As a steersman on the Pennsylvania, Clemens was an eyewitness to the race and collision between his vessel and the steamer Vicksburg in November 1857 north of New Orleans. In the ensuing court case he gave his deposition by answering questions proposed to him.
—-DEPOSITION of SAMl L. CLEMENS—-
Taken 19 March 1858
I was on the “Pennsylvania” as Steersman at the time of the collision in November last. I was not at the wheel at the time–At the moment of the collision I was standing on the Sky light deck, aft of the Pilot house. When I first came and I stood on the extreme stern on the hurricane deck–The “Vicksburg seemed to be about 250 yards behind us and about 200 to our larboard–I noticed the “Pennsylvania” when she started to cross, She headed on the left hand point. She straightened up in the middle of the river. She might have pulled a little to the starboard after she straightened up–of this, I am not certain. But at the time of the collision, I think she was steady,–holding her course whatever it was. We straightened up. The “Vicksburg” was coming up on us very fast then. When her head was about abreast the Pennsylvania’s” stern there was a space of about thirty yards between the boats. Then I went and stood a moment on the larboard side, aft the wheel house–and then went upon the Sky light deck, midway between Pilot house and the stern–This deck is about two feet higher than the hurricane deck–It seemed to me then, that the “Vicksburg” was probably heading for a point a little forward of the center of our wheel–Her stem was then abreast a point midway between our stern and our wheelhouse–The “Vicksburg” then seemed to me, to wheel suddenly to the starboard, and struck us as near as I could judge a little forward of the center of our wheelhouse. It was a little to the starboard of the “Vicksburg’s” Stem that struck us–I could not see her bow from the place where I stood–I could only judge by the position of the Jack Staff. I do not think I noticed the shores at the time of the collision. I think at the moment it occurred the “Pennsylvania” was nearly straight with the right hand shore, heading up the river, and about in the middle of the river. I heard a bell on the “Vicksburg” just before the collision–I think it was the engine bell–I heard it about ten seconds before the collision, and the “Vicksburg” wheeled instantly after I heard it, and came immediately into us. I think that at the instant the “Vicksburg struck us that one of the engines was still going–and my reason for thinking so is, that she did not recede from us after she struck, but kept pressing on–the crash of timbers continued–the deck swayed under me, and I thought I heard the nose of her engines. It was over a minute after the “Vicksburg struck us, before she began to back away from us. After the boats came together, I heard the Captain of the “Vicksburg” call to Captain Klinefelter, and I understood him to say that he (Capt White) “Knew that the “Vicksburg” would run from the bar”–I am learning the river–have been learning it, now, about ten months. At that time I had been on the “Pennsylvania” about three trips. The “Pennsylvania” steers very easily, I was in the Pilot house that night before supper, and I noticed that she steered well–that is her general character for steering. The “Pennsylvania” is a first class boat every way–she is large, and well finished for a passenger boat. The officers and crew which the “Pennsylvania” had at the time of the collision were all of them capable sober and patient. When I was on the extreme stern of the “Pennsylvania” as above stated, Capt Klinefelter was there–I do not know where he was after that. After the collision the “Vicksburg” towed the “Pennsylvania” to the right hand shore–The “Vicksburg then backed off. I am not exactly certain whether I was in a position to see her when she left us. I do not think she landed after she left us–I think she just backed out, and went up the river. I am certain she did.
I am still on the “Pennsylvania” in the same capacity, as steersman. I began to run on the river in May 1857. Mr. W. G. Brown is still employed on the “Pennsylvania” and has been ever since the collision.
I did not notice when the “Vicksburg” crossed to the left hand shore–I was only paying attention to the movements of the “Pennsylvania”. The “Pennsylvania” started across from the right hand shore at the foot of a false bend above McCutcheons Point. She was then about thirty yards from the right hand shore–the “Vicksburg” was then about two hundred yards to the left and still astern of the “Pennsylvania”.–At the time the “Pennsylvania” headed across the river, the “Vicksburg” was heading up the river. The river is about eight hundred yards wide, at the place of the collision–a small bar makes out there from the left hand shore.–I am not well acquainted with that bar and cannot speak particularly about it. Opposite the place of the collision on the right hand side the shore is bluff, and the water is deep, and also at the place where the “Pennsylvania” landed after the collision–I do not think there is any bend on the left hand shore, where the collision took place. There is a bend below, and just under the “Thirty mile point,” on the left hand shore. The collision occurred about a mile below the main point. I cannot remember the exact words used by Captain White to Captain Klinefelter, but I think they were “I knew the “Vicksburg” would run from the bar.”
The engines of the “Pennsylvania” were not stopped at all, up to the time of the collision–While I was on the hurricane deck, I do not think that any signals, by bell or by whistle, was given by the “Pennsylvania”.–The “Pennsylvania” had no lights on her wheel houses at the time or just before the collision–I do not know whether she had any signal lights up. At the time we straightened up after leaving the right hand shore, we were not more that fifty yards from the “Vicksburg”. When we started from the right hand shore to go to thirty mile point, it was about a mile distant–I mean to the exact point to which we were heading, on the left hand shore. The collision took place, I suppose, four hundred yards from the left hand shore–I do not think we were nearer the left, than the right hand shore,–but it is my impression we were somewhat nearer the right hand shore. The night was a pretty bright moon light night–Do not know which is the faster of the two boats–do not know which was the faster that night–The “Pennsylvania” was, I supposed, running as fast that night as she could as she was trimmed–but I am not an engineer, and do not know much about it.
——Re-Examination in Chief——
The signal lights on the “Pennsylvania” are usually hung up on the chimney–that is the usual place for boats to carry them. The cabin of the “Pennsylvania” was well lighted at the time of the collision–The furnaces of the “Vicksburg” were visible and well lighted–I do not know about her cabin. When the cabin of the “Pennsylvania” is lighted she shows a great deal of light through her Sky lights. I had no difficulty in seeing the “Vicksburg” & determining her location.
. J. W. Gurley Samuel L. Clemens
John Klinefelter et. al. vs. Steamer Vicksburg, J. M. White, Master, National Archives–Southwest Branch, Forth Worth, TX, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21,(NA), United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, New Orleans Division, Case file #7316 (7316) and United States Circuit Court, Appeal from District Court, Case file #3160 (3160). Samuel Clemens deposition is regrettably missing from case file #7316 (7316 NA) but its copy is preserved in the case, file #3160 (3160).