On a rainy afternoon in June 1863, Mark Twain was nursing a bad hangover inside Ed Stahle’s fashionable Montgomery Street steam rooms, halfway through a two-month visit to San Francisco that would ultimately stretch to three years. At the baths he played penny ante with Stahle, the proprietor, and Tom Sawyer, the recently appointed customs inspector, volunteer fireman, special policeman and bona fide local hero.
In contrast to the lanky Twain, Sawyer, three years older, was stocky and round-faced. Just returned from firefighting duties, he was covered in soot. Twain slumped as he played poker, studying his cards, hefting a bottle of dark beer and chain-smoking cigars, to which he had become addicted during his stint as a pilot for steamboats on the Mississippi River from 1859 until the Civil War disrupted river traffic in April 1861. It was his career on the Mississippi, of course, that led Samuel Clemens to his pen name, “mark twain” being the minimum river depth of two fathoms, or roughly 12 feet, that a steamboat needed under its keel.
Sawyer, 32, who was born in Brooklyn, had been a torch boy in New York for Columbia Hook and Ladder Company Number 14, and in San Francisco he had battled fire for Broderick 1, the city’s first volunteer fire company, under Chief David Broderick, the first fire chief. Twain perked up when Sawyer mentioned that he had also toiled as a steamboat engineer plying the Mexican sea trade. Twain well knew that an engineer typically stood between two rows of furnaces that “glare like the fires of hell” and “shovels coal for four hours at a stretch in an unvarying temperature of 148 degrees Fahrenheit!”
Sawyer had proved his heroism February 16, 1853, while serving as the fire engineer aboard the steamer Independence. Heading to San Francisco via San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and Acapulco, with 359 passengers aboard, the ship struck a reef off Baja, shuddered like a leaf and caught against jagged rocks. “Don’t be afraid,” Captain F. L. Sampson told the passengers on deck. “You’ll all get to shore safely.” He pointed the ship head-on toward the sand, intending to beach it. In the raging surf the vessel swung around broadside.