Mark Twain and the Secret of Dilsberg, Germany

Dilsberg on the Neckar River

Dilsberg, a German town crowning a hill on the Neckar River. (c) Kai Petrik, pixelio.de 240571

Every medieval town had its mysteries.

Dilsberg, a walled town atop a hill that towers above Germany’s Neckar River, was no exception. Its mystery was its defense. Dilsberg had never been conquered in a siege, and the besiegers could never figure out how the Dilsbergers remained fat and well-armed even after their access to the outside world was cut off.

Who would have thought that a traveling American would hit upon a secret that had eluded generals and armies?

Mark Twain in Germany

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

When Mark Twain traveled to Germany in 1878, he never planned to solve a military mystery. He was in the middle of writing Huckleberry Finn and had ideas for a new book on European travel, A Tramp Abroad. In the summer of 1878 he took a trip down the Neckar and Dilsberg caught his eye.

Twain's sketch of Dilsberg

Twain’s own sketch of Dilsberg. From “A Tramp Abroad,” public domain.

“For Dilsberg is a quaint place. It is most quaintly and picturesquely situated, too. Imagine the beautiful river before you; then a few rods of brilliant green sward on its opposite shore; then a sudden hill, – no preparatory gently-rising slopes, but a sort of instantaneous hill, – a hill two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet high, as round as a bowl…, and with just exactly room on the top of its head for its steepled and turreted and roof-clustered cap of architecture, which same is tightly jammed and compacted within the perfectly round hoop of the ancient village wall…. [F]rom a distance Dilsberg has rather more the look of a king’s crown than a cap.”

Dilsberg castle.

Tower and battlements of the Dilsberg castle.

Twain hiked up the hill to visit the town. Once inside the city wall, he explored the castle ruins. “It proved to be an extensive pile of crumbling walls, arches, and towers, massive, properly grouped for picturesque effect…” Children accompanied him and acted as his tour guides. They climbed the castle tower and walked on its lofty battlements.

Dilsberg and the legend of the secret passage

It was the children who let him in on the secret. “But the principal show, the chief pride of the children, was the ancient and empty well in the grass-grown court of the castle. Its massive stone curb stands up three or four feet above the ground, and is whole and uninjured…. There were some who believed it had never been a well at all, and was never deeper than it is now, – eighty feet; that at that depth a subterranean passage branched from it and descended gradually to a remote place in the valley, where it opened into somebody’s cellar or other hidden recess, and that the secret of this locality is now lost.”

The Old Well. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

This, Twain said, was the secret to Dilsberg’s defense. Dilsbergers were bringing in supplies through the secret passage. The children tried to prove the existence of the passage to him by dropped burning straw down the well. It struck bottom and burnt out without any smoke coming up.

“You see!” said the children. “Nothing makes so much smoke as burning straw – now where did the smoke go to, if there is no subterranean outlet?”

But was the story true or not? Sometimes with Twain’s travel tales it’s hard to tell.

The well in the Dilsberg castle today.

The well in the castle courtyard.

A Twain fan solves the mystery

Entrance to the Dilsberg tunnel

Tunnel entrance on the hillside.

In 1900, one Twain fan decided to find out. Frank von Briesen, a German American, was fascinated by the well story. He traveled to Dilsberg, let himself down the well on a rope, and found a passageway blocked by rubble. In 1926 he paid to have the outlet cleared. It terminated in the wooded hillside. The tunnel is now open to the public and the city of Dilsberg offers tours in the summer. Historians believe it was probably built to provide air circulation. But who knows? Maybe the Dilsbergers also used it during sieges to get supplies.

And maybe Mark Twain really did solve one of Germany’s mysteries for the outside world. If it hadn’t been for Twain and one of his fans, knowledge of the secret passage might have been lost.

Literature on point

All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)

Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)

Der Burgstollen

12 Comments

  1. Jill Swenson
    Apr 29, 2015

    I thought I knew Twain and yet this is all new and wonderfully charming to discover about “A Tramp Abroad.” The secret passage from the well is an astonishing artifact of history and for a fan to press for it to be explored is a wonderful testament to the power of books.

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 29, 2015

      Yes, exactly, Jill! And the discovery of the secret passage adds an element of suspense to the rest of the book. Are those tall tales or not? Answering that question will invite further tramps abroad by his fans.

  2. Brian
    May 12, 2015

    Frank von Briesen waited 26 years to clear some rubble?
    I couldn’t wait that long!

    I wonder if there were invaders trying to come in through the well and they dropped rocks on them from above.

    • Ann Marie
      May 12, 2015

      I’d be inpatient too, but von Briesen didn’t have the money to do it right away.

      The invaders never discovered the tunnel, as far as I know. But you raise an interesting question — why were there rocks in the tunnel? I don’t know.

  3. Chris Wilson
    Sep 5, 2016

    I lived in Heidelberg in the 70’s and my 5th grade class took an overnight field trip to Dilsberg. We learned about the well and the secret tunnel. I was even inside the tunnel. I had no idea that Mark Twain was there until I read this post.

    • Ann Marie
      Sep 6, 2016

      You’ve done something I’ve been wanting to do: take a tour of the tunnel! It’s open during the summer months, but unfortunately, it wasn’t open the last time I visited Dilsberg.

  4. Lynne
    Jan 25, 2017

    We lived in Dilsberg in the early 1980’s. We lived in the original old Rathaus (town hall) which was several hundred years old. In the basement there was a door to a tunnel leading to the castle. Of course, no one could go in it any more since it was filled with pipes.

    • Ann Marie
      Jan 29, 2017

      What a fascinating piece of Dilsberg history, Lynne. It makes me wonder if there were other tunnels the Dilsbergers used during sieges. Thanks for sharing.

    • remy
      Jun 10, 2019

      Lol! Hi, Mom. I was just about to write the exact same thing you did. ?

      • Ann Marie
        Jun 11, 2019

        I’m please to host mini-family reunions on my site! Thanks for commenting.

  5. D. Pederson
    Jun 4, 2019

    In 1971, my sister, cousin, and I traveled to Dilsberg and at that time one could pay to enter the tunnel (we did look down the well) then walked along the trail to the location where we found the gated door and entered. The temperature dropped and it became chilly. We were young enough that we could bend over to enter. I remember the large black slugs on the walls. We then found the bottom of the well and looked up to the sky. It was said the tunnel was used for hiding supplies and even people.
    Returned to Germany on a business trip in the early 1990s and there was no mention of the tunnel. I asked about it and a woman seemed surprised I even knew about it. She did allow me to take a key to the gate, which was locked. I opened it and looked inside. And there was no way I would enter, nor could I have crouched down as I once did to get inside. All I thought was I must have been really young and limber to bend down enough enter that tunnel. But it was quite an experience in my early 20s. Dilsberg is lovely, interesting, and worth the trip.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 5, 2019

      What a fascinating story! When I was there, about three years ago, the tunnel was still gated but was opened for tours. I asked about it at the castle and got information about it, so it least it’s on the city’s tourism radar now. And you are right, Dilsberg is an absolutely lovely town. Thanks for commenting!

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