Exploring the American Experience Exploring the American Experience

How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa

No novelist captured the muddy waterway and its people like the creator of Huckleberry Finn, as a journey along the river makes clear

For Twain, the “magnificent Mississippi, rolling its mile-wide tide” was the stuff of dreams (the St. Louis waterfront today). (Dave Anderson)
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Cindy gave me a director’s-eye view of Twain World—a place with at least five headquarters (in addition to Hannibal: Berkeley, California; Hartford, Connecticut; Elmira, New York; and his birthplace in nearby Florida, Missouri). “They’re wonderful people,” she said. “It’s a great community.” Unfortunately, though, Clemens’ artifacts are spread hither and yon. A 12-foot mirror from his Fifth Avenue New York apartment is in a Dubuque river museum. “It’s crazy!” she said. “They’re all over the place. Florida has the family carriage!” The carriage properly belonged in Hartford, where it had seen regular use by Sam, Olivia and their three daughters, not in the Missouri burg Sammy had left at age 3. I imagined a coordinated multi-party swap happening, like a kidney exchange, where each museum received the goods that suited it.

At Cindy’s suggestion, we repaired in my rental car to two Twain geek haunts—the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where many Clemenses repose (father, mother and brothers Henry and Orion; as for Sam, Olivia and their children, they are all buried in Elmira), and then the Baptist cemetery, where Tom Sawyer read “Sacred to the Memory of So-and-so,” painted on the boards above the graves, and you can read it now on the tombstones that have replaced them. Here, before Tom’s and Huck’s terrified eyes, Injun Joe murdered Dr. Robinson. Cindy told me of her fondness for bringing school-age writers to the cemetery at night and reading that passage to them by candlelight. They huddle close. (Alas, no more. As if to demonstrate the comity in Twain World, not long after my visit, Cindy became executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.)

It’s a big river, as they say, and I had to move on. Comedian Buddy Hackett once said that words with a “k” in them are funny. By this measure Keo­kuk is overqualified. Orion moved to this Iowa river town just across the border from Missouri, and although he characteristically struggled as a newspaper editor, he succeeded in becoming an opponent of slavery, much to the chagrin of young Sam.

I stayed at a B&B on Keokuk’s Grand Avenue, well named for the view of the river the broad street commands from the bluff. In the morning, two bright-eyed, white-shirted couples joined me at the breakfast table. They said they were from Salt Lake City, I said I was from Vermont, and we agreed not to discuss politics. Each couple had a son “on mission,” one in Russia, the other in New Caledonia, and the four of them were on a weeklong pilgrimage along the Mormon Pioneer Trail that traces the migration of the faith’s persecuted forebears from western Missouri east to Illinois, then west again, finally to Utah. They asked about my travels, and I mentioned Mark Twain. One of the men, with an ambiguous smile, said that Mark Twain had written that the Book of Mormon was “a cure for insomnia.” (Actually, “chloro-form in print,” which I didn’t recall at the table. Where was Cindy when I needed her?)

I wanted to ask about their pilgrimage, but I hung fire on the phrasing. “Do all Mormons do this?” would sound as if I saw them as a herd. My every thought seemed rooted in stereotype. The sole coffee drinker at the table, I felt like an alcoholic with each sip. When one of the men checked something on his iPad, I thought, “Hmm, so Mormons are allowed to use iPads.” We parted on the friendliest of terms, but I felt the gulf of a vast difference, created mainly by my ignorance.

I drove north on Grand Avenue, passing homes in a range of styles—Queen Anne, Dutch Colonial Revival, Gothic Revival and Prairie School—all in a six-block stretch. But these piles, unlike the Quincy houses I had admired, did not suggest a neighborhood as much as isolated testaments to an earlier prosperity. The road dropped down, wound along the river and then delivered me without fanfare into the tranquil village of Montrose, with churches sized to match its population. Just to the north, I happened upon one of the reasons the B&B pilgrims had come here. Across the river in Nauvoo, Illinois, beginning in 1839, Mormon settlers cleared swamps and established a town that swiftly grew into the largest in the state. The surrounding communities, threatened by the Mormons’ beliefs—and their success—murdered leader Joseph Smith in 1844, and in 1846 they began to drive the Mormons out of the area. The first to flee crossed the river on ice in February, though many perished, and, at the site where I now stood, the survivors huddled and looked back on the temple and the town they had lost. On the trip so far I had passed several crossings along routes once traveled by Native Americans being forcibly relocated to Indian Territory. This place too, I thought, is a Trail of Tears. I looked down the road, hoping that my B&B pilgrims might come while I was there so that we could become reacquainted on their turf, but the timing wasn’t right.

