Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What did Mark Twain do in Missoula 115 years ago?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 23, 2010 at 1:30 PM

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Former Congressman and current UM professor Pat Williams writes columns regularly, usually of the political variety, and sends them to local papers. This isn't one of those.

Here, Williams takes a sweet look back at Mark Twain's connection to Montana, and a trio of anniversaries that occur this month.

Williams' full column below:

In 1895 at the age of 59 Mark Twain began a world tour, in which he performed in more Montana cities (five) than in any other state.

Departing Elmira, New York, with his wife and daughter Clara, Twain began the tour. Traveling by train across the northern states, the first stop was Cleveland. Twain wrote in his journal, “4,200 people present at prices ranging from 25 cents to $1.00.” From Ohio they traveled to Michigan’s Mackinac Island where he lectured in the Grand Hotel. Still in existence, it remains a wonderful, gleaming, white Victorian hostelry 100 feet above Lake Huron.

Twain next performed in Duluth, Minn., and then in Crookston, Minn. The tour train crossed North Dakota and into Montana with his first performance in Great Falls. He was relieved to arrive there following a long train ride from Minnesota. According to Robert Cooper and his fine book “Around the World with Mark Twain,” a serious leg infection had plagued Twain until his arrival in Great Falls when for the first time “Clemens felt well enough to walk outside.”

Mr. Paris Gibson, the founder of the city, escorted the family to the Giant Springs and the nearby Great Falls of the Missouri. The Rainbow Dam, which would inundate the falls, was still two years from construction.

That evening Twain lectured at the Opera House, a building which stood for the next 60 years. Tired from the long day’s trip to Giant Springs and his lingering leg infection, Twain was disappointed in his evening’s performance. The next morning the family boarded the train to Butte where he performed that evening at Maguire’s Grand Opera House. Twain entertained for an hour and a half with stories about Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, the jumping frog, and his own efforts to steal a watermelon. The next day’s newspaper reported, according to Butte historian George Everett, “It is doubtful if Maguire’s Opera House ever contained a more delighted audience.” The Grand Opera House is now a vacant lot at 40 W. Broadway in downtown Butte.

Twain, too, was pleased, writing in his journal how he enjoyed the Butte audience, “intellectual and dressed in perfect taste—London, Parisian, New York audience—out in the mines.” Then on to the elegant Silver Bow Club for champagne and stories. Twain, it was noted, ordered scotch. The tour’s next stop was Anaconda where Twain rested overnight at Marcus Daly’s sumptuous Montana Hotel and the following day performed at the then nearby Evans Opera House.

The tour reached Helena where Twain was the guest of honor at the Montana Club. The historian Robert Cooper relates that a few people arrived from Twain’s former stomping grounds Virginia City, Nevada. A toast to Twain was interrupted by one of those Nevada guests who shouted, “Before we go further, I want to say to you, Sam Clemens, that you did me a dirty trick…and I’ve come here to have a settlement with you.” A long awkward silence followed and Twain finally responded, “Let’s see. That was before I reformed wasn’t it?” The drinks and laughter resumed. Only eight years later the elegant club was destroyed by fire and a new Montana Club was built on the site.

Twain’s next stop was Missoula where he rested at the original Florence Hotel and lectured at Missoula’s Bennett Opera House. The next day Twain visited Fort Missoula and its 25th U.S. Colored Regiment. Twain, who all his life had deplored the bigotry and racism he found throughout America, happily noted that “black officers were saluted just like any other.”

On Aug. 6, 1895, Twain left Montana. The tour would take them to the Fiji Islands, Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, and South America. His journey had lasted one year and one day. Leaving Cape Town, South Africa, for his return to America, Mark Twain said, “I seem to have been lecturing for a thousand years.”

This month of February, 2010, marks a triple anniversary of Twain: the 175th anniversary of his birth, the 125th anniversary of the publication of the great novel Huckleberry Finn, and the 100th year since Twain’s death.

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