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Show Boat on the River

Updated 8/7/2018: I am grateful to Disneyland and modern steamboat expert James Horecka for his corrections and additional information for this post.

Irene Dunne christens the riverboat on July 17, 1955. The Mark Twain's bow has a chain railing and the authentic (but inoperable) boom is ready to place "landing stages" as needed to reach land.
In late 1931, Walt and Lillian Disney toured the United States on a doctor-prescribed vacation. One thing the thirty-year-old phenom responsible for Mickey Mouse wanted to do was to cruise down the Mississippi River on a paddlewheeler. He had lived as a boy on a farm not far from Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and the freedom of a riverboat—and it's destination, New Orleans—held a strong appeal. Unfortunately, Walt had Mickey Mouse money to spend just as the country descended into the Great Depression—no one was offering pleasure cruises on the river under the circumstances.

On the river, docks and wharves were rare, so riverboats carried bridges called landing stages and incorporated a boom arm to place them. The boats had a shallow draft and could approach the riverbank close enough that a twenty or thirty foot plank—the landing stage—would reach the shore. "Both sternwheel and sidewheel steamers would run up along the river's edge, tie off, then drop a landing stage to one side out to the river bank," James Horecka explains. "The rig would stay put the whole time, helping support the landing stage at its midpoint."

The Suwanee at Greenfield Village
In 1940, Walt toured Henry Ford's Greenfield Village and saw the Suwanee, a two-level miniature riverboat set in a lagoon off the Rouge River. The model boat's engines were salvaged from a similar boat that Thomas Edison had sailed aboard in Florida.

Sidewheelers feature a thinner wheel on either side of the boat, making them more maneuverable than sternwheelers. Sternwheelers, however, have an impressive ability to free themselves from muddy bottoms by moving backward.

Walt visited Greenfield again in 1948 and while there was no steamboat in his subsequent memo describing Mickey Mouse Park, it was an original feature as plans developed for a small park on Riverside Drive.

In 1953, when Walt went bigger with his park ideas, his designers thought of the Cotton Blossom, the primary set built for MGM's remake of Show Boat (1951). 171' long and 34' abeam, the set, built on a barge on MGM's backlot #3, was designed by art director Jack Martin Smith and featured a steam calliope and two curving staircases at the bow. Herb Ryman's overall view of Disneyland shows two riverboats, but as designs got real in 1954, it became a single sternwheeler, inspired by authentic Western packet paddle steamers, 105' long with a 26' 6" beam. The sternwheeler may have been chosen over the sidewheeler for its stability, or it might simply have been Walt's preference. Like the Cotton Blossom, the Disneyland boat would have three passenger decks.

Walt refers to the 1:96 model, which, unlike other Disneyland models, is almost exactly as it was built. Note the cotton "smoke" pouring from the decorative chimneys (smokestacks), as well as the smaller black 'scapes (vents) at the rear.
In April 1954, the newly installed General Manager of Disneyland introduced Walt to a retired U.S. Navy admiral specifically to ensure that any boat ride would be as safe as possible. Movie sets were not built to handle thousands of passengers a day. The GM, C. V. Wood, Jr., had worked for the Stanford Research Institute and SRI had consulted with Admiral Joseph Fowler regarding naval preparedness. (Bill Martin said that WED chief Dick Irvine's uncle had served under Fowler and that that was how they found him.)

The Cotton Blossom created for MGM's Show Boat (1951) by art director Jack Martin Smith. The main difference is the enclosed gambling and show rooms—the Mark Twain is mostly open decks with only small rooms. Note the landing stage at the bow.
Joseph William Fowler, 59, held a master's degree in naval architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ('21) and had supervised shipbuilding before and during World War II. He agreed to help. Roger Broggie, the creator of Walt's live steam backyard railroad, was able to call on Dick Bagley and Roland Peterson for the diesel-fired steam engines that would turn the paddlewheel using a connecting rod known as a pitman arm. In the nineteenth century, the chimneys (the large forward smokestacks) would exhaust smoke from cord wood fire under the boilers.

"The two steam engines were engineered and built from scratch, and are part of the ship," Horecka says. "I consider the matched pair true treasures—kudos to Disneyland's experts who lovingly maintain these steam engines, the boiler, and the rest of the authentic traditional propulsion system." The equipment is on display on the Main Deck, aft. The diesel engines (now bio-diesel) vent water vapor through smaller black 'scapes at the stern and the towering chimneys before the pilot house are just for show.

Naval architect Ray Wallace was also consulted. Disney artist Yale Gracey (who would later create WED's "illusioneering" department) built a 1:96 scale model of the proposed design.

Joe Fowler hired a real shipbuilding concern, Todd Shipyards, to build a proper ship's hull on which the fancy white woodwork design would rest. The steel hull would have a shallow draft and several watertight compartments. Todd was based in ports around the U.S. and conveniently had a yard in San Pedro, just twenty miles west of the Disneyland site. Todd was also contracted to build the masts and rigging (the "tophamper") for the pirate ship in Fantasyland and to construct the river boat's actual paddlewheel. When Fowler insisted on a graving dock, Todd built the watertight doors.

One further aspect remained: How would they steer the vessel in such a shallow river, and thus how could they ensure that the lumbering ship would not, from time to time, scrape the sides of the waterway? The solution was created by consulting engineer Sam Hamel. He designed a pair of devices (bogies) rolling along an underwater track that were attached to the boat's hull fore and aft. The system allows the boat to float up and down as the river level changes, and to move naturally side to side, while remaining on course.

The Mark Twain final assembly at Fowler's Harbor in Disneyland.
The boat was called the Mark Twain in an April 1955 article in Newsweek. The name was certainly appropriate—Samuel Clemens took his pen name from a boatman's phrase he learned working on a riverboat. The author personified steamboat America and loomed large in Walt Disney's upbringing. Although Disney had not made films based on Twain's classics like Tom Sawyer, he was in the process of borrowing aspects of A Dog's Tale, a short story Twain wrote in 1903, for Lady and the Tramp.

The elegant Mark Twain was assembled in Fowler's Harbor at Disneyland in May 1955, before water filled the river channel. The steel and wood superstructure was built by studio carpenters on a sound stage at Walt Disney Productions in Burbank and trucked in pieces down to Anaheim. The structural system includes authentic hog braces on both sides. The hog chains (actually wire rope), stretched on raked wooden posts called braces, create a truss system which helps prevent a shallow wooden hull from "hogging"—fore or aft ends sagging due to the weight of the boiler and fuel up front and the steam engines and paddle wheel far aft.

A pair of raked sponson braces extends from the hog braces at the stern on each side. These are solid wood compression struts with wire rope in tension, straddling the pillow blocks supporting the paddlewheel axle. "There is also a separate hog bracing system of wire rope running laterally to help support the sponsons, from the rear of the superstructure, terminating on each sponson just ahead of the axle of the paddlewheel," Horecka explains.

The riverboat and its propulsion system reportedly cost $150,000—about a million dollars today. It was christened on July 17, 1955 by actress Irene Dunne (the star of the 1936 version of Show Boat), but its official "maiden voyage," was July 13, 1955 at a private party to celebrate Walt and Lillian Disney's thirtieth wedding anniversary.
The Mark Twain in 2014 before its recent rehab. Note the pair of raked sponson braces and the pitman arm. (Photo by Alastair Dallas/Inventing Disneyland.)


  1. Updated Todd Shipyard's location as San Pedro, not Long Beach--thanks to James Horecka for the correction.


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