What follows is a draft of some early scripting for what I’m calling Audio Twain: Story without visuals.
I live in Redding Connecticut, a country oasis in northern Fairfield County. We’re 60 miles by train from New York City. Search Redding on the web and up pops Redding California. But Redding Connecticut had one thing this California City could not match, Mark Twain. It was his last home, in what would be the last 22 months of his life. It’s one of the first things you learn when you move to Redding. OH! Mark Twain lived here?
What little I knew of Twain came from the vague recollection of reading Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school. To a high school student like myself, the books were remote, set in obscure locations with difficult dialogue, but no matter, Twain seemed to be part of my dna. Who didn’t known the name Mark Twain. At the turn into the 20th century he was one of the most famous people in the world. You can’t overestimate his popularity. He was, according to humorist Roy Blunt Junior, “our original superstar”. Author and critic, William Dean Howells, his literary confidant and friend of 40 years, gave him a more measured appraisal calling him the Lincoln of our literature.
(Exterior Old Train Station adjacent to tracks)
It’s June 18th and I’m standing across the tracks looking at the old Redding train station, a handsome white two-story wooden late 19th century building. In 1908 it was also home to a general store and post office. Today it’s a storefront church and a restaurant. The new station, about 100 yards behind me, is actually a platform with a roof with no protection from winter. My camera is set and I’m waiting to shoot the 4:15 from New York. It’s scheduled to arrive at 6:05.
Twain arrived in Redding on the Berkshire Express a little before 6pm. Travel time, 110 minutes, same as today. After Redding Twain’s train headed north, ending its run a few hours later in Pittsfield Mass.
What’s important about this branch line is that its been taking people and freight up and down its tracks for 160 years. Access to New York City by train was one of the reasons my family choose to buy a home in Redding. I was still working in the city and driving was not an option. Yes it’s a long commute, but think of all the work you can do on the train. Then of course there’s sleep. Would Twain have considered moving to Redding without easy access to New York City? He may have seen Redding as the perfect summer home (site unseen), but year round living, I’m not so sure. Is the Redding Mark Twain only possible because of this branch line?
For more than a year before he arrived, Twain’s new home could be seen rising above the treetops on Birch Spray Hill (Diamond Hill today). After the installation of the acetylene house lights, there was no electricity in this part of Redding, the intense glow of the lamps, they burned white, made the house visible for miles around. Twain once remarked after arriving home late one evening that the place looked like a factory working overtime.
Word spread that Twain’s train would arrive on Thursday, June 18th about 6pm. Twain boarded the Berkshire Express’ Pullman car at the Lexington ave. station. He traveled with his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and one of Paine’s daughters, Louise, home from school for the summer. The place we know as Grand Central was being rebuilt from top to bottom, literally. They were sinking the train yard two stories below grade to accommodate the new electric fleet. Coal fired engines would be banned in the rail yard and the new Park Avenue tunnel.
The whistle sounded as the Express made the turn into Redding and again as it approached the grade crossing. The engine eased to a stop with an exhalation of steam. According to Paine “There was a sort of open-air reception in waiting. Redding had recognized the day as historic. A varied assemblage of vehicles festooned with flowers had gathered to offer a gallant country welcome.” A photo was taken of Twain with some of the town’s children and then Twain sat in his carriage for the trip to his new house which he had ordained “Innocence at Home”.
Redding’s population numbered about 1,400 at the turn into the 20th century. The town had been loosing population since the 1860’s. At Twain’s death in 1910 the US census reported 1,500 residents, mostly farmers and trades people.
The three mile trip to his new home took about 25 minutes. Recent rains keep the dust at bay as the procession wound its way through the Saugatuck river valley. They passed fields of daisy’s swaying against green fields. Dog-wood and laurel stood amongst the trees. This was open farmland, with stone walls flowing with the contours of the land.
The road along the Saugatuck river was straightened in the mid 20’s. What’s left of the original road can be seen through the trees if you know what you’re looking for. Along the side of the road about a half a mile from the middle school are the remains of an old bridge with most of the original support beams intact.
Later to help the uninitiated find his estate Twain had small signs, with the letters MT and an arrow placed at every turn.
The procession turned west and crossed the Saugatuck river. Water was flowing over the mill dam. The wagons climbed. Twain remarked that the little brook cascading down the hillside remined him of some of the streams in Switzerland, the Giessbach he thought. At the top of the hill Twains carriage turned south onto today’s Mark Twain lane. On the west side of the lane stood Albert Bigelow Paine’s land and home. And to the east a piece of property given to Paine by Twain the year before.
As we approach the gate to his estate we pass another piece of land given to his private secretary, Isabel Lyon. She was deeded the property on the same day he gave land to Paine.
As we move down the carriage lane Twain would have seen his new home. The cleared, pasture land would have allowed him a unobstructed view of the house.
So how did Twain know about Redding?
When did he buy the land?
They saw a brook cascading down the hillside. He compared it to some of the tiny streams in Switzerland, the Giessbach he thought.
the last of the procession had dropped away as they reached
(hear train whistle) begin discussion of the documentary
Today, some residents might call Redding overgrown. There is now a thick green canopy. Before the American revolution the forest was made up of white, read and black oak. There was also American chestnut, hickory and birch.
Redding was, like most of Connecticut, a town of small farms.
To never have seen the land you’ve purchased or the house you had designed and built would strike many as foolish. Remarkably, this was Twain’s first trip to Redding. He was fond of saying, “I don’t want to see it until the cat is purring on the hearth.”
Sent from my iPad