Monday, December 9, 2019

When Mark Twain Came To Williamsport

Have you ever wondered why Mark Twain is featured on this mural [The Spirit Mural, by Michael Pilato] on Williams Street in Williamsport?

In the fall and winter of 1869, Mark Twain was on a Lecture Tour, speaking about "Our Fellow Savages Of The Sandwich Islands" (The islands of Hawaii today).  On December 30 1869 he spoke in Wilkes Barre Pa, and the following day he presented his lecture at the Ulman Opera House on third street in Williamsport Pa.  Just two years prior, the city of Williamsport had passed an ordinance to move the graves of Michael Ross and others buried on the ground where the Old City Hall now stands, to the new cemetery on Washington street.  Locals believe that this inspired Twain's short story, A Curious Dream, which was published shortly after his visit to the area.  

Read more about what Twain spoke about, where he spoke at, and if A Curious Dream was really inspired by Williamsport, below.

Quick Links & Facts

What Did Mark Twain Speak About In Williamsport?
An article in the 2006 Williamsport Sun Gazette states that Twain came to discuss his first major writing success, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, but other articles state that he was promoting his book published earlier that year, The Innocents.

Published in 1869, The Innocents was an  account of a trip east to the Old World.   It  sold over 70,000 copies in it's first year, and  remained the best-selling of Twains books.  The book began as a series of travel letters.  Revising the letters into a book was suggested by Elisha Bliss, who published Innocents as a subscription book on July 20th, 1869.  

It is of course possible that Twain spoke about both of those stories while he was in in town, However, it is fairly well documentsed that Twain was actually visiting Williamsport on a lecture tour, speaking about the islands that would eventually become Hawaii.  Between November 1 and January 21 1870, Twain did a Lecture Tour at at least 49 locations, on Our Fellow Savages Of The Sandwich Islands (Now Hawaii).  According to the Encyclopedia Of Mark Twain, Williamsport  was listed on this tour.  He had visited Wilkes Barre the day before, on this same tour.
"This was Mark Twains's second lecture tour in the east. He didn't make up his mind to do it until September, and initially his topic was announced as "Curiosities of California." By the time he began the tour in Pittsburgh, however, he'd decided to use a revised version of the lecture derived from his 1866 newspaper letters from Hawaii: "Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands." This was the lecture he'd used in 1866 when he first began to lecture professionally in the west, and given in New York in 1867 when he first came east.

Most of the tour's 46 performances were in the northeast. He lectured in more major cities than he had the year before, including for the first time in Boston. To judge from his letters to Livy, often written right before or right after an evening's show, he was less enthusiastic about his work, but almost everywhere his performances were well-attended and well-received."

Twain "spent almost five months in the Sandwich Islands, or Hawaii, in 1866 as a traveling correspondent for the Sacramento Union. The 25 letters he sent to the paper were widely reprinted in the West, and helped establish his early reputation as a humorist. His accounts of how he came to enact that identity before a live audience vary, but it is clear that he decided to try lecturing because he needed money -- and because he loved attention."

Although Twain wrote to his future wife after many performances, it appears there is nothing on record about his visits to Wilkes Barre or Williamsport.

The Ulman Opera House
The Ulman Opera House and Market Square in 1875.
Located at 2 East 3rd Street, The Opera House was the entertainment hub for Victorian Williamsport Society.  

The Ulman structure still stands at the southeast corner of Market and Third Street with a new facade.

Was A Curious Dream, By Mark Twain, Inspired By Williamsport?
This banner in Williamsport commemorates the idea that the Williamsport Cemetery inspired Mark Twain's short story A Curious Dream.  The short story is about inhabitants of  an unkempt graveyard decrying their current status.  It was essentially an indictment, by Twain,  of unkempt graveyards, and it spurred national reform movements.

On July 1 1867, The City of Williamsport passed an ordinance ordering that the graves including that of the cities founder, Michael Ross, be dug up from the burial ground that was located where Old City Hall now stands, and moved to the Washington street cemetery.  So far, no records have been found as to when the move actually took place.  The towering brick building now known as Old City Hall was built more than 25 years later, in 1894.
Mark Twain came to speak at the Opera House on December 30th 1869, more than two years after the ordinance was passed.   Although we do not know when the graves in Williamsport were actually moved, but it is certainly possible it took two years for them to get to it.  It seems, however,  unlikely that the grave moving was taking place on New Years eve in Central Pa, where the ground is typically frozen that time of year.  Still,  It is certainly possible that Twain heard of the the move of the graves, and it influenced his writing of A Curious Dream.   

