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Karl Buiter

Mark Twain Pilot House

Text and photos by Karl Buiter, contributing editor

Your wishes will help children everywhere.
Mark Twain Pilot House. Photo by Karl Buiter.

On most days of the week, visitors to Disneyland's Frontierland can take a quiet river ride on Disneyland's paddlewheeler - the Mark Twain.  From Disneyland's opening day on July 17, 1955, the Twain has taken visitors around Tom Sawyer's Island along the Rivers of America - passing New Orleans Square, Critter Country, and into America's deep frontier.

While the Twain's three main decks provide unique views, not many know they can visit the Pilot House of the Mark Twain for a wonderful 360 degree view.  All it takes is a knock on the door located on the third deck, or a kindly shout up to the Twain's pilot to ask permission to go upstairs.  Space is usually limited to one small party and is absolutely at the discretion of the cast members.

High view of the Indian Village. Photo by Karl Buiter.

A view out the back. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Pilot Controls

The "Pilot" cast member stationed in the Pilot House is responsible as lookout and operator of the show elements.  Always on the lookout for canoes, rafts, and the Columbia, he can signal with the horn or signal to the operating engineer below when to slow down or stop.  The music and pre-recorded spiel are controlled on a switchbox to the left.

The pilot controls allows the pilot to navigate the Mark Twain. Photo by Karl Buiter.

A close-up of the controls shows the various switches available to the captain.

The large wheel sits in the control room.

To signal the departure and arrival of the Twain, along with various signals to other river craft on the Rivers of America, a horn and bell system is controlled by pull strings on the right side of the cabin.  With a little luck, the cast member may invite you to pull the horn cord for two long blows as the Twain enters the wilderness.

Bell guide.

Horn and bell pulls.

Just above the wheel, a handle controls the high intensity rooftop spotlight used for nighttime excursions.  While rare these days with the nightly Fantasmic show, it is sometimes possible to ride the Twain into the dark twilight, especially on shorter winter days.

High Intensity Spotlight Control. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Operating Engineer

An operating engineer from the Roundhouse complex operates the Twain's steam-powered paddlewheel system from the lower deck. Near the front, a boiler continuously heats water into steam at pressure.  Steam is then routed back to two pistons which turn the physical paddlewheel.  Spent exhaust is then routed back to the boiler.

The operating engineer controls the speed and direction of the Twain through a Johnson Bar and a steam intake valve located on the pipes above.  The Johnson Bar is connected to the pistons located on both sides of the ship.  A set of automated controls maintains a preset pressure in the boiler.

Johnson Bar


Construction, Opening Day and Joe's Ditch

The Mark Twain - July, 1961. Photo courtesy Jason Schultz.

Jason Schultz, keeper of Magic Kingdom Chronicles here on MousePlanet, provides us a historical background on the Twain: 

The Mark Twain was the first authentic paddlewheeler built in the United States in 50 years. As such, practically nobody knew how they were to be built! The WED designers did a lot of research on paddlewheelers to build it like they were built in the heyday of steam powered ships.

The decks were assembled at the Disney Studios at Burbank, but the hull was constructed at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro (where the Columbia's hull was built years later). It was amazing that the ship fit together PERFECTLY when the two were pieced together for the first time in Fowler's Harbor.

Fowler's Harbor is named for the person in charge of Disneyland's construction - Joe Fowler. He was a retired navy admiral and thus knew a lot about ships. He was a strong advocate for a "dry dock" where the ship could be refurbished as necessary. Walt wasn't too keen on the idea but finally relented and gave Joe permission to put it in the far corner of Frontierland. Walt frequently referred to it as "Joe's Ditch" but did come to realize its importance later on.

Fowler's Harbor still bears the name today, but there are other tributes to Fowler. The original restaurant at the dry dock was "Maurie's Lobster House," named after Joe's wife. Joe is also referenced on Splash Mountain - there is a sign along the flume pointing to "Fowler's Cellar."

On the night of the Disney's 30th wedding anniversary on July 13, 1955, Joe Fowler was checking up on things to make sure everything would be ready for the 300 invited guests. As he came to look at the Mark Twain, he found a lady sweeping the decks. The woman was Walt's wife Lillian and the two were soon sweeping side by side, hurrying to get it ready for the party later that night.

The attraction was dedicated by actress Irene Dunne on July 17, 1955 on "Dateline: Disneyland," and the boat began listing as Guests clamored aboard one of the few working attractions in the Park. At that time, an upper capacity hadn't been set for the boat so they just kept ushering people on board until water began washing onto the deck.

Fowler's Harbor in July, 1961. Photo Courtesy Jason Schultz.

1999 Rehab

Spring 1999 saw a long overdue rehab of the Mark Twain.  During this stretch of time, all the decks and the boiler were replaced over a several month stretch.  By July, the Twain was ready to once again cruise the Rivers of America.

Rehabilitation at Fowlers, April 1999. Photo courtesy Jason Schultz.

Rehabilitation at Fowlers, May 1999. Photo courtesy Jason Schultz.

End of the Cruise

The Guest Book and Pilot's Certificate.

You sign the Guest Book, take one last turn on the horn and bells, and thank the Pilot.  Your trip on the Rivers of America comes to an end as the Mark Twain once again returns to the Frontierland Dock.

American flags flap in the breeze.

A Pilot House certificate is a coveted souvenir.

The Mark Twain approaches its dock.

A stateroom in the Mark Twain.



One of the founding members of MousePlanet, Inc., Karl Buiter is now a contributing writer. He lives in Las Vegas, NV, and is a software developer with an interest in monorails.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Karl here.


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