook #2, pp. 4-21, Mark Twain Project, Berkeley, (Typescript). Most of the first four pages of this notebook contain a few fragments in English the rest is some copied French dialogue. This is the second of two surviving notebooks of Clemens containing piloting notations. These notebooks were published in Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 1: 1855 - 1873, University of California Press 1975. Letters, SLC to Orion Clemens and Family, 21 November 1860, p.103. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Nov. 20, 1860.

(3) Augustus McDowell, Way # 0391. Letters, SLC to Orion Clemens and Family, 21 November 1860, p.103. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Nov 22 & 23, 1860.

(4) Letters, SLC to Orion Clemens and Family, 21 November 1860, pp.104-05; A somewhat similar situation is recounted in the court deposition of pilot William T. Berry in Appendix 5 of Edgar M. Branch's, "Bixby vs Carroll: New Light On Sam Clemens’s Early River Career," p. 19, Mark Twain Journal, Vol 30, No 2, Fall 1992.

(5) Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 1: 1855 - 1873, p. 54-55. "Memoranda of the B. M. Runyan," St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec 9, 1860. B. M. Runyan, Way #0421. In Chapter VII of Life on the Mississippi, "A Daring Deed," Mark Twain stated that getting out to Cairo was to "get out of the river."

(6) Edgar M. Branch, "A Proposed Calendar of Samuel Clemens’s Steamboats, 15 April 1857 to May 1861, with Commentary," pp. 20-21, Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 24, No 2, Fall 1986, Branch further states "there is no reason to suppose that Clemens missed" that trip; Sunshine, Way #5234; St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec.1 & 6, 1860, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860.

(7) Edgar M. Branch, "Sam Clemens, Steersman on the John H. Dicky," American Literary Realism, Autumn, 1982, pp. 197-98. Edgar M. Branch and Robert H. Hirst, with the assistance of Harriet Elinor Smith, Early Tales & Sketches, Vol 1, 1851-1864, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1979, pp.128, 131-33 & 136-41. Copies of the original Sellers note, its newspaper printing and Clemens's Sergant Fathom burlesque are in, Horst H. Kruse, "Mark Twain’s Nom de Plume Some Mysteries Resolved," Mark Twain Journal, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp.8-10. Letters, SLC to Jane Lampton Clemens and Pamela A. Moffett, 8 & 9 February 1862, p.161.

(8) St. Louis Missouri Republican, May 27, 1860 & August 30, 1860. City of Memphis, Way #1101.

(9) Report of river conditions for 1860, month of December, St. Louis Missouri Republican, Jan. 1, 1861.

(10) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 6, 1860; Dec. 7, 1860. Memoranda of the Polar Star. Way #4543, Dec. 8, 1860; Dec. 9, 1860; E. M. Ryland, Way #1653, Daniel G. Taylor, Way #1445, C. E. Hillman, Way #0757; When a steamboat captain offered assistance to another boat it was usually for a return on his effort. The steamer Blue Wing No. 2 , Way #064 had been employed in the Illinois trade and was now used for lighting off and delivering coal to vessels in the St Louis area. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860.

(11) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 8, 1860; Dec. 9, 1860. In Clemens's notebook (MTP Transcript, page 9) in early February of 1861, on his "2d highwater trip" on the Alonzo Child he wrote the following note after he navigated between islands 67 and 68: "4 ft bank on 68 -- went right up around dry bar (like Blue Wing) & right around will[ow]s 50 or 75 off ..." Clemens evidently had observed the Blue Wing working in the scant water below St. Louis. (This passage is not published in Mark Twain's Notebooks & Journals, Vol. 1: 1855 - 1873, University of California Press 1975.) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. Near St. Louis as the river ebbed, it was reported that "a huge bar which we never saw before is stretching its ugly proportions half way across the river." St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 9, 1860. In late December 1860 the Blue Wing was listed as laid up in winter quarters near St. Louis., St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 24, 1860. There is no mention of the Blue Wing being on the river in February.

(12) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 8, 1860, & Memoranda of B. M. Runyan, Dec. 9, 1860. The Runyan soon met the Hillman in Rush Tower Bend, it was arranged that after unloading her cargo at St. Louis the "Runyan will go down prepared to take" the sacks of corn the Sunshine and the Hillman had left at Brickley’s Landing., St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 9, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860.

