Jokes, Smokes and a Miserable Time: Mark Twain’s Visit to Tacoma

When Mark Twain arrived in Tacoma in 1895 he was broke, smoking 10 cigars a day, and seemingly unimpressed by the area. Much like the last few summers, wildfires were wreaking havoc in Washington and most of our beautiful scenery was completely hidden from view.

Not one who enjoyed lecturing, the writer and humorist found himself on a world speaking tour after his publishing house failed during the Panic of 1893. On top of being $70,000 in debt, Twain was unwell, with a nasty carbuncle (abscess) on his neck, a heavy cold and sore throat. At the same time, his wife was a semi-invalid and two of his three daughters were seriously ill.

On the way from New York to the Pacific Northwest the speaking tour had brought in $5,000. In Portland he spoke to a full house, but he had no luck at all in Olympia when up against a Women’s Christian Temperance Union convention and an amateur play. An article at the Tacoma Public Library reports the turnout was so small that the editor of The Washington Standard “scolded his readers for their disinterest in culture.”

Thankfully, Tacomans were ready to hear from the then 60 year old.

Noting an “already liberal demand for reserved seats,” an announcement in the Tacoma Daily News leading up to the event reads:

“While his audience roars with laughter, he simply pulls his mustache and scowls. Sentences and phrases that, dull and commonplace emanating from other lips, provoke paroxysms of mirth when uttered by him.”

After the performance he was honored at a party hosted by the Tacoma Press Club. One listener said that if the theater talk had been worth a dollar, hearing him afterward was worth at least eight. An article covering the engagement praised Twain’s telling of “odd little tales” during “a most delightful evening.”

Mark Twain went on to do well with his engagements in Seattle, but then once again ran into trouble. Before a Vancouver lecture he was so hoarse he nearly canceled the event but pushed through knowing he was to leave shortly for Australia.

However, the steamer he was set to travel on had run aground at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and required repairs. Further drama ensued when another boat he was to take to a hastily booked gig in Victoria lost its way due to the heavy smoke, causing him to arrive five hours late. He ended up giving the talk the next day.

Some claim Mark Twain said this about his visit to the Pacific Northwest: “The pleasantest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound.” Unfortunately, no one has ever cited the time and place of his uttering it, and other cities, such as San Francisco and Paris, have been mentioned in a similar quote.

Still, it’s possible Tacoma can claim its very own Mark Twain quote.

In Olympia he assured a delegation of city fathers the thick smoke was no bother by saying, “I don’t mind. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”

And to a reporter in Tacoma he joked, “Really, your scenery is wonderful. It’s quite out of sight.”

Images via Wikimedia Commons, with special thanks to TPL’s Northwest Room.

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