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Feb. 13, 1834 - March 4, 1914

John Downing portrait

Known as Major Jack Downing and sometimes "Alligator Jack," Downing was born in Rutland, Meigs County, Ohio. He was a pilot for twenty-seven years on the Mississippi. Downing, an accomplished violinist, toured with a minstrel company when the Civil War disrupted river traffic. Norwegian violinist "Ole Bull" (Bornemann Bull) claimed Downing was the best amateur violinist he had ever heard. Several letters were exchanged between Downing and Clemens after they both left the Mississippi River.

Downing's comments about Clemens: He had a reputation then, though the boy of the crowd, for telling good stories, and he always had one ready to fill in. One of the best stories which I ever remember of Sam telling was when we were on the EDWARD J. GAY crossing from Goose Island to the Missouri shore, a very shoal place. A number of pilots were in the pilothouse. They were on a surveying tour to Cairo. Squire Bell was at the wheel, and ran the boat out of the channel 25 or 30 yards and grounded her. She was aground for 30 minutes, and Bell made the air blue with all the swear words in his vocabulary in declaring that, if it hadn't been for Sam Clemens's story, he would have kept the boat in good water. I could repeat the story, but it's entirely too long. However, we were all convulsed with laughter, particularly as we did not see the point nor the real gist of it until it had been told for quite a few minutes.
- from an interview in Cincinnati Enquirer, 12 September 1909

Also see comments by Downing in The New York Times, June 28, 1903

Clemens' comments about Downing: Of course there were some few pilots that could judge of alligator water nearly as well as they could of any other kind, but they had to have natural talent for it; it wasn't a thing a body could learn, you had to be born with it. Let me see: there was Ben Thornburg, and Beck Jolly, and Squire Bell, and Horace Bixby, and Major Downing, and John Stevenson, and Billy Gordon, and Jim Brady, and George Ealer, and Billy Youngblood--all A 1 alligator pilots. They could tell alligator water as far as another Christian could tell whiskey.
- Life on the Mississippi


Feb. 26, 1899

DEAR MAJOR, -- No; it was to Bixby that I was apprenticed. He was to teach me the river for a certain specified sum. I have forgotten what it was, but I paid it. I steered a trip for Bart Bowen, of Keokuk, on the A. T. Lacy, and I was partner with Will Bowen on the A. B. Chambers (one trip), and with Sam Bowen a whole summer on a small Memphis packet.

The newspaper report you sent me is incorrect. Bixby is not 67: he is 97. 1 am 63 myself, and I couldn't talk plain and had just begun to walk when I apprenticed myself to Bixby who was then passing himself off for 57-- and successfully too, for he always looked 60 or 70 years younger than he really was. At that time he was piloting the Mississippi on a Potomac commission granted him by George Washington who was a personal friend of his before the Revolution. He has piloted every important river in America on that commission, he has also used it as a passport in Russia. I have never revealed these facts before. I notice, too, that you are deceiving the people concerning your age. The printed portrait which you have enclosed is not a portrait of you, but a portrait of me when I was 19. I remember very well when it was common for people to mistake Bixby for your grandson. Is it spreading, I wonder -- this disposition of pilots to renew their youth by doubtful methods? Beck Jolly and Joe Bryan -- they probably go to Sunday school now -- but it will not deceive.

Yes, it is as you say. All of the procession but a fraction has passed. It is time for us all to fall in.

Sincerely yours,

- Mark Twain's Letters, Harper & Brothers, 1917

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