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County Histories : Old Oregon Trail ~ Mark Twain at Hollenberg Ranch

Mark Twain's Visit to the Hollenberg Ranch

The following information was compiled and edited by Jim Scheetz and first published in "Pony Expressions," newsletter of the Hollenberg Station's Friends and Volunteers. The excerpts are from the book, "Roughing It," a publication of the Mark Twain Project of The Bancroft Library, and published by the University of California Press. The carefully researched notes in the book's appendix are used here to place Mr. Twain's writings in a more historical setting. Other notes are from local historians. Otherwise, as the preface to the original work explains: "This book is merely a personal narrative, and not a pretentious history or a philosophical dissertation. It is a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing .... Still, there is information in the volume; information concerning an interesting episode in the history of the Far West, about which no books have been written by persons who were on the ground in person."

Among the thousands of travelers in the 1800s who traveled by stagecoach which stopped at the Hollenberg Station was a young Mississippi steamboat pilot by the name of Samuel Clemens. It was in the summer of 1861. Kansas, the state, was not yet a year old. The Civil War was raging to the east and silver was discovered in Nevada Territory to the west.

Samuel's brother, Orion, had just been appointed secretary of Nevada Territory and he offered Samuel the position of private secretary. "It appeared to me that the heavens and the earth passed away, and the firmament was rolled together as a scroll!" young Samuel was to write later. "I had nothing more to desire. My contentment was complete."

About ten years later, after his travels in the West, Samuel signed a contract with a publisher to write a 600-page book in which he proposed to Samuel L. Clemens in 1863 "do up Nevada & Cal., beginning with the trip across the country in the stage."

Today we have a treasure in that manuscript which brilliantly describes what it was like to travel by stage. Samuel also told of the excitement of meeting a Pony Express rider along the route. And at one point he tells of a woman passenger who historians suspect was none other than Mrs. Gerat Hollenberg, Sophie!

The name of the book is "Roughing It." And of course we know the writer better by the pen name, Mark Twain.

Our two adventurers set out on their trip at St. Louis, taking the steamboat, Sioux City, on the six-day journey up the Missouri River to St. Joe, a trip that Mark Twain described as:

" dull, and sleepy, and eventless that it has left no more impression on my memory than if its duration had been six minutes instead of that many days. ... The first thing we did on that glad evening that landed us at St. Joseph was to hunt up the stage-office, and pay a hundred and fifty dollars apiece for tickets per overland coach to Carson City, Nevada."

According to the book notes, the receipt for the two fares, issued by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company on 25 July 1861 for the trip from St. Joseph to Carson City, indicates that after an initial payment of $300, another $100 was due within thirty days, bringing the total to $200 per passenger. Three months later, in October 1861, the fare was reduced to $150, after the start of the line was moved from St. Joseph to nearby Atchison, Kansas.

Mark Twain continues:

"The next morning, bright and early, we took a hasty breakfast, and hurried to the starting-place. Then an inconvenience presented itself which we had not properly appreciated before, namely, that one cannot make a heavy traveling trunk stand for twenty-five pounds of baggage -- because it weighs a good deal more. But that was all we could take -- twenty-five pounds each. So we had to snatch our trunks open, and make a selection in a good deal of a hurry. We put our lawful twenty-five pounds apiece all in one valise, and shipped the trunks back to St. Louis again. It was a sad parting, for now we had no swallowtail coats and white kid gloves to wear at Pawnee receptions in the Rocky Mountains, and no stove-pipe hats nor patent-leather boots, nor anything else necessary to make life calm and peaceful. We were reduced to a war-footing. Each of us put on a rough, heavy suit of clothing, woolen army shirt and 'stogy' boots included; and into the valise we crowded a few white shirts, some underclothing and such things. ...

We took two or three blankets for protection against frosty weather in the mountains. In the matter of luxuries we were modest -- we took none along but some pipes and five pounds of smoking tobacco. We had two large canteens to carry water in, between stations on the Plains, and we also took with us a little shot-bag of silver coin for daily expenses in the way of breakfasts and dinners.

