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Interview of Walter Blair from Coronet Magazine, May 1940
excerpted from a longer article titled
by Garnett Laidlaw Eskew

I sat talking about Twain with Captain Walter Blair on the verandah of his home in Davenport. It was early fall. The Captain has built his house so that he can see a mile of river in two directions.

"Listen. I'll tell you about Mark Twain," he said when I told him the reason for my visit. "Every pilot that has read Life on the Mississippi is jealous of Mark. They all wish they could have done it. When Mark lectured here in Davenport in 1885 with George Cable, I made it a point to talk with him. That was more than fifty years ago; I was then piloting the J. W. Mills and I had read everything that Mark had written. Away back in 'Seventy-eight he'd brought out a little paper-back volume called Old Times on the Mississippi. Later on, in 'Eighty-four I believe, he'd published his amplified book Life on the Mississippi. After I read it I wrote him a letter saying what a fine authentic book I thought it was, and Livy (that's what he always called his wife) wrote back and said Sam was on a lecture tour. So it was a lucky chance that my boat was in port that night when he lectured here.

"After the lecture I walked backstage and collided, in the wings, with George Cable. `Go on back and speak to Sam,' he said, `He's right over there and he'll be glad to talk to a river man.'

"Mark was sitting in an undertaker's chair, resting after his lecture. He looked dog tired. His big mustache was drooping. I walked up to him.

" `Hello,' he said, `who are you?'

" `My name's of no importance, Captain,' I told him, `but maybe you'll recognize the handwriting on this letter.' (His eye kind of lighted up and he sort of grinned when I called him `Captain.')

"He looked at the letter and drawled: `That's my wife's handwriting. Now where the devil did you get that?'

"After he'd read it, he made me sit down beside him and began to ask questions. I never saw a man so interested in boats and the river. He wanted to know everything. He asked all about the way we piloted on the Upper River (he was Lower River man, you know); about the changes in the channel around St. Louis, where the Upper and Lower Rivers meet, and about a lot of old time pilots who were still at the wheel.

"And he talked interestingly, too. Any river man could tell that he knew his business. The Lower Mississippi to him must have been an open book just like he wrote that it was. (Later on, I was to have it verified from the lips of the one man who knew positively.)

"When I left, `My boy,' he said and clapped me on the shoulder, and he was mighty wistful, 'nothing, I ever did in my life was as pleasing to me as piloting a steamboat. Goodbye and good luck!'

"Time moved right along after that. I kept up my piloting and bought an interest in various boat lines. I piloted log rafts for Sam Van Sant from the north woods down to the mills, and then went into excursion boating. In the winter of 1890 I took Mrs. Blair with me down to New Orleans on the fine Anchor Line boat City of Hickman. Two of Mark's contemporaries were on that boat: Henry Keith, her master, and good old Henry Partee, one of the best pilots that ever turned a wheel on any river. He'd served with distinction in the Confederate Army and he was standing his watch on the Hickman just as game as a boy of twenty!

"We got down as far as Memphis. There Captain Keith showed me a telegram he'd just got saying that another Anchor Liner, the City of Baton Rouge was wrecked at Hermitage Landing away on down the river. `That's Bixby's boat,' Keith told me. `She's the crack boat of the line. God! I hope there ain't any lives lost!"

"I don't think any boat ever made better time than the Hickman on that run down to Hermitage; we showed a clean pair of heels to every boat we passed, and nary a boat passed us. We made it in jig time and there, sure enough, was the Baton Rouge wallowing the muddy water and a sorry looking sight she was! Loaded with a couple of hundred bales of cotton and a lot of miscellaneous freight. Had a big hole snagged in her hull.

"I was up in the Hickman's pilot house. One of our pilots was sick and Partee had been standing double watch for a couple days and was about worn out. At last Bixby, the man I most wanted to meet, came aboard. He wasn't a tall man but he had a full beard and was very dignified and gave you the impression that he was large. His hair was rumpled and his eyes were bleary from loss of sleep. He was sick from worry over the wreck of his boat. He hadn't closed his eyes for three nights. But with the courtesy of the old-fashioned pilot, knowing that Partee had been on duty so long, he said: `Let me take her Henry. You go and catch up on your sleep. You need it.'

"Partee hesitated a minute; then he pointed to me:

" `Well look, Horace, here's that snow digger (meaning an Upper River pilot from the North), Blair. He's a good pilot in his own part of the country and he'll be glad to act as your steersman. You can sit right back there on the bench and boss the job!'

"Bixby turned to me and shook hands. `That would be kind of you,' he said, `but you're on vacation. Would you mind doing it?'

"You can believe me, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to talk to Bixby although he didn't seem to be able to think of anything much but his fine boat lying there helpless alongside us. I went down to the cabin and explained the situation to Mrs. Blair. Then came back up and took the wheel. Bixby sat back on the bench and relaxed a little.

"This part of the river was strange to me. I had been south only once or twice before and never 'professionally.' But I found that I knew how to steer a big Lower River packet just as well as the little J. W. Mills up home. And with the finest pilot on the rivers sitting there to explain the channel to me--why it was just like getting money from home!

"As we talked along on various subjects, Bixby finally got his mind a little bit off his worries. At last I introduced the name of Sam Clemens. I said:

"'Captain, I wish you would tell me something. Regardless of Sam Clemens' ability as a writer, what kind of pilot was he? You know how the other river men speak of him--that he didn't know his job. I believe you have told some of these newspaper reporters that he was pretty good as a steersman. Well, you probably felt that you had to say that about him for publication, now that he's famous. But as one pilot to another--between you and me--just how would you rate Sam as a steamboat pilot?'

" `Let me tell you something, Blair,' he answered, `Sam Clemens (I never call him anything else) was a first rate pilot. Make no mistake about it. I learned him the river; I know. And I don't think in the whole four years he was steamboating he ever had a serious accident. If he'd stayed longer he would have been one of the great pilots of all time. He had all the qualities that a good pilot should have-nerve and a fine memory and the ability to catch on quickly. A pilot's got to have those traits. And he was a good talker, too, and as fine a companion as any man riding the river.

" `You know he tells in his book about the way I used to have to cuss him out for being so dumb. Well, he exaggerated that some, to make good reading. But that's no crime. He knew his river and he loved to steer a fine boat. And don't let any of these other pilots fool you and try to tell you different.' "

Captain Blair leaned over and picked up his field glasses from the porch table. He sighted at a big tow of barges plodding by convoyed by a laboring, noisy towboat.

"That's the C. C. Webber coming from the Twin Cities," he explained. After a moment he added: "So you see all this antagonism to Mark Twain in pilot circles is nothing in the world but plain everyday jealousy. There never was another pilot on the Rivers who could have written a book like Life on the Mississippi. If there was he'd have too damn much sense to remain a pilot. I know. I've been a pilot all my life."

Walter Blair is the author of A Raft Pilot's Log: A History of the Great Rafting Industry on the Upper Mississippi 1840-1915 (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1930)

Garnett Laidlaw Eskew is the author of The Pageant of the Packets - A Book of American Steamboating (Henry Holt & Co., NY 1929)

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