It is said success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Mark Twain, the great American humorist would have probably agreed with this sentiment. As one of America’s most successful authors, the origin of Mark Twain’s success also has a few claimants, a conundrum Twain, who honed his writing skills in the mining towns of the gold rush, would have taken with a wink. Mark Twain is probably more associated with the southern life of the Mississippi, where his more famous novels of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” were set, recalling the days of his boyhood. His pen name was taken from his days on a Mississippi Riverboat, meaning the sounding measurement of the river bottom, but Twain’s writing career began in the ink stained daily newspapers of the west.
Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, after the tragic death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion, and riverboat traffic on the Mississippi was suspended with beginning of the Civil War, Samuel Clemens traveled west in 1861 with his brother, who’d been named secretary to the governor of the new Nevada Territory. While his brother set up in Carson City, Sam Clemens headed to Virginia City, the rough and tumble town which had almost instantly spring up around the Comstock Lode silver discovery. He tried his hand at mining, but having worked briefly as a typesetter apprentice in New York, he soon found a job at the local town newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, which had just recently moved its office from Genoa (see Mormon Station-Genoa). It was in Virginia City that Sam Clemens first used the penname “Mark Twain”, signing it on a humorous account of his travels with his brother “A Letter from Carson”. He worked at the paper in Nevada for about two and a half years, before heading out further west to San Francisco in 1864, stopping for a summer in the California gold hills of the Sierras, living in a log cabin near Angels Camp in Calaveras County (see Angels Camp Calaveras).
The name of Mark Twain gained fame with the publishing of “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” hilariously recalling the tale of Smiley and his Frog with a belly full of buckshot. Now depending on who’s telling the tale, Sam Clemens heard this story in a saloon one rainy winter’s night in Angels Camp and merely repeated it. Or he heard it on the wagon trek west from Missouri through Utah. In Virginia City, you’ll hear he heard it in the drunken bars around the faro tables there. In truth, it may have been a story he liked to tell himself, honed and embellished over and over with contributions from the many places he’d been and outrageous characters he’d met among the miners of west.
In Virginia City, a town mostly passed by the modern world, which lives mostly on tourist visiting its living historic past, where you’ll find a street of curious museums and saloons with historic gambling tables among the scattered slot machines, the Mark Twain Museum is located in the basement of a doll and clothing store on Main Street. The building housed the office of the Territorial Enterprise where Samuel L. Clemens transformed into Mark Twain. A fire which ravaged the town in 1875, burned the building where the newspaper was printed to the ground (see Comstock Fireman's Museum). Fortunately for posterity, it didn’t burn below ground. Several pieces of equipment had been moved to the basement for storage, including a desk, where Mark Twain may have sat to compose some of his reports of the happenings of Virginia City, his humorous takes on miners, murders and ghosts, and even his own “mugging” robbery staged by his friends.
Also in the basement, now the Mark Twain Museum of Virginia City, you’ll find composition tables and printing tools which were in use during the author’s time there, a steam operated printing press from 1863, as well as a crapper head where the humorist more than likely sat on occasion, to ponder a story angle, though no particular documentary evidence survives of Mark Twain’s evacuatory habits. Other artifacts of the printing trade and the history of Virginia City, the Comstock Lode and the Territorial Enterprise can be found under the high ceiling, a noted feature of Virginia City, perhaps to accommodate the tale tales. In the basement you’ll notice windows which would appear to look out into the earth. In the early days of Virginia City, tunnels under the streets allowed for deliveries of goods below ground, apparently not to disturb drunks in the mud on the streets above. The tunnels are no longer in use, but the windows to nowhere remain a look into the past. The Mark Twain Museum is well worth the few bucks to visit, open during store hours. © Bargain Travel West
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