(13) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of B. M. Runyan, Dec. 9, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence
of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. Edward Walsh, Way #1726; Anglo-Saxon, Way #0269; Lebanon, Way #3397.

(14) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Augustus McDowell, Dec. 11, 1860. The Chester ferry was the Wild Duck. Wild Duck, Way #5786. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 10, & Memoranda of the Platte Valley; Dec. 12, 1860. Platte Valley, Way #4534.

(15) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. John D. Perry, Way #3054. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Platte Valley & Memoranda of Steamer John Warner, Dec. 12, 1860. John Warner, Way #3133. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of John H. Dicky, Dec. 8, 1860. John H. Dicky, Way #3068. South Wester, Way #5150.

(16) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of Steamer John Warner, Dec. 12, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Report of the D. A. January, Dec. 15, 1860. D. A. January, Way #1405. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of B. M. Runyan, Dec. 9, 1860. New Sam Gaty, Way #4187. Champion, Way #0922.

(17) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Augustus McDowell, Dec. 11, 1860. Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1949, pp. 254-55.

(18) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of Steamer John Warner, Dec. 12, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Lehigh, Dec. 14, 1860. Lehigh, Way #3405. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860.

(19) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the J. H. Smith, Dec. 14, 1860. Julius H. Smith, Way #3191.

(20) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Report of the D. A. January, Dec. 15, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Arizona, Dec. 14, 1860. Arizona, Way #0341. Hannibal, Way #2525.

(21) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the J. H. Smith, Dec. 14, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 12, 1860. T. L. McGill, Way #5278; St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860.

(22) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Special River Correspondence of "SAM.," Dec. 15, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Anglo Saxon, Dec. 15, 1860. Choctaw, Way #1023. Emerald, Way #1801. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 15, 1860. Henry Von Phul, Way #2608. The St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 13, 1860, published a short dispatch sent to a Capt. Ambrose Reeder in St. Louis, dated Cairo, December 12, which noted that the "Taylor arrived safely," the "Sunshine is also out," and the "Gaty has gone back to Crawford’s" and was signed Sam S. Entriken. Judging from the tenor of his note he was already in Cairo and was reporting arrivals to Capt. Reeder, Superintendent of the St. Louis and New Orleans Merchant Line. Entriken was not our correspondent "SAM." The D. G. Taylor was one of the vessels of the line.

(23) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 13, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the D. A. January & Report of the D. A. January, Dec. 15, 1860. In the memoranda of the D. A. January it was mentioned that the Sunshine would take the freight of the Henry Von Phul but this proved to be false. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Receipts & River column, Dec. 16, 1860. John Walsh, Way #3132.

(24) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Receipts & River column, Dec. 16, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 18, 19, 22 & 23, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Report from the New Sam Gaty, Dec. 28, 1860.

(25) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec.23 & 24, 1860. Dr. Kane, Way #1581. Elisha Kent Kane was an American arctic explorer. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Memoranda of the Anglo Saxon, Dec. 24, 1860. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Report from the New Sam Gaty, Dec. 28, 1860. Letters, SLC To the Worshipful Master, Wardens, and Brethren of Polar Star Lodge No. 79 of the . . . Masons . . .., pp.106-07.

(26) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Dec. 31, 1860. Col. Morgan, Way #1228. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Jan. 7, 1861. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Report of the Commercial, Jan. 10, 1861. Commercial, Way #1266.

(27) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Jan. 8, 1861. Evening News, Jan. 8, 1861, as quoted in Alan Bates, Mark Twain and the Mississippi River, Ph.D., Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1968. p. 161. Both of these reports were printed in the St. Louis newspapers the day the Alonzo Child departed from Cairo. In the case of the Evening News the Alonzo Child was already traveling up river making that information old news on the St. Louis levee.

(28) St. Louis Missouri Republican, Jan. 11 & 12, 1861. Evening News, Jan. 11, 1861, as quoted in Bates, p. 161. Letters, SLC to William Bowen, 25 August 1866, pp.358-59. St. Louis Missouri Republican, Jan. 12, 1861, notice of arrival and memoranda of the Alonzo Child.

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