|MISSISSIPPI STEAMBOAT MEN IN MARK TWAIN'S WRITINGS|
STROTHER NIMROD WILEY
On 24 January 1875 an article titled "Pilot Wylie" appeared in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise written by Twain's former cohort Dan De Quille. The article may have been based upon Twain's tall tales regarding Strother Wiley. For more background on DeQuille's article see Lawrence Berkove's article in Mark Twain Journal, Fall 1986 titled "Dan De Quille and Old Times on the Mississippi."
Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, January 24, 1875
Life on the "Old Massasipp."
By Dan Dequille
As you all know, it was in 1859 that I made my famous "triumphal" start from the good old city of St. Louis, Missouri on the steamer Bully Arabia for New Orleans, and now I propose to briefly inform you why I never planted foot anywhere within five hundred miles of New Orleans.
The story is of still another case of coolness in the midst
of wreck and disaster, and principally relates to "Pilot Wylie."
The Bully Arabia, Captain Sam Bowen (well known at St.
Louis and all up and down the river) left St. Louis with "all below"
full of hay in bales.
We got off about the middle of the afternoon all right and went
bowling along the river at a slashing rate. As long as we had daylight we
did well--daylight and the pilot who was then at the wheel.
Some time along in the night Pilot Wylie was called up to take
his watch. He came up as full of Bourbon as the lower deck was fall of hay,
but kept his mouth shut and looked wise.
Captain Sam Bowen was--as we all know who have traveled much
on the lower Mississippi--one of the mildest and most even-tempered men in
the world. He was also very polite and gentlemanly in all his intercourse
with all of his officers and men. It appeared to be positively painful for
him to swear, but sometimes, in the discharge of his duties, it became necessary
for him to do that violence to his feelings.
Captain Bowen did not discover that there was anything wrong with Pilot Wylie when that gentleman came up to take the wheel.
We went booming along down the river at a great rate, carrying a full head of steam and with Wylie at the wheel, turning it back and forth in the most sedate and exemplary manner.
Presently we sloshed into the left bank of the river against some trees and tore out the barber shop.
Up rushed Captain Bowen, crying: "Mr. Wylie, how is this? You have been into the bank and have raked out the barber shop!"
"Yes," said Wylie, "I heard a soft of rip as I bore off from shore."
On we went for eight or ten miles, when we slapped into the right-hand shore and tore out the pantry.
Captain Bowen ran up to the pilot-house in hot haste. "Well, Mr. Wylie," said he, "you are playing hell here to-night!"
"Yes," said Pilot Wylie, "did you ever hear such a rattling of dishes in all your life?"
Without deigning a reply Captain Bowen turned and went below, while Wylie went on with his "screwin' on her up," as a Yankee passenger termed the business of steering the vessel.
Away we went, bowling and screeching down the river, with the black smoke streaming back from the chimneys. Wylie was industriously engaged in "screwin' on her up" and in ringing the engineer's bells--"tap, tap, tap!" now this way and now that--only stopping occasionally to slip a small flask out of his pocket and take a "nip."
Presently the engineer sung out from below, through the speaking-tube: "Mr. Wylie, no man in the world could make out those bells!"
"The bells are all right! Mind the bells!" sententiously answered back Pilot Wylie.
A few minutes later, as we went zigzagging down the river, we "picked up" a snag that ripped nearly the whole bottom out of the boat.
There we stuck, rapidly settling in about eight feet of water.
Captain Bowen bounded up to the pilot-house and said: "Well, Mr. Wylie, by God! sir, you've made a killing out of it this time!"
"Yes," said Wylie, "I think so. Do you see them bales o' hay a-floatin' out of her?"
"She's down in eight feet of water, Mr. Wylie," said the Captain.
"About that, I should think, sir," said Wylie.
After making this last remark, Pilot Wylie "lit out over the front," and, going down into the "texas," got out his old fiddle, when he sat down and went to playing the "Arkansaw Traveler." His business was finished, and he was indulging in his favorite recreation.
A nice business we were in! However, about an hour after the snagging of the boat, we heard some distance down the river a fearful howl from a steam whistle.
"The Glaucus! the Glaucus!" cried several of the passengers in a breath. "No other boat has such a whistle. It is the Glaucus coming up!'
This was not the old Glaucus, as she was burned at St. Louis in 1852 or 1853, but was a new Glaucus, built by the same owners and provided with a second edition of the same unearthly whistle which rendered the old Glaucus famous all along the Mississippi.
Well, we made signals of distress and the Glaucus came alongside when we passengers were soon transferred to her decks.
"Mr. Clemens," said Captain Bowen, addressing the pilot of the Glaucus--Samuel L. Clemens, now better known as Mark Twain--"Mr. Clemens, I can hardly understand how you could recommend Mr. Wylie to me as being a good pilot?"
"I recommended Mr. Wylie sober, not Wylie drunk," dryly answered Mr. Clemens.
"Well, you see what he has done with the Bully Arabia? he has killed her, sir!"
"I see," said Mr. Clemens, "but he does not appear to be utterly broken-hearted, as I hear him playing the same old tune that he used to play when I was 'cub' under him." * * *
The Glaucus safely landed us at St. Louis, and I never again attempted the trip to New Orleans, nor never again met Pilot Wylie, who for aught I know to the contrary, may still be seated in the "texas" of the wrecked Bully Arabia, sawing away at the "Arkansaw Traveler."
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