HANNIBAL, MISSOURI – MISSISSIPPI RIVER TOWN
Hannibal MO Boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens
Table of Contents
- River Town
- Transportation Hub
- Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad
- Pony Express Mail
- Railroad Post Office Car
- CB&Q Railroad
- The Wabash Railroad
- The St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad
- The Glamour of Steam
- World War Two
- POW Camp
- The Wedges
- Mark Twain Legacy
MISSISSIPPI RIVER TOWN
In order to get an idea of who I was, and why I was who I was, you have to understand a little about the culture of the family and town in which I grew up. I have related some of the content in this volume in previously published stories on various Internet sites. As I gathered them for inclusion here, I made some edits, added some content where it helped convey the story, and arranged them in somewhat chronological order. They will likely vary slightly from the original publications.
Commercial Transportation Hub
Hannibal, Missouri is a mid-western town located on the western banks of the Mississippi River, just south of Quincy, Illinois, and about one hundred miles north of St Louis. It had already become an important river town by the year 1859, boasting over 1,000 steamboat landings annually.
The average date for the start of navigation on the North Mississippi Region is March 22, depending on the spring thaw, and typically extends until Thanksgiving, about eight months, again, depending on the arrival of winter. Allowing for the additional days the river is closed to navigation for spring flooding, that’s an average of over 4 boat landings every day! That’s a lot of freight and passengers coming and going every day!
In addition to the busy port downtown, Hannibal had a shipyard where Mississippi River steamboat hulls were built. Located at Soap Hollow, the valley north of town where the Hannibal waterworks pump station was later located, the hulls were towed to St. Louis for installation of engines and superstructures.
Several well known boats were built at Soap Hollow, including the steam sidewheelers Marhta Jewett and the Robert Campbell, both built in 1850. Both were destroyed in a fire at St. Louis; the El Paso, which was built for Missouri River navigation in 1850, and the last boat constructed by Soap Hollow Boatworks was the Charles Belcher, a sidewheeler built in 1852, which too, was lost to fire in St. Louis.
During my youth, however, there was only an occasional landing by a replica stern-wheel or paddle-wheel river boat scheduled for special events. Often they would provide an excursion for a few miles up or down river prior to their main event, and afterwards return to their home bases.
Also, a small, locally owned excursion boat operated out of the riverfront area for many years, offering frequent hour-long river cruises and daily two-hour sunset buffet-dinner cruises. The three-story boat was cleverly outfitted with replica steamboat smokestacks, hand railings and paddle wheel housing to make it resemble a small steamboat.
Most river traffic during my childhood, however, bypassed Hannibal in long lines of barges being pushed by river tugs. The exception being when long strings of barges were tied up near Turtle Island, waiting to load up the grain harvested from local fields. In this photo, a powerful river tug pushes barges against the current as it passes Hannibal.
There were huge grain terminals that dominated the riverfront and the skyline. They overshadowed the nearby power plant and towered like the limestone bluffs that framed the riverfront area. In the fall, during the week of harvest, there would be a line of loaded farm trucks in the center lane of Broadway clear back to Sixth Street, as they waited their turn to be unloaded at the elevator.
In some years, when sufficient supplies of barges was not available, for whatever reason, drastic measures had to be taken to protect the crop in temporary storage until sufficient barges could be obtained to ship the grain to market.
In 1955, with the grain elevators full, and barges late in arriving, wheat was again temporarily stored on a bed of overlapping tarpaulins laid in the center of Broadway at the riverfront, and covered with additional tarps to protect the crop from the weather. The parking spaces on either side became the traffic lanes for emergency vehicles only. Otherwise, the area was closed to motor vehicle traffic. Notice the block long pile of wheat.
The grain terminals were destroyed by the historic Great Flood of 1993, and had to be demolished as soon as the water receded. The nearby electric power plant, where my Uncle, Joe Hoffman, a WWII Navy veteran, worked, was also demolished soon after that flood.
In the spring of most years, Uncle Joe had to use a rowboat or hitch a ride in one of the Guard’s trucks, to reach the power plant due to the mighty Mississippi flooding downtown Hannibal. In Hannibal the minor flood stage begins at 16 feet and the moderate flood level is 22 feet. In 1993 the flood reached 29 feet.
The Great Flood of 1993 occurred along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries, from April to October 1993. The flood was among the most costly and devastating to ever occur in the United States, with $15 billion in damages in around 30,000 square miles.
