Seattle Now & Then: Mark Twain on the Waterfront, 1895

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In a photo likely snapped by manager James B. Pond, Mark Twain pauses in August 1895 on the deck of the Flyer, a 170-foot steamboat making daily trips between Seattle and Tacoma. It sported a full restaurant that served, among other delicacies, mock turtle soup — a pottage of calf brains and organ meat with onions. With a cruising speed of 16 knots, the trim steamer could outrun almost anything else on the Sound. In service between 1891 and 1929, she finally was displaced by car ferries. (Ron Edge collection)
NOW: Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey approximates Twain’s waterfront location in a visit to a Colman Dock construction site. “I dressed to catch echoes of that not-so-distant age of horse-drawn wagons, steamships and Klondike gold,” Horsey says. “My great-grandparents already lived in Seattle then. Who knows? They might have been in the audience when Mark Twain took the stage to share his wit.” (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on March 19, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on March 22, 2020)

Roughing It on the waterfront with Mark Twain, 1895
By Jean Sherrard

In the hot, dry summer of 1895, virgin timber burned throughout the Pacific Northwest. For locals who only seven years before had witnessed the Great Seattle Fire that reduced 30 downtown blocks into piles of ash, the suffocating, brown pall must have evoked unpleasant memories.

On Aug. 13, when a 59-year old Mark Twain (given name: Samuel Clemens) stepped onto Colman Dock, his eyes and throat were irritated by not only the smoke but also the ill effects of a rare cold.

Earlier, the chair of a reception committee had tendered profuse apologies: “I’m sorry the smoke is so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests.”

“I regret that your magnificent forests are being destroyed by fire,” replied Twain. “As for the smoke … I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”

Nevertheless, he may have considered delaying or canceling his sold-out performance that evening at the Seattle Theater, Third and Cherry — a 90-minute comedic lecture with an unlikely subject: “Morals” — were it not for his recent bankruptcy and pressing need for cash.

Internationally celebrated for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and its sequel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (widely considered the greatest American novel) as well as humorous short stories and travelogues such as “Roughing It,” Twain was less fortunate when it came to money. An ill-advised publishing venture, compounded by the crash of 1893, had left him more than $80,000 in debt, which he felt honor-bound to repay.

“I do not enjoy the hard travel and broken rest inseparable from lecturing,” he said, “but writing is too slow for the demands that I have to meet. Therefore I have begun to lecture my way around the world.”

Entreated by Australian promoter Carlyle Smythe, who long had sought his participation in a tour abroad, Twain committed to a packed set of performances across the northern United States, then to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

His friend and manager, Major James B. Pond, who accompanied him on the U.S. portion of the tour, described Twain’s reception here: “A great audience in Seattle … The sign ‘Standing Room Only’ was out again. He was hoarse, but the hoarseness seemed to augment the volume of his voice.”

Critics concurred. “A great literary improvisation,” gushed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “To tell the story of such a lecture is like trying to narrate a laugh.”

In Victoria 10 days later, accompanied by beloved wife Olivia and daughter Clara, Twain boarded the Warimoo, bound for Australia. Before departure, Pond recalled, the perpetual smoker bought 3,000 “Manila cheroots” (cigars) and four pounds of Durham tobacco, calculated to be just enough for the month-long voyage.


A special thanks to David Horsey and Colleen Chartier for the assist. For Jean’s narrated 360 degree video, click here.

The helpful line up. Washington State Dept. of Transportation helped us with access to the dock construction site. From left, Alan Johnson, Sharon Gavin (Communications Manager), David Horsey, and Colleen Chartier.

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