Mark Twain – July 19, 1955

 Disneyland: Day Three
by Todd James Pierce

There are a number of odd things about the banner photo today.

First of all, Tom Sawyer Island is still just a muddy rise–a heap of dirt leftover from river excavation, as well as a few plants.  There are no structures out there yet, just a simple waterfall and a little creek.  In fact the name “Tom Sawyer” hasn’t been yet applied to the island.  Second, the upper deck of the Mark Twain is done up with resort-style lounge chairs.  I suppose, just in case park guests wanted to soak up some rays?  But then if you look a little lower, you’ll find a group of passengers all staring at the same spot in the water.  If you follow their line of vision, you’ll discover the truly unusual element in this photo.  There, about twenty-five feet from shore, is a middle-aged man in a bathing suit.  There’s even a snorkeling mask flipped up on his forehead.

So what exactly is he doing in the water?

This photo was snapped July 19, 1955.  A couple days earlier, on July 17th, images of Disneyland were televised across the nation.  “Dateline: Disneyland,” a 90-minute TV special, presented Walt’s wonderland as it first opened to VIP guests and members of the press.  The brilliance of that show was that it presented the park so it appeared mostly finished.  But the truth was, large sections were nowhere near complete.  So the moment the TV crews left, Walt directed his managers to finish Disneyland, even if those efforts took the remainder of the year.  Today’s photo most likely showcases part of that work.

Now for the sad news: I can’t tell you exactly what this diver is doing in the water.  I do have a couple good theories, however.  (1) During the first week of operation, at least once, the Mark Twain came uncoupled from–or perhaps bottomed out on–its rail.  There was at least one rail/wheel issue that needed to be fixed.  So possibly this man is venturing out to check junctures in the track.  (2) The riverbed was notoriously porous.  In the weeks leading up to Disneyland’s grand opening, retired Rear Admiral Joe Fowler (the man who over saw much of the park’s construction) repeatedly tried to seal the riverbed so that it held the massive body of water.  Fowler tried various synthetic sealants and finally settled on a mixture of river clay and cement which was sprayed through high-pressure nozzles into the sandy trough that would form the man-made river.  So the second theory–which I feel is more likely–is that the man is checking the state of the newly formed cement-and-clay riverbed.

Whatever the cause, the early jitters of the Mark Twain are fairly easy to document.  For most of the park’s initial week, the Mark Twain carried about six thousand passengers each day.  On this day (July 19th), the ship ferried 6,461 guests around the river.  But just two days later the steamboat carried only 235 passengers–which would represent roughly one trip.  Was it a problem with the river, the track, the boat itself?  Again, I don’t know.  But in these numbers–and in this photo–you can start to see actual day-to-day struggles of Walt’s newly opened amusement park.

In the coming months–as part of the DHI blog–some of the areas I want to explore are the struggles, challenges and successes of that first year when Disneyland was still evolving from an idea toward an ideal.

OK, that’s all I got for today. 

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