Hannibal floods were common when I was growing up. Our home was on the other side of Bear Creek, on the west edge of town, so when the Mississippi flooded, Bear Creek flooded along with two other creeks that fed into it, causing Lindell Avenue to be closed, and we couldn’t get to town until the water receded. That, sometimes, was several days.
Hannibal National Guard
Originally organized 21 February 1896 in the Missouri National Guard at Hannibal as Company F, 4th Regiment, the unit was mustered into Federal service 16 May 1898 at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, as Company F, 4th Missouri Volunteer Infantry; mustered out of Federal service 10 February 1899 at Camp Wetherill, South Carolina, and reverted to state control as Company F, 4th Infantry.
Reorganized, and Federally recognized 15 November 1947 in the Missouri National Guard at Hannibal as the 35th Military Police Company, an element of the 35th Infantry Division
The Admiral Coontz armory, where the unit was based, at Third and Collier Streets, on the banks of Bear Creek, is where my dad worked, and it would also get flooded. As flooding appeared to be approaching, dad would get permission from the company commander to move trucks, jeeps and other equipment out of the motor pool, which was housed in a large limestone building on Clements Field, 401 Collier Street.
Various members of the Guard would take the equipment to their homes where they could be protected from the danger of flooding. Dad would drive one of the biggest motor pool trucks home, so he could ford the flood waters and get to the armory. He often pulled a very large trailer containing the field kitchen and equipment, which he would later spot downtown when the Guard unit was activated.
Often, the National Guard was activated by the Governor to help with building retaining walls by stacking gunny sacks full of sand along the riverfront as high as the predicted flood crest, then covering the bags with tarps to hold back the water. It was exciting to me to watch them hurriedly carry bags to spots where leaks occurred to get the holes plugs before they got any bigger. and the sandbagging at the river’s edge, and During the sandbagging the local Guard unit was often activated for several days at a time, and would set up their field kitchen in a very large tent somewhere in the downtown area where the troops could take breaks and get refreshment.
The guardsmen used the unit’s equipment to set up and operate just as they would if deployed to the field, carrying supplies, transporting support personnel, assisting in evacuations by jeep or truck, and all the other tasks that were required during the emergency. I remember a Captain Elmer Meyers being in charge, my dad being a staff sergeant, and a few of the troops . . . Delbert and Everette Tate, Bill Schenck, Webb, Tompkins, Tucker, and Robertson.
View of First and Bird Streets, along the waterfront in 1951. Note the three story buildings along the street. A railroad signalman’s shack displays warning flags on the front. Notice what appears to be a wooden caboose cupola floating near the right edge of the photo.
Broadway at Main Street, during flood, 1951.
National Grocery Store, Collier and “Fourth Streets during flood
1951 Flood on North Main Street
CB&Q RR Yards, Hannibal MO, during early onset of spring flood, 1951
Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad
1859 is also the year the first railroad to cross the state of Missouri was completed from Hannibal on the Eastern border to St. Joseph on the Western edge, north of Kansas City.
The Hannibal & St Joseph Railroad was completed when lines being built from either side of the state met in Chillicothe, Missouri, on February 13, 1859 with great fanfare, marking the beginning of an important era in the history of the river town now turned railroad hub.
Construction of the railroad originally started during an 1846 meeting at the Hannibal office of John H. Clemens, father of Mark Twain. After land grants and financing had been arranged, track work was started in 1851 from both cities. Bonds from counties along the route, along with the donation of 600,000 acres in land voted by Congress, paid for construction.
A golden spike ceremony occurred on Feb. 13, 1859, about three miles east of Chillicothe. During its first year, the railroad was a success because of a gold strike in Colorado. The railroad was the fastest way across Missouri. A bronze marker embedded in a concrete pillar alongside the track commemorated the golden spike site for many years, but disappeared in 1982 after the rail lines were abandoned.
The marker was, years later, found in a rail car that’s part of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad Museum in Galesburg, Ill. The museum hadn’t yet placed the marker on display, and agreed to loan it for exhibitions in Missouri, the first exhibit being at the Chillicothe Historical Society in 2009.
Pony Express Mail
In 1860, the Hannibal & St.Joseph RR (nicknamed “The Joe Line”) began carrying westbound Pony Express mail across the state on a test basis, to win a contract from the postal service. On the very first test the messenger carrying the mail from Washington and New York missed a train connection which made him two hours late leaving Hannibal. However, men of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad met the emergency with one of the most famous “fast mail” train rides in history.
In preparation for the high speed run, the main track was cleared of traffic all the way from Hannibal to St Joseph, and all switches were aligned for the main line and spiked in place. No one was allowed to cross the tracks for half an hour prior to the train’s scheduled arrival.
