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Saturday
Jul212018

Mark Twain in the Mill City

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

Mark Twain, 1883Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Samuel Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain, rose to celebrity status throughout America and the world.

Growing up in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, he fell in love with the Mississippi, which became the setting for many of his stories such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of his more famous works of non-fiction is his memoir Life on the Mississippi where he recounted his time on the Mighty Mississippi from his young adulthood in Missouri to contemporary times.

To get a better feel of how the river has changed, he embarked on a riverboat journey from St. Louis to New Orleans, then up to Minneapolis where he witnessed the rapid growth of our great city.

The steamboat "Minneapolis" taken in 1870

In late May of 1882, Mark Twain travelled up the river from Iowa to St. Paul in the steamboat “Minneapolis,” and was greeted by thirty-seven-degree weather. Some things don’t seem to change. After taking in the sites of St. Paul, he continued upstream to St. Anthony Falls. Here he noted the beauty of the river bluffs, which are the only bluffs on the entire Mississippi, by saying “where the rough broken turreted rocks stand up against a sky above the steep verdant slope, they are inexpressibly rich and mellow in color — soft dark brown mingled with dull green — the very place to make an artist worship.” During this trek up to Minneapolis, he also noticed other rivercraft filled with families making their way upstream looking for a fresh start.

Once Mark Twain reached Minneapolis, he quickly observed the prosperity of the city and made the claim that “the Siamese twins would eventually rival in prestige and numbers the metropolis at the other end of the great waterway, New Orleans.” This prediction was not wrong. According to 2017 estimates, the cites of New Orleans and Minneapolis have populations of 401,221 and 422,331 respectively, while the metro areas of New Orleans and the Twin Cites have populations of 1,262,888 and 3,551,036. The evidence Mark Twain saw to make such a claim was the many mills, schools, railroads, and newspapers, as well has the up and coming University of Minnesota, as it was “not confined to enlightening the one sex.” This is praise that would make anyone proud of their city. While he noted the rapid success of Minneapolis, he also took in the natural beauty of the Twin Cities and took trips to Minnehaha Falls and White Bear Lake.

The only other time Mark Twain visited Minneapolis was four years later in 1886 when he and his daughters travelled from Buffalo, New York to Keokuk, Iowa to visit his aging mother. Intending to have a relaxing visit in Minneapolis, he arrived via train from Duluth with the press and paparazzi waiting for him at the train station and hotel. He tried his best to give the reporters what they wanted, but he did not have the same energy he had four years earlier. During his visit, he drove around the city with his daughters and stopped at Minnehaha Falls once again to take in its beauty one last time before departing downstream to Keokuk.

The man who brought the Mississippi River into popular culture had only good things to say about the Twin Cities and Minneapolis, except for maybe the weather, but who can really blame him for that? I can write about how great and important various spots of our city are, but it’s tough to know what it was really like. Pictures can only do so much, but when one of our country’s greatest authors is impressed by our city and predicted its growth and prosperity, that adds another layer of evidence that Minneapolis’ ability to impress tourists with its beauty and success started from day one.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 5+ years.

He can be reached at mrainvillejr@comcast.net.

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