- Mark Twain's
Trip to Butte
- by George
Everett (with a grateful nod to Rufus A. Coleman)
- Long after his stints
as a newspaperman in the gold and silver camps of Virginia City,
Samuel L. Clemens was a nationally famous writer and speaker
known as Mark Twain. Even as he continued to write during his
most prolific period, In the 1880s and 1890s he began to invest
in a publishing company and to seek out and invest in new technology.
His misguided faith in an invention, the Paige typesetting machine,
and the failure of his publishing company after its
initial success publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, forced
Twain to conclude that his only option to avoid personal bankruptcy
was to "mount the platform next fall or starve."
In 1895, at 59, Twain began a world lecturing tour to retire
his heavy debts. Starting with an engagement in Cleveland, Ohio,
on July 15, 1895 he headed west by train with his wife, Olivia,
and daughter Clara, on a tour arranged by Major James B. Pond.
The tour would continue until July 1896 as he talked his way
around the world across the United States and Canada, then Australia,
New Zealand, India, Ceylon, Mauritius, and South Africa. His
ship would depart from Victoria, British Columbia and to get
there he would have to cross the Pacific Northwest. This led
to the scheduling of five engagements in Montana, then rich with
the profits of mining and smelting and starving for entertainment.
The world tour would soon after be reprised in his travel book
Following the Equator although the trip from Cleveland
to the coast by way of Montana would merit only a sentence: "It
was warm work, all the way, and the last fortnight of it was
suffocatingly smoky, for in Oregon and British Columbia, the
forest fires were raging."
On July 31, Twain arrived in Great
Falls and spent some time sightseeing. He told reporters that
"Great Falls is one of the prettiest towns in the West,
resembling Denver of a few years ago, except that the buildings
are finer than those in Denver."
Twain and his entourage visited the Giant Springs, the smelter
at Black Eagle and then they stopped at a shanty owned by a Norwegian
family on the edge of town. Twain, a cat lover, stopped to hold
two kittens and joked with the children, offering to buy their
pets and take them home.
As a result of his forays, he was fatigued and his performace
that night was not up to his own high standards, although there
is no indication that the audience was disappointed. He attended
a reception at the Electric City Club afterwards. On the train
to Butte the next day, Twain stewed in the juices of his own
self rebuke, while Major Pond blamed his funk on the altitude
and the lightness of the air.
In Butte, Twain regained his form to his own satisfaction and
on the evening of August 1st, he entertained a packed audience
in John Maguire's Opera House. The review of the event the following
day in the Anaconda Standard under the title of
"Mark's All Right: He Can Keep an Audience in an Uproar
Without an Effort," was brief but glowing and also provides
a record of the stories retold by Twain in his Butte appearance.
is doubtful if Maguire's opera house ever contained a more delighted
audience than the one that filled it to-night to listen to Mark
Twain. From his first story of the night he spent with a coroner's
subject until he startled the audience out of their seats by
the sudden ending of his ghost story, the people laughed until
laughing became painful. He spoke for an hour and a half and
told the ludicrous story of the jumping frog, the story about
Huckleberry Finn when his feeling got the best of his "consciences"
while aiding "Jim," the slave to escape. Greater was
the man who started to tell about an experience his granfdfather
had with a ram, but just before reaching the thrilling part of
his narrative wandered from his subject and never got back to
it. The story reminded many people in the audience of a well-known
citizen of Butte.
Then came the story about Mr. Twain's
first theft, when he stole a watermelon from a peddler's wagon,
and finding that it was green, how his conscience troubled him,
until he returned it to the peddler and made him give him a ripe
one in exchange for it. The next narrative was about Tom Sawyer's
crusade and that was followed with the final number of the programme,
the ghost story about the golden arm.
the lecture many were honored with an introduction to the noted
humorist and called on him at the Butte Hotel where Mr. Clemens,
wife and daughter and Major J.B. Pond and wife are stopping.
of the evening seems to have been mutual, too, as Twain later
wrote in his diary, "Butte,Mont. Aug.1. Beautiful audience.