Station Agents telegraphed reports of the train’s progress as it passed their location. Engineer Addison Clark made history that day as he high-balled the locomotive, “Missouri,” pulling one coach, the entire distance for a run that was to stand as a speed record for 50 years.
Railroad Post Office Car
The H&StJ RR railroad shops in Oakwood, on the western edge of Hannibal, constructed the first railroad post office car designed to allow clerks to sort mail while the train was en route to its destination. The original mail car was a converted baggage car that made it possible to expedite the transfer of sorted mail to the Pony Express, and won the “Joe Line,” a much coveted mail contract from the U.S. Postmaster.
The “Joe Line” shops also built the first railroad locomotive manufactured west of the Mississippi River. It was a 34-ton locomotive named the Colonel Grant, in honor of the army colonel who was assigned at that time to protect the railroad and Pony Express mail during the American Civil War. In Civil War years, the majority of Hannibal citizens favored the Confederate cause, but the city was occupied by Colonel U.S. Grant’s union soldiers throughout the war due to its importance as a railroad center.
At that time nearly all that portion of the State of Missouri through which the railroad ran, was in a state of rebellion against the United States. For some months previously, armed bands of rebels had committed frequent depredations on the railroad by firing into trains, burning bridges, trains of cars, and station-houses, destroying culverts, and tearing up the track.
Over the years, the lively river traffic and the continual expansion of railroads combined to bring great prosperity to Hannibal, and by the 1940s it had grown into a good sized industrial center, with factories of many types located along the Wabash Railroad and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad that followed Bear Creek through town.
As the economy moved from industry-based to service-based, Hannibal’s prosperity began to wane as businesses began to close down or consolidate with other companies. By the mid-1950s population began to decline, and once grand buildings and entire neighborhoods began to experience deferred maintenance, and eventually, disrepair. Hannibal business leaders began to shift toward attracting tourist dollars by promoting itself as the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad used the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad for through traffic from the west to Chicago almost from the very start, and in 1883 bought the Joe Line. The rail connection between Hannibal and St. Joseph remained in place for about 125 years.
On March 2, 1970, the railroad became the property of Burlington Northern, later BNSF. Seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River and Hannibal’s creeks caused heavy damage to the railroad and the factories that lined the tracks, over decades, and caused the CB&Q to eventually abandon their operations in Hannibal.
The complex included two yards for assembling trains headed in both directions, an estimated 42 double ended tracks for making up the trains, numerous stub tracks for temporary storage, large roundhouse with turntable, machine shop, carpentry shop, wheel shop, and numerous support facilities, as well as the District Headquarters office building.
Burlington Northern Railroad Hannibal Switchyard 1970
The Wabash Railroad
There was a Wabash Railroad switching yard located along Bear Creek just west of where it crossed Lindell Avenue. My mother used to tell the story of how she couldn’t trust me to stay in our yard at 1505 Vermont Street when the nearby Wabash railroad switchyard got busy. I would slip out the gate and hurry the few blocks to the bridge over Mills Creek near the switchyard to watch freight trains being made up.
I was always enjoyed the engines hustling back and forth in the yard making up trains, and it was exciting to watch the trains as they pulled out of the yard to begin their journeys to faraway exotic-sounding places. And, I knew how far back to stand so the engine wouldn’t scald me with steam as it chuffed across the street. The freight cars and cabooses were always painted with eye-catching lettering and symbols, and stirred the imagination as they passed by.
3,000 foot long Norfolk Southern Railroad ladder-track switchyard in Hannibal MO
When we visited my great-grandparents on Market Street in Hannibal, their backyard ran adjacent to a siding leading to a lumber yard just two houses away. Beyond the lumber yard siding were two other sets of tracks; one for the Wabash and one for CB&Q. Often, I would get to see a switcher go by with cars for local delivery at the same time the lumber yard was being switched! That was a thrill!
Cinders and Sparks
We played outdoors in those days, before homes had televisions or any type digital device. I would hurry to the back edge of their yard when I heard a train coming, to watch it pass by, or deliver or pick up cars at sidings just down the block. The trains had cabooses at the end where the brakeman and conductor rode. I always thought it was fun to have a crew member wave back as they passed by. I guess, based on mom’s remarks, I was always a rail fan.
The Short Line
The St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad, known locally as “The Short Line,” (StL&H) was originally incorporated as the St. Louis & Keokuk RR on February 16, 1857. The Civil war and various depressions and recessions prevented its actual construction until 1871. The first Short Line train reached Perry July 1892, and the track was then extended from Oakwood into Hannibal. A brick depot was built at 501 S. Main Street in 1892.
