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Horace Bixby

Horace Bixby

One of the greatest steamboat pilots of his day. He met Clemens in 1857 aboard the steamer PAUL JONES and later agreed to take him on as an apprentice.
See Bixby's 1902 interview online at this site.

Clemens comments: One day, on board the ALECK SCOTT, my chief, Mr. Bixby, was crawling carefully through a close place at Cat Island, both leads going, and everybody holding his breath. The captain, a nervous, apprehensive man, kept still as long as he could, but finally broke down and shouted from the hurricane-deck:

"For gracious' sake, give her steam, Mr. Bixby! give her stream! She'll never raise the reef on this headway!"

For all the effect that was produced upon Mr. Bixby, one would have supposed that no remark had been made. But five minutes later, when the danger was past and the leads laid in, he burst instantly into a consuming fury, and gave the captain the most admirable cursing I ever listened to. No bloodshed ensued, but that was because the captain's cause was weak, for ordinarily he was not a man to take correction quietly.
- Life on the Mississippi

On May 7, 1882, the New Orleans Times Democrat printed an interview with Horace Bixby wherein he provided the reporter with text from a letter he had received from Clemens:

Thirty tons of paper have been used in publishing my book Innocents Abroad. It has met with a greater sale than any book ever published except Uncle Tom's Cabin. The volumes sell from $3 to $5, according to finish, & I get one-half the profit. Not so bad for a scrub pilot, is it? How do you run Plum Point-a son-of-a-gun of a place? I would rather be a pilot than anything I ever tried.

In her book Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, writer Grace King recalled discussing Bixby with Clemens when she visited with Clemens in Florence, Italy. King wrote:

I had made a trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis and back again with Captain Bixby, who had, or claimed to have, taught Mark Twain how to pilot. I told him about it. He took the pipe from his mouth, and his gray eyes glistened under their shaggy brows as he listened, and the soft expression of his boyhood came, an expression that Florence [Italy] could not have called forth.

We talked of Bixby and life on a steamboat; of the cursing, swearing mate and the tumbling, rushing deck hands; of how good the hot rolls tasted for supper, and the fragrant cup of coffee served at any hour of the night by the good-natured steward; of the bells and noises that prevented sleep at night; of the various stopping places, always interesting, picking up a traveler here and there who insisted upon getting on intimate terms of friendship with one by the time we reached New Orleans. No other life seemed worth living. Mr. Clemens grew excited with us over the memory of its recollection, adding his humorous comments.

After Clemens' death in 1910 one of Horace Bixby's interviews was published in the Waterways Journal on April 30, 1910. A special acknowledgment to Dave Thomson for providing the text of this article:


The St. Louis Times says: Mark Twain, in spite of the shortness and infrequency of his visits to St. Louis, was not unknown here. There are many of his old comrades who are willing upon the slightest excuse to talk lovingly of him, and of his ways, and others who think they knew him, although they did not, so vivid are the descriptions which linger in the community.

Among those who are competent to give personal reminiscences of Mark Twain are Capt. Horace Ezza [sic] Bixby, probably knew the humorist earlier than anyone now living in St. Louis, and doubtless knew Clemens, the pilot, better than any other man now living.

Capt. Bixby is pilot of the United States snagboat Wright [Horatio G. Wright] at the age of 84 years. He resides with his son-in-law, Dr. Louis T. Pim, 5910 Etzel avenue. Capt. Bixby "learned" Clemens the river from St. Louis to New Orleans, and although they saw each other little since 1861, the captain cherishes his recollections fondly.

In Memphis one time, he told a reporter that he wished Mark Twain were dead so he wouldn't be bothered in retailing reminiscences about him longer. He was annoyed when the remark was printed, but there is no record that Mark Twain ever heard of it, and if he had, it was just the sort of a whimsicality that he would have appreciated. But when Mark Twain hung on the brink of the beyond, a flood of recollections came to the captain, and looking out over the green lawns he saw the little dingy pilot house of the Paul Jones, with a lank young fellow standing in the doorway saying in that enduring drawl: "Say, will--you--teach--me--the river?"


"I'm through teaching the river, except for money," said Bixby, who at first thought that the youth was a greenhorn.

"'How--much--do--you--want?" asked Clemens.

"Five hundred dollars."

"'Well, say--I--haven't--got $500, but I have--some real estate--in--Tennessee that--that--I'll give you."

The captain said he had all the unimproved real estate that he cared for.

The clerk was called in to approve a contract that called for an initial payment of $100 and the remainder in installments.

"I got $200 when he drew his first salary," said Bixby, "and as for the rest, well, as the Irishman said, I forgive him that.

"Clemens was a good pilot,"' said Capt. Bixby suddenly, "in spite of what the rest of the profession said about him. I soon saw that he was a smart fellow, and it was his brains that made other pilots jealous and led them to say that he did not know the river, that he was just an inspired loafer, or something of the sort. He was a good pilot, and he learned it from me."

Wright wheel
Pilot wheel of Bixby's Horatio G. Wright. The Wright was built 1880 at Carondolet, MO by Western Iron Boat Co. for the U.S. Engineers. It was dismantled in 1941.The man at the wheel is unidentified. Photo from the Dave Thomson collection.

Related item of interest: Horace Bixby was pilot of the steamboat Bertrand when it sank in April 1865.
Read the story about salvaging the wreck of the Bertrand.

More information about Bixby's career is found in :
Loges, Max. "Horace Ezra Bixby: The Life and Times of a Frontier River Pilot." Mark Twain Journal (Spring 1998).

Horace Bixby is also featured in:

reference book
Mark Twain A to Z, The Essential Guide to His Life and Writings
edited by R. Kent Rasmussen
available from amazon.com

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