Compact, intellectual and dressed in perfect taste. It surprised
me to find this London-Parisian-New York audience out in the
mines." One account has Twain retiring to the Silver Bow
Club after the reception in his hotel to drink toddies and swap
stories with Butte's most affluent.
- An engagement
was hastily arranged for the following evening at the Evans Opera
House in Anaconda. Twain approved the date in the Smelter City
as a favor to a friend because he was acquainted with the manager
of the Evans from his early days in Virginia City, Nevada. When
Twain and Pond left the hotel to take the short train ride to
Anaconda, they almost missed it when a power outage stopped their
electric streetcar in its tracks three blocks from the hotel.
They had to hitch a ride to the depot on a horse-drawn delivery
cart, galloping down Arizona Street in time to catch the last
passenger train of the day to Anaconda.
- Anaconda provided
the only financial disappointment of the entire world tour. Dismal
ticket sales resulted from the lack of advance publicity, and
the fact that few of the foreign-born smelter workers at that
time spoke English, even fewer read English literature, and fewer
still appreciated the irony and the idiom of Twain's humorous
stories. When Twain learned of the poor receipts he insisted
that Major Pond refund his friend at the Evans $100 to compensate
for his lost revenues. Twain retained a kinship for anyone he
had met during his days in Nevada and Montana had attracted many
of these old veterans to the mining camps and boomtowns of the
On Saturday, August 3, Twain arrived in Helena for an appearance
at the Ming's Opera House. The event attracted the rich and famous
and powerful of the state and they all attended a reception afterwards
at the opulent Montana Club. Once again, Twain's Western past
jumped up and bit him from behind. As the state's political and
financial elite proposed a toast to the guest of honor, suddenly
one diner rose to object: "Hold on a minute; before we can
go further I want to say to you, Sam Clemens, that you did me
a damned dirty trick over there in Silver City and I've come
here to have a settlement with you."
After an awkward silence, Twain spoke, "Let's see, That
was before I reformed, wasn't it?" Senator Sanders used
the opportunity to defuse the situation by suggesting that as
Twain's challenger had not reformed, all should forgive him for
his outburst and drink together, which everyone did.
Twain's last Montana venue was the next day in Missoula where
that evening he appeared on stage at the Bennett Theatre attended
in force by officers and their wives from nearby Fort Missoula.
The next morning, Twain reported as invited to the Fort to review
the troops there.
At the time,
seven companies of the 25th Infantry, black troopers known as
buffalo soldiers, were stationed at Fort Missoula. Two years
later the 25th would participate in an experiment to test the
efficiency of the bicycle for use to transport combat troops.
They peddled combat ready to St. Louis from Fort Missoula through
the most rugged terrain they could find along the way, including
Yellowstone National Park.
Along with the 24th Infantry, also composed of buffalo soldiers,
the 25th would then go on to distinguish themselves in combat
in Cuba during the Spanish-American War at the same time that
Twain would go on to rail in writing against the imperialism
of the United States in the Phillipines.
In 1895, instead of being met by an honor guard, Twain was abruptly
"arrested" by a sergeant who told Twain he had orders
to take him to the guardhouse. After a lively session of swapping
tall tales with his jailers, he was soon released and allowed
to review the troops as they paraded for his benefit to the accompaniment
of a 30-piece band. That afternoon they left by train for Spokane,
Washington, to continue on around the world, to return home safe
and solvent, but never to return to Montana again.
This does not mean, however, that Montana would never again capture
Twain's attention or the caustic thrust of his pen. In 1907,
Twain attended a dinner in New York City to honor the Copper
King and new Senator from Montana, William A. Clark whom Twain
considered anything but honorable. Afterwards he wrote a scathing
essay titled Senator Clark of Montana that contained the following
commentary on the Treasure State's U.S. Senator:
"He is said to have bought legislatures and judges as other
men buy food and raiment. By his example he has so excused and
so sweetened corruption that in Montana it no longer has has
an offensive smell. His history is known to everybody; he is
as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag;
he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to
send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place
was the penitentiary, with a ball and chain on his legs. To my
mind he is the most disgusting creature that the republic has
produced since Tweed's time."