Beginning in 1933, the railroad began operating four Mack AD model railbuses to bolster passenger service, and ran infrequent freight trains as well. It helped for a time but eventually the Perry Branch was abandoned in 1943 and the main line was abandoned in 1944. The company was finally dissolved March 12, 1945.
The final railroad configuration was mainline from Hannibal to Gilmore, and branch line from Ralls Junction in New London, to Perry. The railroad was never very profitable as it served a largely rural area with little industry and small revenues. The building of hard surface roads, particularly U.S. Highway 61, the ever expanding Foster Bus Line routes, growing trucking industry and finally the personal automobile spelled its demise.
The depot at Center, Missouri was preserved and donated to the Ralls County Historical Society. And, in August 19, 2003 a dedication service was held at New London naming Missouri Highway 19 between U.S. Highway 61 and the edge of Perry as the Short Line Route.
The Glamour of Steam
Growing up in the steam era, I greatly admired steam locomotives, and the men on the crews. I recall, as a young school age boy, how I would patiently wait for a train to clear Lindell Avenue as it entered or departed the Wabash switch yard. At that particular point on Lindell Avenue, the Mills Creek bridge was only a block from the Bear Creek bridge.
Mills Creek was a branch of the Bear Creek, and when Bear Creek flooded that whole area was underwater, sometimes for days. That’s when the boats came out, to provide transportation, and sometimes rescue. As the waters rose, the switch engines would pull the cars in transit out onto the main line where they would be safe.
When a train was leaving, I knew just how far back to stand on the Bear Creek bridge to keep from getting drenched by the clouds of steam as they condensed. I enjoyed reading the slogans on the freight cars, and daydreaming, I suppose, about those exotic sounding places and the slogans proclaimed in such huge letters.
Common railroad slogans were “Old Reliable” (Louisville & Nashville RR), “The Western Way” (Western & Pacific RR), “Mainline of Mid-America” (Illinois Central RR), “Heart of the South” (Seaboard Airline RR), “Everywhere West” (Burlington Route), and there were many more. It just stirred one’s imagination with mystical names, locations and journeys.
And, keep in mind that this was in the days before television, so it was like a travel brochure being paraded in front of you. I always noticed the freight cars that had heavy coats of dirt above the wheels, noticed the color of the soil, and wondered at all the magical places the car had traveled.
For more than a century the caboose was a fixture at the end of every freight train in America. Along with its vanished cousin the steam locomotive, the caboose evokes memories of the golden age of railroading.
In those days the caboose usually had a conductor, a head brakeman, and a rear brakeman. I patiently waited for the freight cars to clear the street because I knew that at the end there would be a caboose with colorful messages painted on it, and perhaps, a friendly railroader that might wave back.
World War Two
The Hannibal shoe factories were providing a substantial boost to the local economy as they were working full tilt to meet the deadlines of government contracts for combat boots and shoes for our troops.
The International Shoe Company was one of the first industries in Hannibal to convert to wartime production. In 1940, International Shoe employed twenty-five hundred workers. In 1941, it began to convert its shoe production to the use of wooden heels (as rubber was needed for the war effort). Up to fifteen thousand shoes were produced per day.
The Bluff City Shoe factory, above, also converted to defense manufacturing by producing men’s shoes. In 1943, it began rebuilding used shoes for the Army, employing more than eight hundred workers who could refurbish as many as six thousand pairs per day.
Dura Steel, which had retooled in early 1940 to produce lawn furniture, instead began filling an order for more than 100,000 M47A1 chemical bombs in 1942 and then went on to produce metal canteens. Of Dura Steel’s one hundred employees during the war, thirty-seven of them were women. Many members of my family worked in these local businesses that supported the war effort.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hannibal joined the rest of the nation in supporting the war effort. Civilian defense measures were practiced, including the use of camouflage. To prevent light from being seen during blackout drills, Hannibal housewives hung heavy, dark drapes and blinds in their windows.
Many local citizens joined the military services to take part in World Wars I and II. Their names are memorialized here, in Central Park in Hannibal. Among those whose names appear are my father and several uncles and many cousins.
The Red Cross raised funds, and defense savings bonds were purchased from local banks. Rationing of sugar, coffee, meat, canned goods, butter, tires, typewriters, shoes and nylons was instituted. Victory gardens were planted. Metals for ammunition and rubber to make tires for military vehicles were donated to the war effort.
