Farewell to Tom Sawyer's Island

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Farewell to Tom Sawyer Island

Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland has recently undergone a major transformation, and will continue to change during the next few years as more and more pirate elements will be added to the little island replacing the gentle charm of Mark Twain's world.

Some Disney fans feel uncomfortable, since the island is the one part of the original Disneyland that truly came from Walt's own hand. It was one of his favorite places at the park, especially since it was specifically designed for children and was meant to be "for fun and for free."

"I put in all the things I wanted to do as a kid—and couldn't," Walt explained about the island to a Reader's Digest reporter in 1960. "Including getting into something without a ticket."

If the Walt Disney Company had asked a Disney historian like myself, I could have told them that while all of that was true, it was also true that Walt himself saw the island as a home for pirates.

At one time, he considered making the island Treasure Island to theme with his successful live-action feature of the same name. I would also point out that Walt did indeed name the places on the original island, including an area he called "Pirate's Cove." In addition, I would pull out the original newspaper advertisements and the original attraction poster because it clearly shows Tom Sawyer heading on a raft to the island, and his raft flies a very prominent skull-and-crossbones black pirate flag in the artwork.

I thought it might be nice to give one last farewell to the original Tom Sawyer Island, even though as a young child I was afraid of the island. My parents did not enjoy taking my brothers and me to the island because they could not maneuver through the small caves or balance comfortably on the suspension and barrel bridges. It was also the only area at the park where dirt was everywhere, and we often wore good clothes when we visited Disneyland so that was always a challenge.

As a young boy, it was not thrilling for me to explore Injun Joe's dark, narrow cave with just my two younger brothers. I still remember clutching my glasses tightly near the bottomless pit, for fear they would tumble off my face and be lost forever in the darkness and I would spend the rest of the day blindly stumbling through the happiest place on earth.

However, my experience was the exception. For most kids, including Walt himself, who were much more adventurous than me, it was their favorite place at Disneyland—and perhaps for a new generation of children these piratical changes on the island will make it their most memorable Disneyland location.

Tom Sawyer Island is truly the only part of Disneyland Park that Walt Disney single handedly designed himself. He always planned for there to be an island in the middle of the Rivers of America but he debated about what that island was going to be.

As I mentioned, at one time he considered making it Treasure Island. He also considered making it Mickey Mouse Island so it could be the home for the Mickey Mouse Club and all the Mouseketeers of the world. At one point, there were designs for the island that had included miniature reproductions of major American historical landmarks like Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Independence Hall that would have been viewed from the Mark Twain steamboat.

While many Disney fans know that Herb Ryman did the artwork of the original map of Disneyland and Peter Ellenshaw did the artwork for the huge map of Disneyland that Walt frequently used on the television program, few fans realize that it was Imagineer Marvin Davis who labored through dozens of map designs trying to find a workable pattern for the Disneyland that finally opened in 1955.

He struggled over the contours of Tom Sawyer Island but his efforts failed to please Walt Disney.

"Give me that thing," Davis remembers Walt saying. That night Walt worked for hours in his red barn workshop in his backyard. The next morning, he laid tracing paper on Davis's desk and said, "Now that's the way it should be." The island was built according to Walt's design.

Marvin Davis stated, "The general shape of the island, the way it curves and so forth, was Walt's idea. The idea for Pirate's Cove on Tom Sawyer Island was also Walt's."

Imagineer Herb Ryman remembered, "I was originally called upon to name some of the nomenclature for Tom Sawyer Island. Walt came up to me and he said, 'Herbie, would you think up some names?' Obviously you think about Smuggler's Gulch and Robber's Cove and kind of inspiring names that little children would be excited about. And then later one day, Bill Cottrell told me, he and Walt rode around on the Mark Twain and Walt had this map in front of him where these names were allocated according to my designation. And Walt said, 'Why should we let Herbie have all the fun and name all these names on the island? Why can't I name these?' And Bill said, 'Yes, I think you could.' So Walt renamed all these names."

"When you go to Frontierland, make sure that Walt takes you to Tom Sawyer's Island," said Imagineer Dick Irvine to a Reader's Digest reporter in 1960. "Walt was brought up in Missouri—Mark Twain country—and that island is all his. He didn't let anybody help him design it."

Actually, Vic Greene, the original art director for Frontierland, worked with Imagineers Herb Ryman and Claude Coats to produce the first designs for the Island based on Walt's ideas, including the barrel bridge that appeared in 1957. Sam McKim did some finished renderings for the Old Mill and Fort Wilderness as well as the tree house. Bill Evans did the landscaping. Emil Kuri located some "second hand" animals at a museum to install on the remote end of the island.