By eight o'clock everything was ready, and we were on the other side of the river. We jumped into the stage, the driver cracked his whip, and we bowled away and left 'the States' behind us. It was a superb summer morning, and all the landscape was brilliant with sunshine. There was a freshness and breeziness, too, and an exhilarating sense of emancipation from all sorts of cares and responsibilities, that almost made us feel that the years we had spent in the close, hot city, toiling and slaving, had been wasted and thrown away. We were spinning along through Kansas, and in the course of an hour and a half we were fairly abroad on the great Plains. Just here the land was rolling -- a grand sweep of regular elevations and depressions as far as the eye could reach like the stately heave and swell of the ocean's bosom after a storm. And everywhere were cornfields, accenting with squares of deeper green, this limitless expanse of grassy land. But presently this sea upon dry ground was to lose its 'rolling' character and stretch away for seven hundred miles as level as a floor!

Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description -- an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat the 'conductor,' the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matters and passengers."

According to the book notes, the Concord coach, manufactured by the Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire, was the standard vehicle used on all the major western stage lines at the time. Its body "rested on stout leather straps, called thorough braces, which rocked the stage body back and forth in a motion more pleasant to passengers than the ordinary jars of a wagon" and also diminished "the violence of jolts transmitted from the coach to the animals.

"We three were the only passengers, this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail-bags -- for we had three days' delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard, and driver said -- 'a little for Brigham, and Carson, and 'Frisco, but the heft of it for the Injuns, which is powerful troublesome 'thout they get plenty of truck to read.' But as he just then got up a fearful convulsion of his countenance which was suggestive of a wink being swallowed by an earthquake, we guessed that his remark was intended to be facetious, and to mean that we would unload the most of our mail matter somewhere on the Plains and leave it to the Indians, or whosoever wanted it."

Contemporary accounts, including the postmaster general's, according to the book notes, confirm that in order to lighten their loads overland drivers sometimes stashed mail (especially printed matter) along the route for a later stage to pick up, or even abandoned it altogether.

"We changed horses every ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the hard, level road. We jumped out and stretched our legs every time the coach stopped, and so the night found us still vivacious and unfatigued.

After supper a woman got in, who lived about fifty miles further on, and we three had to take turns at sitting outside with the driver and conductor. Apparently she was not a talkative woman. She would sit there in the gathering twilight and fasten her steadfast eyes on a mosquito rooting into her arm, and slowly she would raise her other hand till she got his range, and then she would launch a slap at him that would have jolted a cow; and after that she would sit and contemplate the corpse with tranquil satisfaction -- for she never missed her mosquito; she was a dead shot at short range. She never removed a carcase, but left them there for bait. I sat by this grim Sphynx and watched her kill thirty or forty mosquitoes -- watched her, and waited for her to say something, but she never did. So I finally opened the conversation myself. I said:

'The mosquitoes are pretty bad, about here, madam.'

'You bet!'

'What did I understand you to say, madam?'

'You BET!'

Then she cheered up, and faced around and said:

'Danged if I didn't begin to think you fellers was deef and dum b.  I did, b' gosh. here I've sot, and sot, and sot, a bust'n muskeeters and wonderin' what was ailin' ye. Fust I thot you was deef and dumb, then I thot you was sick or crazy, or suthin', and then by and by I begin to reckon you was a passel of sickly fools that couldn't think of nothing to say. Wher'd ye come from?'

The Sphynx was a Sphynx no more! The fountains of her great deep were broken up, and she rained the nine parts of speech forty days and forty nights, metaphorically speaking, and buried us under a desolating deluge of trivial gossip that left not a crag or pinnacle of rejoinder projecting above the tossing waste of dislocated grammar and decomposed pronumciation!

How we suffered, suffered, suffered! She went on, hour after hour, till I was sorry I ever opened the mosquito question and gave her a start. She never did stop again until she got to her journey's end toward daylight; and then she stirred us up as she was leaving the stage (for we were nodding, by that time), and said:

'Now you git out at Cottonwood, you fellers, and lay over a couple o' days, and I'll be along some time to-night, and if I can do ye any good by edgin' in a word now and then, I'm right thar. Folks'll tell you 't I've always ben kind o' offish and partic'lar for a gal that's raised in the woods, and I am, with the rag-tag and bobtail, and a gal has to be, if she wants to be anything, but when people comes along which is my equals, I reckon I'm a pretty sociable heifer after all.'

