Twain on the Mountain

By Alexandra Prince

Recently we were pleased to offer research support to two staff members from the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut who are putting together an exhibit on Samuel Clemens’ summer vacation experiences, including his time on the Mountain Top.

Samuel Clemens on the porch of the Wake Robin at Onteora Park in 1890.

During the summer of 1890, Samuel Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) and his family rented The Balsam cottage at Onteora Park, a private community and mountain retreat for writers, artists and wealthy families in Tannersville. After his stay, Clemens wrote his host and Park founder Candace Wheeler: “Dear Mrs. Wheeler,–It was the perfection of a visit: just enough rain, just enough sunshine; just enough people, & just the right kind; just enough exercise, just enough lazying around; just enough of everything desirable, & no lack of anything usual to the details of a lark away from home…If any should ask me if we had a good time there, I should answer that it was just a model case of ‘Oh hellyes!’”

Samuel Clemens on the porch of the Wake Robin at Onteora Park in 1890

Clemens’ visit to the Mountain Top in many ways overlapped with a golden period of his life. He was among the “who’s who” in America as a nationally celebrated author having recently published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its famous sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not long after his stay at Onteora, Clemens would experience a devastating series of financial misfortunes and the untimely deaths of his two young daughters and wife. 

A portrait of Samuel Clemens by Carroll Beckwith, painted at Onteora Park in 1890.

While Clemens did not manage to finish any writing at Onteora Park, he delighted Park members with readings, enjoyed meals accompanied by a live orchestra, partook in evening dances, staged impromptu plays with his young daughters, and sat for a portrait by Carroll Beckwith (see above). Clemens also joined in on a gentleman’s bear hunt, a popular thrill for wealthy summer residents. Doris West Brooks recounted the story of Clemens and the bear hunt in a 1986 edition of The Hemlock:

“It wasn’t unusual for a hunting party to come down from Onteora Park to Uncle David’s home in the East Kill Valley. A bear would be released from the cage down by the creek for the gentlemen hunters to shoot. It was at the height of Twain’s popularity that he decided to join just such a party. A friend of Twain’s, with a new invention, a movie camera, accompanied him. By the time the hunting party was underway, there were numerous ladies and men in the entourage. 

The ladies were attired in their white gowns and carried pastel parasols. The man with his movie camera and numerous gentlemen with rifles all descended on David and Etta, his wife. The ladies were given chairs aligned along the back of the house. Aunt Etta served them lemonade. The men stood down by the creek with guns ready. Mark Twain’s friend stood by to capture this moment for posterity. He would have a memorable news reel indeed! Uncle David opened the cage door and prodded the bear to leave. The bear came charging out. He was supposed to go running across the creek so the men could get a good shot at him, but instead came charging directly into the group of men, scattering them in all directions. The cameraman dropped his wonderful new toy. The ladies were all very satisfactorily hysterical.”

The exhibit at the Mark Twain House detailing Clemens’ time on the Mountain Top is slated to open in 2023. We look forward to visiting.

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