“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.” ~ Mark Twain
Embark on a new adventure with an old friend
TAMING HUCK FINN, inspired by Mark Twain’s iconic adventurer, begins in the summer of 1870 in Atchison, Kansas, which served as a bustling port along the Missouri River.
In those days, steamboats transported goods to settlements and army forts up and down the river, as well as hauling miners traveling to and from the Montana gold fields. Freedom-loving Huck Finn works as a part-time steamboat pilot when he’s not off searching for gold.
The sprawling, unpredictable Missouri River provides the perfect landscape for my story about a restless man whose goal is to stay one step ahead of civilization.
In those days, it took nerves of steel to pilot a steamboat on the wild, untamed Missouri River. A few of the things steamboat pilots encountered: elusive, ill-defined and ever-changing channels, getting stranded in low water, innumerable and often invisible snags, whirlpools, Indian attacks–to name but a few.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, close to 300 steamboats went down in the river between 1830 and 1902. Historians estimate almost half of all the boats that plied the Missouri were lost to various accidents, with snags taking most of them to their watery grave. The “Muddy Mo” had a voracious appetite for steamboats!
Near Kansas City, a construction company dug up a steamboat from the 1850s out of a farm field (the river had long since changed course). While there were no human casualties, the boat went down with its entire load of supplies. The Steamboat Arabia exhibit at the Kansas City riverfront is filled with some of the most well preserved displays of 19th century goods you’ll find anywhere.
Far West pilothouse replica
courtesy Dave Thomson Gallery
The type of boat Huck pilots is a “mountain boat.” These sternwheelers were smaller and lighter, equipped with spars, which were a bit like stilts to help the boat “walk” over obstacles. One of the best-known mountain boats was the Far West, piloted by Captain Grant Marsh.
A replica of the Far West pilothouse shows a pair of antelope antlers mounted in front to indicate it was a “fast boat” — Grant made a record-breaking run down the Missouri River in 1876 after he picked up the wounded from the Battle of Little Big Horn.
Packet steamboating on the Missouri River lasted from the 1820s to the 1880s, with the greatest period of activity between 1840 and 1860. The railroads contributed primarily to the demise of steamboat business by siphoning off long-haul passenger and freight business. In 1867, there were 71 steamers regularly plying the Missouri River. Three years later there were only 9. (Wild River, Wooden Boats, Michael Gillespie, Heritage Press).
Some of the landing points mentioned in Taming Huck Finn were busy ports in the 1870s: Weston, Missouri, Sioux City, Iowa, Fort Sully in the Dakota Territory, Kansas City, and eventually St. Louis, where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers converge.
His greatest adventure is about to catch up with him.
Steamboat pilot Huck Finn lives life on his own terms and steers clear of messy entanglements that might tie him down—until he takes charge of an orphaned boy that needs rescuing.
Starched and proper, Miss Hallie MacBride is determined to atone for past sins by raising her estranged sister’s son. She doesn’t expect footloose Mr. Finn to challenge her, much less up and run off with her nephew.
On a wild journey fraught with danger, a freedom-loving adventurer and an avowed spinster battle over the destiny of a young boy, who is doing his level best to convince them they belong together.
June 2, 1870, Atchison, Kansas
“What you layin’ in there for, mister?”
A childish voice disturbed Huck’s sleep. He screwed his eyes tightly shut, willing his mind to return to dreams of pleasanter things than inquisitive children.
Something struck the bottom of his boot. He jerked awake, his head connecting with a crack against the inside of the hogshead barrel. “Ow! Blame it.”
Gingerly, he touched a rising lump and grimaced at the painful reminder of where he’d ended up. After celebrating into the wee hours, it appeared a convenient place to await the next packet chugging up the Missouri River. Sobriety declared it a bad idea. Only halfwits and drunks slept in discarded barrels. Not men who commanded steamboats.
Curling around, he squinted at the opening where his legs were exposed. Daylight outlined the figure of a child. Hopeful it was just a dream Huck shut his eyes. When he opened them again, the boy had bent to peer inside the barrel.
Gap-toothed smile, snub nose, merry eyes that held the promise of mischief… “Tom?” Huck rasped.
The boy giggled.
No, he couldn’t possibly be. Tom had been nearly full-grown fifteen years ago.
Huck rubbed his stinging eyes. He must’ve gotten ahold of some bad brew like the Fire Rod his old man used to swig by the jug full; that stuff made Pap see crazier things than a boy that wasn’t there.
The spitting image of Tom laughed again. “Uncle Huck?”
Uncle? Huck shook his head to clear it. By God, he’d swear off whiskey forever if it brought on these strange imaginings, and it had to be his imagination. Huck Finn weren’t nobody’s uncle.
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