IN THE HOT, dry summer of 1895, virgin timber burned throughout the Pacific Northwest. For locals who only seven years before had witnessed the Great Seattle Fire that reduced 30 downtown blocks into piles of ash, the suffocating, brown pall must have evoked unpleasant memories.
On Aug. 13, when 59-year old Mark Twain (given name: Samuel Clemens) stepped onto Colman Dock, his eyes and throat were irritated by not only the smoke but also the ill effects of a rare cold.
Earlier, the chair of a reception committee had tendered profuse apologies: “I’m sorry the smoke is so dense that you cannot see our mountains and our forests.”
“I regret that your magnificent forests are being destroyed by fire,” replied Twain. “As for the smoke … I am accustomed to that. I am a perpetual smoker myself.”
Nevertheless, he might have considered delaying or canceling his sold-out performance that evening at The Seattle Theater at Third and Cherry — a 90-minute comedic lecture with an unlikely subject: “Morals” — were it not for his recent bankruptcy and pressing need for cash.
Internationally celebrated for “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and its sequel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (widely considered the greatest American novel) as well as humorous short stories and travelogues such as “Roughing It,” Twain was less fortunate when it came to money. An ill-advised publishing venture, compounded by the crash of 1893, had left him more than $80,000 in debt, which he felt honor-bound to repay.
“I do not enjoy the hard travel and broken rest inseparable from lecturing,” he said, “but writing is too slow for the demands that I have to meet. Therefore I have begun to lecture my way around the world.”
Entreated by Australian promoter Carlyle Smythe, who long had sought his participation in a tour abroad, Twain committed to a packed set of performances across the northern United States, then to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.
His friend and manager, Major James B. Pond, who accompanied him on the U.S. portion of the tour, described Twain’s reception here: “A great audience in Seattle … The sign ‘Standing Room Only’ was out again. He was hoarse, but the hoarseness seemed to augment the volume of his voice.”
Critics concurred. “A great literary improvisation,” gushed The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “To tell the story of such a lecture is like trying to narrate a laugh.”
In Victoria 10 days later, accompanied by beloved wife, Olivia, and daughter Clara, Twain boarded the Warimoo, bound for Australia. Before departure, Pond recalled, the perpetual smoker bought 3,000 “Manila cheroots” (cigars) and four pounds of Durham tobacco, calculated to be just enough for the monthlong voyage.