Dubuque County Historical Society Images

The River People

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Captain Isaiah Sellers

Captain Isaiah Sellers was a steamboat pilot who logged over one million miles at the wheel during his illustrious thirty-five year career. Sellers was said to remember every changing towhead, channel and settlement. He introduced the tap of the bell as a signal to heave the lead when taking a sounding. In 1857, while piloting the Aleck Scott, he introduced the signal for the passing whistle, which was made into law by Congress, and with modifications, is still in use today. His record time of 3 days, 23 hours, 9 minutes on the J. M. White for the New Orleans to St. Louis route in 1844 stood for 26 years until broken by the Natchez in 1870.

Sellers was the first to use the sounding call "mark twain" as a pen name, and Samuel Clemens' first writing efforts about the river was a parody of Captain Sellers' "Mark Twain" column which appeared regularly in the New Orleans Picayune. Seller's tombstone in St. Louis is a life-size statue showing him at the pilot's wheel.

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