“ONLY ONCE BEFORE”

 

Printed items called memoranda were occasionally published in the newspaper river columns of the major port cities along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, customarily a brief record or log from which rivermen “might learn something of the whereabouts and late deeds” of the steamboats on the rivers. These memoranda were compiled from simple entries of some notable occurrence while on watch and usually entered into a log book. By there very nature they were composed of information that came primarily from the pilothouse and hurricane deck where the captain, mates and pilots stood their watches when underway. Periodically passenger and freight information might also be included, leading to the presumption that a steamboat clerk could have a hand in the drafting of an individual memoranda. Upon the completion of a trip these entries were sometimes collected with little or no editing for the newspapers and members of the river fraternity. As chronicles of the life and times on the western rivers surviving steamboat log books available for study are in fact very rare thereby making these memoranda valuable materials for study. Among the steamboat memoranda published in the Missouri Democrat, are several that are of a unique character and fall within the known activities of Sam Clemens.

Clemens was a steersman on the PENNSYLVANIA from late September of 1857 until her collision with the VICKSBURG on the twenty sixth of November of that year. A week later he was clerking and steering on the WILLIAM M. MORRISON under the watchful eye of the old pilot Isaiah Sellers. Sellers was one of the pilots on the J. M. WHITE in 1844 when she set the speed record for a trip from New Orleans to St. Louis in 3 days, 23 hours and 9 minutes. In February of 1858 the MORRISON was laid up and Clemens returned to his duties on the repaired PENNSYLVANIA.

In March the MORRISON was back in service and the “high water” of April “gave her a chance of spreading herself, and she proved herself very fast.” Her memoranda from the Missouri Democrat tells of her trip:

Steamer Wm. M. Morrison left New Orleans Sunday, April 4th, at 11 o’clock A. M., with the United States mail and a fair cargo of freight — having a fast rising river to Napoleon. Above Natchez the water was over the banks. From Lake Providence to Napoleon it was over the levee, and for twenty miles above Greenville the levees were washed away. Discharged freight at Lake Providence, Greenville, Napoleon, Helena, Memphis, New Madrid, Island No. 10, Hickman, Cairo and Chester.

New Orleans to 81 mile Point 7 hrs 51 min., to Baton Rouge 12 hrs 15 min., to Bayou Sara 15 hrs 45 min., to Morgan’s Bend 1 day, to Islands Nos. 98 and 99 2 days, to Islands Nos. 62 and 63 3 days, to Island No. 21 4 days, to Devil’s Island 5 days. Whole time from port to port 5 days 14 hrs. Deducted. Running time 5 days 1 hr.

In May the PENNSYLVANIA had a fast trip too. The following memoranda is from the St. Louis Evening News of May 27, 1858.

Memoranda–Steamer PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In Port for St. Louis, steamers R. J. LACKLAND and RR. packets A T LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st — Met RR. packet HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge. 22d — Met CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence, T L MCGILL head of 93. 23d — Met NEW UNCLE SAM at 71. 24th — Met GOLDEN AGE, CORA ANDERSON at 37, IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th –Met EDITOR at Island No. 4, WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth Bend; passed J J ROE at Lane’s Landing. 26th — Met L M KENNETT at Cape Girardeau. Time six days from port to port. Lost 32 hours by storms and fogs.

The following day, May 28, 1858, the Missouri Democrat also published a memoranda from the PENNSYLVANIA, but this one was a little unconventional, a slight bend from the norm, and quite possibly written by cub pilot Samuel Clemens.

MEMORANDA — The PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In port for St. Louis, R. J. LACKLAND, A. T. LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st, met HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge, CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence; T. L. MCGILL at head of 93; NEW UNCLE SAM at 71: CORA ANDERSON at 37; IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th, EDITOR at island 4; WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth bend. Time from port to port 3 days and 72 hours. Only once before has a trip been made in 3 days and some hours.

The reference to “only once before” has such a trip been made is a poke in jest directed at Isaiah Sellers as he was one of the pilots of the fleet J. M. WHITE in 1844. The “Only once before” item was published in the Democrat, the same paper the memoranda from Isiah Seller’s log had been published a few weeks earlier. It is likely Sam Clemens was the author of the memoranda. Clemens would later recall how the “Oldest Pilot” was “full of strange lies & worldly brag” and probably bored the steersman with his boasting of the exploit.

In his personal notebooks for 1881-82 Clemens penned a similar river joke: “Trip up Missouri river 3300 miles made fastest time on record viz. 3 days 9 hours and 4 months” (Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, vol. 2, p. 574).

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