During the second week of June 1956, Southern California newspapers featured an advertisement of a raft with a pirate skull-and-crossbones flag making its way to Tom Sawyer Island. It proclaimed:

"Now Open at Disneyland! Another NEW attraction! Tom Sawyer's Island! Cross the river on A RAFT...explore INJUN JOE'S CAVE...with the SUSPENSION BRIDGE...visit FORT WILDERNESS...see the BURNING SETTLER'S CABIN. Relive exciting days out of America's lusty past. Explore all the magical mysteries of an island built just for FUN! Whatever you want to do, you will find fun and excitement for the whole family at this newest Disneyland attraction...Tom Sawyer's Island."

A billboard during the construction announced that the island would open June 1. It didn't. Opening ceremonies were held at noon on Saturday June 16, 1956 at the raft landing on the island. Two young guests were on hand in costume as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, and appeared in many newspaper and magazine photos with Walt.

The two children from Hannibal, Missouri, Perva Lou Smith and Chris Winkler, had won the very first of the now-annual "Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher" contests in Hannibal.

Although they did not know it when they competed, an added bonus for Hannibal's 1956 Tom and Becky was a chance to travel to Disneyland, stay at the Disneyland Hotel and together with Walt Disney himself preside over the dedication ceremonies of Tom Sawyer Island.

Perva Lou and Chris carried with them from Hannibal water from the Mississippi River and earth from Jackson's Island (the model for the island frequented by Tom and Huck in Twain's novels).

With Walt's help, the two kids christened the raft with a jug of Mississippi River water and planted a box of soil from Jackson's Island near the foot of the landing pier. The island was "officially" made a part of Missouri.

After the dedication, there was a tour of the island, including Injun Joe's Cave (actually an above-ground building covered with earth and landscaping to give the illusion of descending into a cave), Huckleberry Finn's Fishing Pier (the area was stocked with 15,000 catfish, perch and bluegill for guests to catch with a bamboo pole and a worm, and Walt caught a fish for the press that day but it got away before he could land it), Fort Wilderness, and other points of interest.

One of the biggest kids of all was Walt Disney himself, who once the island was officially opened, would often take a pole and fish from the dock with the other youngsters. One day, after fishing for some time without so much as a nibble, Disney turned to the dock attendant and said, "There's no fish in the river!"

The attendant replied, "There's fish there, all right, but the water's so muddy, they can't even see the bait."

Walt responded, "Well, I fished the Missouri River and it was a lot muddier than this, but the fish sure saw the bait!"

The fishing was soon eliminated because it became quite a challenge for guests to walk around Disneyland the rest of the day with their increasingly pungent catch that soon ended up discarded in some unusual locations.

After the dedication, everyone boarded the rafts and made their way across the Rivers of America to the Plantation House terrace, where an "old fashioned fish fry" was served, including 38 pounds of authentic river catfish that had been flown in from the Mark Twain Hotel in Hannibal for the occasion.

The Hannibal Chamber of Commerce has made the Tom and Becky contests a regular feature of the Fourth of July celebration. Those winners who have been lucky enough to fill the roles during the years when the Disney Company dedicated a new theme park have been allowed to join in the dedication ceremonies for the other islands named for Tom Sawyer at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and at Tokyo Disneyland.

Perva Lou Smith and Chris Winkler are still very much alive and returned to Hannibal in 2005 for the 50th Anniversary celebration along with other Tom and Beckys over the years. Smith still clearly remembers that lunch with Walt, although I am sure it has never occurred to the Disney Company to invite "Tom" and "Becky" back for the Pirate's Lair dedication.

The Indian canoes were introduced July 4, 1956. In the summer of 1957, Castle Rock Ridge, the Pontoon Bridge and Tom and Huck's Treehouse (that for many years was "the highest point in Disneyland") were added for guests to enjoy. Originally, there were only two rafts Tom and Huck but this expansion prompted the addition of two new rafts, Becky Thatcher and Injun Joe. Each of these free floating rafts carried up to 45 guests. There were two landings on the island and there were even occasions when the Mark Twain was being refurbished that the rafts would carry guests all the way around the island.

Fort Wilderness was built entirely backstage and then disassembled, trucked to Froniterland and floated across the river, log by log, to be totally reassembled on the island. There was even a mocked up, full-size wood skeleton framework put up on the island first so that Walt and his Imagineers could determine if the fort would look good in its proposed location, and whether it would be visible from any places it shouldn't be.

