“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
“The Innocents Abroad” By Mark Twain

Travels and travails

Mention Mark Twain and you probably think of the adventures of  Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Adventure was something of a theme in Twain’s life. He brought those adventures to life through his writing and his lecturer tours.

Best known for two books,  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  and  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain himself was an avid world traveller, some of his trips brought about by necessity after he went broke.

Often his transport of choice was a train. In the US, a train was named for him. More on that later.

Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens  on 30 November 1835, in Florida, Missouri, the  sixth of seven children of Jane and John Marshall Clemens. Only three children survived childhood.

Twain’s family moved to the port town of Hannibal, Missouri, when he was four. Slavery was legal in Missouri at the time and became a theme in his most famous books.

His father was an attorney and judge, who died of pneumonia in 1847, when Twain was 11. The following year, Twain left school after the fifth grade to become a printer’s apprentice. In 1851, he began work as a typesetter, producing articles and humorous drawings for the Hannibal Journal newspaper .When he was 18, he left Hannibal and worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.

He educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, noting that he learned more there than at a formal school.

But like some of his young friends, the lure of good money for marine work was a long-held ambition.

He had his eyes on the job of a boatman. He noted:  “Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days of trivial wages, had a princely salary – from a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.”

It took him more than two years to get his pilot’s license. Piloting also gave him his pen name from “mark twain”, from the leadsman’s cry for a measured river depth of two fathoms (12 feet), which was safe water for a steamboat.

Twain eventually gave away life on the water to head to Nevada with  his brother Orion, where he set himself up as a miner. He failed at mining, so he went back to something with which he was familiar and a job at the Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise,

It was his experiences in the “west” that led to him into writing and his humorous musings  brought him some notice. In 1864 Twain moved to San Francisco, still as a journalist.

His first real success as a writer came with the humorous tale, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published on 18 November, 1865, in the New York weekly The Saturday Press, gaining him national attention.

In 1867, a local newspaper funded his trip to the Mediterranean aboard the Quaker City, including a tour of Europe and the Middle East. He wrote a collection of travel letters which were later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869).

Twain married Olivia Langdon (the sister of a man he met on the Quaker City) in  Elmira, New York in February 1870,

They lived in Buffalo, New York, until 1872.  Twain took a stake in the Buffalo Express newspaper and worked as an editor and writer. While they were living in Buffalo, their son Langdon died of diphtheria at the age of 19 months. They had three daughters: Susy (1872–1896), Clara (1874–1962),and Jean (1880–1909).

In November 1872, Twain was a passenger on the Cunard Line steamship Batavia which rescued the nine surviving crew of the British barque Charles Ward. Twain wrote to the Royal Humane Society recommending and honour for Batavia‘s captain and the crew.

Twain moved his family to Hartford, Connecticut, from 1873.

Twain wrote many of his classic novels during his 17 years in Hartford (1874–1891) and over 20 summers at Quarry Farm, Elmira, where they spent many summers and where Twain did much writing.

His works included The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Twain has been referred to as “The Father of American Literature.”

The couple were married for 34 years;  Olivia died in 1904. All the Clemens family are buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Twain is said to have been fascinated with science and scientific inquiry. He developed a close friendship with inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. Twain spent considerable time in Tesla’s laboratory.

He patented three inventions, including an “Improvement in Adjustable and Detachable Straps for Garments” (to replace suspenders) and a history trivia game. Most commercially successful was a self-pasting scrapbook; a dried adhesive on the pages needed only to be moistened before use (more than 25,000 were sold).

Twain was an early proponent of fingerprinting as a forensic technique, featuring it in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and as a central plot element in the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894).

Twain made considerable money from his  writing, but he lost much of it  through investments. He invested mostly in inventions and technology, particularly the Paige typesetting machine. Though it was an exceptional machine when it worked, it was prone to breakdowns and eventually lost out to the invention of the Linotype.

That cost him most  of his book profits, as well as much of his wife’s inheritance.

Twain also lost money by way of his publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company, which failed to produce a top-seller..

By 1895, Mark Twain, was broke.

In July 1895, Twain – recovering from financial ruin – undertook a year-long, around-the-world lecture tour (150 lectures were scheduled) to pay off his creditors in full, although he was not under any legal obligation to do so.

The 13-month lecture tour would take him (accompanied by wife Olivia and daughter Clara)  from America to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, India and finally England.

In September 1895, he arrived in Watsons Bay in Sydney aboard the RMS Warrimoo, to give “at home” talks in a number of cities.

Described by Melbourne advertising posters as “the funniest man in the world”,  Twain packed the house wherever he spoke. He made good money.


Mark Twain visited  Australia and New Zealand  from September of 1895 to January of 1896.

In Australia, he travelled mostly by train, from Sydney to Melbourne and even ventured out to  Geelong, Castlemaine, Hobart, Maryborough, the Blue Mountains, the Hawkesbury River, Stawell, Newcastle and Scone.

It is hard to know if he was an avid train and railway enthusiast. He wrote a lot about trains though.

His reaction to having to change trains overnight at the break-of-gauge on the NSW-Victoria border is well-documented.

