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Opinion | Charles Burdick: Mark Twain Revisits Grand Tower
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Opinion | Charles Burdick: Mark Twain Revisits Grand Tower

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Charles Burdick

Charles Burdick

In 1882, Mark Twain returned to the river to revisit some of the towns and landings he had become familiar with as a river pilot from 1857 to 1861.

In 1861, the Civil War had closed the Mississippi River at Cairo and all points south. Thus ended his river career and he went out west with a brother and started working for a newspaper. This is when he adopted the pen name, Mark Twain. Now twenty-one years later he left St Louis for New Orleans aboard the Packet Boat, Gold Dust.

Grand Tower was one of the towns revisited on his journey south.  The following is from his book, "Life on the Mississippi." 

“The scenery from St. Louis to Cairo, two hundred miles, is varied and beautiful. The hills were clothed in the fresh foliage of spring now, and were a gracious and worthy setting for the broad river flowing between. Our trip began auspiciously, with a perfect day, as to breeze and sunshine, and our boat threw the miles out behind her with satisfactory dispatch.

We found a railway at Chester, Illinois; Chester has also a penitentiary now, and is otherwise marching on.  At Grand Tower too, there was a railway; and another at Cape Girardeau.  Grand Tower gets its name from a huge, squat pillow of rock, which stands up out of the water on the Missouri side of the river---a piece of nature’s fanciful handiwork — and is one of the most picturesque features of the scenery of that region.

For nearer or remoter neighbors, the town has the Devil’s Bake Oven — so called perhaps, because it does not powerfully resemble anybody else’s bake oven; and the Devil’s Tea Table — this latter a great smooth-surfaced mass of rock, with diminishing wine glass stem, perched some fifty or sixty feet above the river, beside a beflowered and garlanded precipice, and sufficiently like a tea table to answer for anybody, Devil or Christian.  Away down the river we have the Devil’s Elbow and the Devil’s Race-course and lots of other property of his I cannot now call to mind.

The town of Grand Tower was evidently a busier place than it had been in old times, but it seemed to need some repairs here and there, and a new coat of whitewash all over.  Still, it was pleasant to me to see the old coat once more.  “Uncle” Mumford, our second officer, said the place had been suffering from high water and consequently was not looking its best now.  But he said it was not strange that it didn’t waste whitewash on itself, for more lime was made there, and of a better quality, than anywhere in the west; and added— “On a dairy farm you never can get milk for your coffee, nor any sugar for it on a sugar plantation; and it is against sense to go to a lime town to hunt for whitewash.”  In my own experience I knew the first two items to be true; and also that people that sell candy don’t care for candy; therefore there was plausibility in Uncle Mumford’s final observation that “people who make lime, run more to religion than whitewash.”  Uncle Mumford said further, that Grand Tower was a great coaling center and a prospering place.”   

Samuel Clemens was born in 1835 and he died in 1910 in Connecticut.  He became a Humorist and author after leaving the river.  He wrote many books which became American classic, such as The adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi.  When a river pilot he had got  to know several of the townspeople of Grand Tower, while the boat was loading or unloading freight. They had made regular stops here while Twain was a pilot and he visited the shops around town.

Charles F. Burdick is a lifelong resident of Grand Tower. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and then went on to a 42-year Maritime career including 35 years as Master Pilot. He has been retired for 23 years and enjoys local history and writing poetry.

Charles F. Burdick is a lifelong resident of Grand Tower. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and then went on to a 42-year Maritime career including 35 years as Master Pilot. He has been retired for 27 years and enjoys local history and writing poetry.

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