Onward. The 250-mile Wisconsin segment of the Great River Road recently won a “Most Beautiful Road Trip” survey conducted by the Huffington Post, beating out Hawaii’s Hana Highway and California’s Big Sur Coast Highway. I needed to see it for myself. The next day, I headed out from Dubuque before dawn, crossed into Wisconsin and panicked when the highway seemed to take me at right angles away from the river. But the pilot-wheel signs reassured me and steered me through rolling farmland back to the river. The landscape began to feel different from what I had experienced so far, and I knew why: I was in “the driftless area.” The most recent glacial period in North America, the Wisconsin Glaciation, spared this part of the river basin for reasons “that are poorly understood,” especially by me. “Drift” is the deposit left behind by a glacier (thus the name), but what most distinguishes the terrain is its unscoured range of towering bluffs along the river. These begin to appear about 50 miles north of Dubuque.

The bluffs are one of two surprises in the driftless area. The other is that the river sometimes becomes a lake. Locks and dams are often the cause, flooding upriver sloughs and bottomlands. But Lake Pepin, 21 miles long and so wide that the sight of it is initially disorienting, has a natural origin. At its southern end, Wisconsin’s Chippewa River flows on a steep gradient that delivers massive amounts of sediment into the Mississippi. Over the centuries, the encroaching deposit created a “delta dam,” backing the Mississippi up until it flooded to the bases of the confining bluffs.

Not far from Lake Pepin, I came across a sign for Maiden Rock. The “historical” marker told the tired story of the Indian maiden forcibly betrothed to a brave who was not the brave she loved, the tale climaxing in her despondent plunge to the rocks below. Winona was the maiden’s name, and the cliff looming over me was perfect for the job. Clemens passed by here in 1882—new territory for him, having plied the St. Louis-New Orleans line—and in Life on the Mississippi he tells the tale of Maiden Rock, not in his language but in the inflated style of a professional tour guide who has happened onto the steamboat. In the guide’s version, however, Winona lands on her matchmaking parents, who are gazing upward from below, wondering what their daughter is up to. The impact kills the couple while cushioning Winona’s fall, and she is now free to marry whomever she wishes. The unorthodox denouement, though ostensibly spoken by the humorless guide, is pure Mark Twain. What better way to blast a cliché to flinders?

At one point on the Wisconsin stretch I pulled over to watch a tow approach. I counted the barges: 15, three across and five long, the maximum on the upper river; south of St. Louis, up to 25 barges can be combined. Since the tow was going downriver, it was probably carrying corn or soybeans; upriver loads are more likely to be coal or steel. I watched the pilot navigate a tricky turn, although “tricky” is relative. In Clemens’ day, a pilot navigated by memory and skill at reading nuances in the river’s surface; today, buoys mark a channel 300 feet wide and nine feet deep. Still, it’s not easy. At a museum at the Alton, Illinois, lock and dam, I had entered a pretend pilothouse and bravely manned a panoramic simulator to pilot a tow along a digital St. Louis riverfront—a challenging stretch because of its many bridges with nonaligned pilings. In short order I crashed into the Eads Bridge, but mainly because I was distracted by the anachronistic Admiral I saw moored on the riverfront, a bygone restaurant boat where my wife once had some really bad fish. Later, outside the museum, I watched a northbound tow “lock through”; it rose 20 feet in just 30 minutes, thanks to massive inflow pipes that fill the lock, large enough to drive a truck through. Animals sometimes end up in the pipes—deer, pigs, cattle—and wash into the lock. No human bodies though—I asked. A nice first chapter for a mystery novel, I would think.

Satisfied that the Wisconsin Great River Road deserved its renown, I crossed to Red Wing, Minnesota, and turned around for the trip south.


“Do you love the river?” Terrell Dempsey had surprised me with this blunt question as he guided his pontoon boat toward the dock in Quincy. Before I could answer, his wife said, “We love the river” and then elaborated. As a young woman, Vicki interviewed for her first job in Louisiana, Missouri. Coming from St. Louis, she wasn’t sure that she wanted to live in such a small place until she got a view of the river from a vista above the town. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful,” she said. “I had to live there.” And they did. After a year, what seemed like a better job opportunity arose in Clinton, Missouri. “We hated it,” she said—because it was inland. They moved to Hannibal, to a house three blocks up Hill Street from the Clemens home, and they have lived on the Mississippi ever since.

I met many lovers of the river. An artist at the Applefest in Clarksville, Missouri, told me she had come there decades earlier “with a guy”—she said it in a way that foreshadowed the ending—and then she had happily stayed on “after the guy was long gone.”

In Dubuque, where I toured an old dredge boat called the William M. Black, the amiable guide, Robert Carroll, told me he grew up in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to the grinding roar of dredge boats cleaning out the river channel. He spoke so authoritatively about the William M. Black that I had taken him for a former deckhand. But no—he had spent his adult life as a court reporter in landlocked Cedar Rapids. He moved to Dubuque after he retired. “I missed the river,” he said, though he didn’t have to—I knew it was coming. Carroll now spends his days happily introducing visitors to every rivet on a boat much like the one he heard as a boy.


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