Lou Hunsinger, a well known local historian, writes: "Twain came to Williamsport in 1869 to lecture. While walking around downtown he was disturbed and disgusted by the rundown condition of the some of the city’s graveyards, particularly the one located in Ross Park on Pine Street, site of the former City Hall.

Most of the coffins and remains formerly held in that graveyard were disinterred and placed in the Williamsport Cemetery on Washington Boulevard. What remained at Ross Park were decaying reminders of the former graveyard. What Twain saw while sitting on the steps of the Pine Street Methodist Church inspired him to write a short story titled, “The Remarkable Dream.” -

Illustration from A Curious Dream by Mark Twain

Newspapers of the day refer to it being inspired by a cemetery near his home in Buffalo New York.  The Encyclopedia of Mark Twain states that the story shamed local citizens in Buffalo into making improvements. 

Local historians have noted that Twain's short story was published in a forerunner of the Sun-Gazette  as “A Remarkable Dream” with his permission, for it to be about the city.  But even if that is true, it's possible Twain simply wanted to shame all cities into reform, whether he had witnessed this at Williamsport or not.  


From: The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, Page 195
edited by J. R. LeMaster, James Darrell Wilson, Christie Graves Hamric

The Mural on Williams St, Williamsport Pa:

Located on 364 Williams Street, The Mural titled "Spirit Creatures" was done by muralists Pilato and Karabash, who also completed the Inspiration Lycoming County Murals around the corner, across from the Community Arts Center. "Spirit Creatures" features Mark Twain, along with local environmentalists Bob Wayne, Bill Worobec, and Cynthia Bower.  Pilato often combines figures from past and present in his murals.
Read More About His Murals here:
A larger view of the mural on Williams Street.  This was the former Girard Trust building.

For More Local Stories & History Of Williamsport

Find More Local History & Stories From Nearby Towns Here:
Read More:

After completing his lecture tour in 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon.  Her father, Twain's new father in law, owned and operated coal mining operations from Elmira, through Ralston, and all the way south to Shamokin.  The family would certainly have been well familiarized with the Central Susquehanna Valley through this business.

Twain's Additional Known Visits To PA 

December 31 - Opera House, Williamsport, Pennsylvania
1868 Pittsburgh Pa Nov. 19th, Scranton Pa Dec 16th.
1869 Titusville, Franklin, Sharon Pa, Philadelphia, Germantown, Wilkes Barre, Williamsport
1871 Bethlehehm, Allentown, Williamsport, Norristown
1872 Pittsburgh, Kittaning, Lock Haven, Milton, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Carlisle, Scranton
1891 Bryn Mawr College
1872 January 17 - Milton, Pennsylvania - "Roughing It" - One version of this speech is published in Mark Twain Speaking, pp. 48-63.

March 23 - Bryn Mawr College, Bryn, Pennsylvania - Stories and Readings - "Christening," "True Story," "Tar Baby," "Whistling," "Golden Arm"
According to the Philadelphia Record, as reprinted in the Grass Valley, California Daily Tidings, April 21, 1891, Mark Twain said: "I have been elected an honorary member of the class of '94. I feel deeply grateful to my fellow classmates for the compliment they have done me, the more so because I feel I have never deserved such treatment. I will reveal a secret to you. I have an ambition: that I may go up and up on the ladder of education until at last I may be a professor of Bryn Mawr College. I would be a professor of telling anecdotes. This art is not a very high one, but it is a very useful one. One class of anecdotes is that which contains only words. You begin almost as you please and talk and talk until your allotted time and close when you get ready. I will illustrate this by a story of an Irish and Scotch christening." [He told the christening story and others.] This item was also reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1891, p. 6.

His daughter, Susy, was a student at Bryn Mawr at the time. When her father, who had promised her that he would not tell the story of the "Golden Arm," forgot himself and told it, she became much upset and rushed out in tears. See Susy and Mark Twain, ed. Edith Colgate Salsbury (1965): 287-88; Justin Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966):310.


  1. The Ulman Opera House was located at 2 East Third Street. The sepia-toned photos of the "old opera house" are, in fact, pictures of the fire that destroyed the Lycoming Opera House, which was at 125 West Third Street, on May 31, 1915. That opera house was built in 1892. Ulman went out of business in 1874 (owing to the competition of the newly-erected Elliot Academy of Music on Pine Street and the portion of the building that housed the theater was converted into an armory. The Ulman structure still stands at the southeast corner of Market and Third Street with a new facade.


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