Mark Twain’s Big Sky Tour
Twain’s Mastery Delighted Audiences, Disarmed Soldiers, Condemned the Corrupt
BY GEORGE EVERETT
Long after his stints as a newspaperman in the gold and silver camps of Virginia City, Nevada, 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.
"It is doubtful if Maguire's opera house ever contained a more delighted audience than the one that filled it tonight to listen to Mark Twain. From his first story of the night on the subject of a coroner 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, and then the one about the man who recalled 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 program, the ghost story about the golden arm.
"After 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."
The enjoyment of the evening seems to have been mutual, too, as Twain later indicated 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.
On Saturday, August 3, Twain arrived in Helena for an appearance at Ming's Opera House. The event attracted the rich, 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 that he was invited to the Fort to review the troops.
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 print against the imperialism of the United States in the Phillipines.
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."
Source: Trowbridge and Clemens, Rufus A. Coleman, made Professor Emeritus at Montana State Univer-sity in 1956.
George Everett lives on Butte’s Upper West side near the Anselmo Mineyard with his wife Barbara and his son Ben.