He noted: “Now comes a singular thing: the oddest thing, the strangest thing, the most baffling and unaccountable marvel that Australia can show. At the frontier between New South Wales and Victoria our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth; imagine the boulder it emerged from on some petrified legislator’s shoulders. It is a narrow-gauge road (he meant to say ‘standard’) to the frontier, and a broader gauge thence to Melbourne. The two governments are the builders of the road and are the owners of it. One or two reasons are given for this curious state of things. One is that it represents the jealousy between the colonies, the two most important colonies of Australasia.”

He recorded some of his travels in More Tramps Abroad (1897).

Twain  made it out to Maryborough in central Victoria where he found an impressive bit of infrastructure that prompted him to write: “Don’t you overlook that Maryborough station, if you take an interest in governmental curiosities. Why, you can put the whole population of Maryborough into it, and give them a sofa apiece, and have room for more.”

Twain had also travelled by train in India, in 1925.

He wrote:

“Inside the great station, tides upon tides of rainbow-costumed natives swept along, this way and that, in massed and bewildering confusion, eager, anxious, belated, distressed; and washed up to the long trains and flowed into them with their packs and bundles, and disappeared, followed at once by the next wash, the next wave. And here and there, in the midst of this hurly-burly, and seemingly undisturbed by it, sat great groups of natives on the bare stone floor, young, slender brown women, old, gray wrinkled women, little soft brown babies, old men, young men, boys; all poor people, but all the females among them, both big and little, bejewelled with cheap and showy nose-rings, toe-rings, leglets, and armlets, these things constituting all their wealth, no doubt. These silent crowds sat there with their humble bundles and baskets and small household gear about them, and patiently waited–for what? A train that was to start at some time or other during the day or night! They hadn’t timed themselves well, but that was no matter–the thing had been so ordered from on high, therefore why worry? There was plenty of time, hours and hours of it, and the thing that was to happen would happen – there was no hurrying it.”


A railroad is like a lie — you have to keep building to it to make it stand. A railroad is a ravenous destroyer of towns, unless those towns are put at the end of it and a sea beyond, so that you can’t go further and find another terminus. And it is shaky trusting them, even then, for there is no telling what may be done with trestle-work.
– Letter to the San Francisco Alta California, printed May 26, 1867



Back home in the US, the traveller, author and raconteur was honoured with his name on a train – the Mark Twain Zephyr. Unfortunately it suffered an inglorious demise.

The train was one of nine  self-propelled sets built for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and was designed for regular service between St. Louis and Burlington, Iowa.

The train’s name came courtesy of one of the stops — Hannibal, Mo., home of Mark Twain. In fact, the year the route began was the 100th anniversary of Twain’s birth.

Built in 1935 — a year after the Pioneer Zephyr, the first of the class — the Mark Twain  was the fourth Zephyr built.

The Mark Twain Zephyr was sent out on to the tracks in 1935, christened by Nina Clemens Gabilowitsch who was the granddaughter and ultimately last descendant of Mark Twain. It comprised some of the earliest streamlined passenger cars.

It set a top speed of 188 km/h in trials, which puts many of today’s modern American passenger services to shame. Its normal operating speed was from 64-95 km/h.

The train was built to operate the 711 km St Louis and Burlington round trip, carrying 92 passengers. One of its stops was Hannibal, home of Mark Twain.

Most of its service history was carrying passengers and mail on a route that followed the Mississippi River along Iowa and Missouri until 1958.

Each of the four cars was named after a character from one of Twain’s books. Injun Joe carried the power unit and mail compartment; Beck Thatcher was the baggage car; Huckleberry Finn was the kitchen and dining car and Tom Sawyer was a passenger car with a rear observation lounge.

The train also was air-conditioned, believed to be among the first American passenger trains to be so equipped.

The service began on what would have been Twain’s 100th birthday; he died of a heart attack on 21 April 1910, aged 74.

The train was built from stainless steel by the Budd company and was powered by a 660 hp, 8-cylinder, 2-cycle diesel engine designed by General Motors, and built by the Electro Motive Corporation.

High speeds were achieved by way of an unusual design. By articulating the 85 m long train, three trucks and 34 wheels were eliminated from what a conventional train with a steam locomotive and three cars would have, resulting in significant weight reduction. The front part of one car and the rear of the preceding one rested upon the same truck, held together by a sleeve joint, allowing it to round curves efficiently. Roller bearings were applied to all axles reducing friction, and maintenance.

When the railroad retired the Mark Twain train in May 1963 after first switching it back and forth to various Zephyr routes, it passed through several hands where with good intentions restoration was planned. But the train ended up sitting pretty much abandoned as a shell of its former glorious self, awaiting an investor willing to fund its restoration, apparently an unlikely outcome due to the extensive cost.

But when it seemed there was little hope of the Mark Twain Zephyr plying the rails again, up stepped the  Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad in 2020 with a dozen full-time employees and some willing volunteers in Trego, Wisconsin, setting about refurbishing the engine, three passenger cars and a baggage car. Restoration was expected to be completed in 2021.

Wit and Wisdom

“′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

“Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.”


“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Sources: TROVE (newspaper archives), biography.com, history.com, goodreads.com, wikipedia.

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