We resolved not to 'lay by at Cottonwood.' "

Hollenberg Station, of course, was also known as Cottonwood Station because it was situated near Cottonwood Creek. A local historian and former curator at the Hollenberg Station was convinced "the Sphynx," or stone faced person, was none other than Sophie, wife of Gerat Hollenberg, based on information he received about her personality. Also, Sophie was from Marshall County, and at the time of this story, still had relatives living there; it would have been natural for her to leave the stage before reaching her final destination, and then to arrive later in the day.

The following episode of meeting the pony express rider follows later in Mark Twain's narrative, but as he mentioned in his preface, events were not necessarily presented in chronological order.

"In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and watching for the 'pony-rider' -- the fleet messenger who sped across the continent from St. Joe to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh and blood to do! The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brim full of spirit and endurance. No matter what time of the day or night his watch came on, and no matter whether it was winter or summer, raining, snowing, hailing, or sleeting, or whether his 'beat' was a level straight road or a crazy trail over mountain crags and precipices, or whether it led through peaceful regions that swarmed with hostile Indians, he must be always ready to leap into the saddle and be off like the wind! There was no idling-time for a pony-rider on duty. He rode fifty miles without stopping, by daylight, moonlight, starlight, or through the blackness of darkness -- just as it happened. He rode a splendid horse that was born for a racer and fed and lodged like a gentleman; kept him at his utmost speed for ten miles, and then, as he came crashing up to the station where stood two men holding fast a fresh, impatient steed, the transfer of rider and mailbag was made in the twinkling of an eye, and away flew the eager pair and were out of sight before the spectator could get hardly the ghost of a look. Both rider and horse went 'flying light.' The rider's dress was thin and fitted close; he wore a 'round-about' and a skullcap, and tucked his pantaloons into his boot-tops like a racerider. He carried no arms -- he carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary, for even the postage on his literary freight was worth two dollars an ounce. He got but little frivolous correspondence to carry -- his bag had business letters in it, mostly. His horse was stripped of all unnecessary weight, too. He wore a little wafer of a racing-saddle, and no visible blanket. He wore light shoes, or none at all. The little flat mail-pockets strapped under the rider's thighs would each hold about the bulk of a child's primer. They held many and many an important business chapter and newspaper letter, but these were written on paper as airy and thin as gold-leaf nearly, and thus bulk and weight were economized.
The stage-coach traveled about a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five miles a day (twenty-four hours), the pony-rider about two hundred and fifty. There were about eighty pony-riders in the saddle all the time, night and day, stretching in a long, scattering procession from Missouri to California, forty flying eastward and forty toward the west, and among them making four hundred gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and see a deal of scenery every single day in the year.

We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows. But now we were expecting one along every moment, and would see him in broad daylight. Presently the driller exclaims:


Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling -- sweeping toward us nearer and nearer -- growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined -- nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear -- another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!

So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for the flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail-sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe."

This sighting of the pony express rider is believed to have occurred near Seneca, Kansas.

The book notes state that, "The pony express provided mail service--at first weekly, and then semiweekly--for nearly nineteen months, starting on 3 April 1860; it was officially discontinued on 26 October 1861, two days after the completion of the overland telegraph line. The service had been established by the freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell [which also owned the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company] to demonstrate the practicality of the central route, in an attempt to win the overland-mail contract away from the Butterfield Overland Mail. The full nineteen-hundred-mile route, from St. Joseph to Sacramento, required about ten days of nonstop travel, in relays, with each rider covering at least fifty miles [and sometimes as much as a hundred]. ... The cost of operating the pony express turned out to be much greater than the income generated, contributing to the eventual bankruptcy of Russell, Majors and Waddell. The initial fee for a letter was five dollars per half ounce, in addition to the basic ten-cent United States postage. Over the life of the service, the charge was gradually reduced: at the time of the Clemens brothers' trip it had recently been cut to the rate named here.