My Picture uses as reference, a 1900 photograph of bales of cotton and other cargoes being loaded onto the Mississippi Steamboats. During that era, the US Southern States were producing eight million bales of cotton each year - all of which were transported up river by the Paddle Steamers.
| Loading Cotton 9" x 13.5" Pen & Ink |
John Simlett, Shipwright (2012)
Although the flat bottomed Mississippi Paddle Steamers had a shallow draught (draft) ... they still needed 2 fathoms (12 feet) of water for as a safe working depth. They used a leads-man - a crew member - to test the depth of the water ahead of the steamer. He had a rope that was marked with coloured ribbons, one for every fathom. The rope had a lead weight on one end. Swinging-the-lead was considered an easy job compared to other on-board tasks.
The leadsman would throw the lead ahead of the boat and then call out the depth according to the ribbon mark at the surface, "By the mark, one!" or, "By the mark, three". The number being the depth in fathoms. Of course they didn't say the number in clean cut English, for each mark had it's own unique name.
In 1857 when the 21 year old Samuel Langhorne Clemens became a "cub" pilot on a Mississippi Steamboat, he was intrigued by the leads-man's chant as he called the depths, "HALF TWAIN!"; "QUARTER TWAIN"; "M-A-R-K TWAIN!" The latter being two fathoms, the safe working depth.
In February 1863, Clemens became a journalist in Nevada - here, for the first time he signed his name, Mark Twain. He was born during a visit of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would "go out with it" as well. He died the day following the comet's subsequent return. He was lauded as the "greatest American humorist of his age".