In the fall of 1944, 265 German prisoners of war were brought by train to Hannibal from Clarinda, Iowa, for a six-week project. More than two million shoes had been donated to the war effort from all across the country, and the Germans were brought to Hannibal to aid in sorting the shoes and preparing them for repair.
Bluff City Shoe Company had received the army’s contract to refurbish the shoes, which would then be sent to Europe. Clemens Field was converted into a temporary encampment for the prisoners, who lived in tents behind a barbed-wire fence inside the compound.
The town was abuzz, but the German POWs were well received. Bread and fresh vegetables were regularly brought to the camp by Hannibal residents concerned for the Germans’ well-being. There was even talk that the POWs might be allowed to attend a football game at Hannibal High School, but the U.S. Army vetoed the idea. One Hannibal resident recalled groups of locals gathering at the edge of the bluff at the end of South Fifth Street to listen to the prisoners singing as they sat around their evening campfires.
Hannibal had streets along Market Street that merged at an angle, creating a number of “Y” intersections. These were usually caused by the need to follow the topography of tall limestone bluffs and deep ravines.
Closest to downtown was the Broadway wedge, and a few blocks further south was the Pearl Street wedge, and in a few more blocks, the Lindell Avenue wedge. At these locations there were wedge shaped buildings that protruded right out to the sidewalk, usually wide enough for a front door opening into a foyer, or in the case of restaurants, they would open into the dining area.
The tip of the Broadway wedge was occupied by a two-story red brick building that housed the one-five-oh cab company, the name of which was derived from their telephone number, 1-5-0. In 1944, to make a telephone call, you picked up the receiver and waited for the operator to ask, “Number, please.” You would tell her the number, and then she would connect you.
Other businesses on the Market Street side of the wedge included the Wedge Cafe, a shoe store, a tavern, then a grocery store, a dress shop, the Ben Franklin five-and-dime and finally a paint store. On the other side of the street were a butcher shop, another tavern and pool hall, barber Shop, and Elder’s Furniture. At one time the barber shop was operated by my maternal great-grandfather, John Redman Teall.
The Pearl Street wedge was occupied by residential housing in the east end of the 1700 block of Market. Behind them stood West School, later replaced by Eugene Field school. The entire row of buildings was razed to Laurel Street and became the front lawn for Eugene Field School.
1700 Block of Market Street, pre-1925. West School on the left
The 1913 Sanborn fire map of Market and Pearl streets shows the wedge-shaped block that stood to the north of the old West School. The school was later replaced by the current Eugene Field School, and the houses shown in the photo above were demolished and basements filled in. The site is the current front lawn of Eugene Field School.
Subsequent school expansion caused Laurel Street to be vacated and old red brick two story business buildings were also demolished and made into a parking lot.
The Lindell wedge was highlighted by a two story red brick building that housed a large number of apartments. Across the street to the north, on Gordon Street, was Bluff City Dairy’s ice cream shop. To the east were one and two story brick buildings that housed a large number of retail businesses ranging from hardware store to department stores, cafes, neighborhood groceries and Tolson’s bakery, that fragranced the whole area.
Hannibal was the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, known to the world as writer and humorist Mark Twain, who learned to pilot steamboats on the Mississippi while living in Hannibal. The fictional character Tom Sawyer was very prominent in Hannibal. Many businesses were named after him.
As school children, we made class trips to his boyhood home, now a museum, his father’s office, Becky Thatcher’s house, and “the” cave, which was now lighted and offered guided tours. There were statues displayed prominently of Tom Sawyer as a boy, and Samuel Clemens as young steamboat pilot, as an adult humorist. In Junior high School we read his book about Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and the other characters who made the Adventures so colorful.
The early edition books by Twain that we read in school are now banned because they have been deemed politically incorrect, instead of being viewed as reflections of our heritage. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is an 1876 novel about a young boy growing up along the Mississippi River in the years just after the Civil War. Missouri was a predominately Confederate state, held to the Union by occupation forces.
The setting of the Adventures book is in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, which for local residents, was easily recognized as Hannibal, with its riverfront docks, limestone bluffs and cavernous caves. I had saved a first edition of the book for my grandchildren, but it got away when my darling wife and I gave up housekeeping and gave everything to our church.
So, all of this history was a huge part of what I knew about the world. We are products of our environments, and my life story shows that to be absolutely true, although I didn’t recognize it myself until later in life. Railroads, uniforms, floods and emergency rescues, public safety, public service, all parts of my childhood were interwoven to shape the fabric of my life.
Next chapter: Childhood Memories