What was it like in those early years? Here is an excerpt from an article about Disneyland from the Saturday Evening Post June 28,1958:

"At Tom Sawyer's Island in Frontierland, kids can climb on rocks, or fish; they can fire air-operated, bulletless riffles at the plastic Indians or crawl through caves and tunnels for as long as they wish. Attendants are scattered about the island to keep an eye on the youngsters, but Disney has given strict orders to let the kids enjoy themselves.

"When the island first opened, one security officer took his job too seriously and tried to keep the kids quiet and orderly. Within a week he was transferred to a gate-watching job on the night shift, where he could act like a cop.

"The most envied kid in Disneyland is fourteen-year-old Tom Nabbe. Two years ago, when Walt Disney was at the park inspecting construction of Tom Sawyer's Island, he was waylaid by a young Nabbe.

"I'd make a great Tom Sawyer, Mr. Disney," suggested the boy, who then had a part-time job selling souvenir books. "I could sit over on the island with a fishing pole and give it atmosphere."

"Disney looked him over. The chubby, freckled-faced kid could come right out of Mark Twain.

"I should pay you to sit and fish?" replied Disney with feigned shock. "You should pay me. Besides, I can build a plastic Tom Sawyer who wouldn't be leaving every five minutes for a hot dog."

"Every time Disney set foot in the park, the boy tagged him. Finally, Walt gave in and hired him to lead other kids through Injun Joe's cave, bait their fishhooks and answer questions. Except for the summer months, when he works full time, young Tom holds forth on the island only during weekends, having not yet been able to con school authorities into letting him play hooky.

"Mr. Disney comes to me for advice now," brags Tom as he sits barefoot on the dock at the island, clad in dungarees and faded green shirt. "Why, when he wanted to put in a slide, I told him it would be bad because a lot of the kids who come here are dressed in their best clothes. So he didn't put the slide in."

Tom Nabbe lived near Disneyland, and he and his mother who was an autograph collector were outside the gates of Disneyland on opening day July 17, 1955. When Danny Thomas exited the park early, he gave two of his complimentary tickets to Tom and his mother, and they went in and enjoyed themselves.

The next day, the 12-year-old got a job as a newspaper boy hawking "The Disneyland News" to guests coming to the park. If he sold a certain number of issues, he was allowed to come into Disneyland for free.

Hearing that Tom Sawyer Island was going to open, Tom kept approaching Walt about playing the part of Tom Sawyer. At first, Walt believed that children visiting the island should imagine themselves as Tom Sawyer, but eventually, Walt gave in to the persistent pleas of Tom. As a Disneyland press release explained, "It wasn't an easy task, working all day long in the hot sun, but it had many rewards, including the envy of all the other youngsters who came to visit and the attention of national magazines and news writers."

One job requirement was that Tom had to keep a "C" average in school. So every quarter, the boy brought his report card directly to Walt for inspection.

After outgrowing the role of Tom Sawyer, Nabbe went on to manage other attractions. In 1969, he met his wife, Janice, who was working at a concession stand in the Park. He continued working for the Disney Company for nearly 50 years (mostly at Walt Disney World) and was made a Disney Legend in 2005.

Over the years, the island has seen not only changes, but tragedy and turmoil. In the summer of 1970, more than 300 members of the counterculture Youth International Party who were protesting the Vietnam War swarmed into Disneyland. Disneyland shut its gates early and called in the police, who showed up in riot gear. The long-haired protesters invaded Tom Sawyer Island and hoisted the Viet Cong flag.

In June 1973, Bogden Delaurot, an 18-year-old Brooklyn resident and his 10-year-old brother managed to stay on Tom Sawyer Island past its closing time by climbing over the fence separating the island from the area that included the burning settlers' cabin.

When they decided to leave the island a few hours later, they chose to swim across the river. Because the younger brother did not know how to swim, Delaurot tried to carry him on his back as he swam to shore. Delaurot went down about halfway across the river. The younger boy was discovered dogpaddling by a ride operator who hauled him aboard a boat. Bogden's lifeless body was not located by searchers until the next morning after an all-night search by police, firemen, and park employees using searchlights, helicopters, and boats.

In 2001, a girl lost part of her finger when she caught it in a rifle trigger in one of the gun turrets at Fort Wilderness. The guns were soon eliminated, bringing to a close another chapter in the history of the island.

I am really not upset to see pirates overrun the island because the history of the island was always one of continual changes. In 1996, the signage to the island was even briefly changed to say "Tom and Huck's Island" to tie in with the recently released Disney film Tom and Huck starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas as Tom Sawyer.

It is also important to remember that we really don't know what Walt would have thought. We know that Walt of 1966 loved Tom Sawyer Island as it was, but the Walt of 2007 might have loved playing pirate with this generation's children on the small island as long as it was "for fun and for free."