This Article originally appeared in the
February-March 2000 issue of
Missouri Life Magazine

Just as HANNIBAL inspired the sleepy river towns of MARK TWAIN’S fiction, it now piques the imagination of ENTREPRENEURS, thousands of TOURISTS, HISTORIANS, budding WRITERS, and city PLANNERS, not to mention the 18,004 people who make Hannibal their HOME. Although it is most well-known as the boyhood home of the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, that’s just not enough to keep a town on the map these days.

Hannibal has long been a popular tourist destination, but most visitors leave without noticing one of its most important landmarks. They’ll wander the streets of the rolling river town, peek into Mark Twain’s boyhood home, descend into a cave he explored, and walk alongside the river that he held dear. But they probably won’t take much note of the flood wall that saved the town from destruction during The Great Flood of ’93. Completed just weeks before the Mighty Mississippi rose high above its banks, the levee successfully kept the nearby downtown, including the historic district, from becoming a muddy mess.

“Someone was watching over us, because the flood lasted for two months,” says Faye Bleigh, executive director of the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It would have devastated the historic district, but the levee held the water back.”

Not only did the wall preserve the town’s past, it also assured its future. Floods prior to the levee’s construction had left the downtown underwater, making potential investors wary. Thanks to the levee, residents have restored vacant buildings and opened more shops. Downtown now bustles.

Among the buildings saved from the floodwaters were the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Henry Sweets, director of the museum, says about  ninety thousand visitors each year tour the museum. Even more visit the river town made famous worldwide by one of the nation’s most beloved authors.

Samuel Clemens, who later took the pen name Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri, in 1835. His father, an attorney and justice of the peace, moved the family in 1839 to Hannibal, where Twain lived until he was seventeen. It was a period in his life that inspired characters and plots for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and later, for his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1885.

Twain was born during the passing of Halley’s Comet and always said he’d die when it returned. His prediction came true, and he died April 21, 1910. Just three years later, his hometown dedicated a statue of him in Riverview Park, a nature area in Hannibal overlooking the Mississippi River. Inscribed on the statue are the words: “His religion was humanity, and a whole world mourned for him when he died.”

The fact that Hannibal didn’t waste any time honoring Twain attests to the deep mutual affection between the two, an affection that lives in the many landmarks tracing the author’s youth. The Mark Twain Museum, where a short video provides an entertaining introduction to Twain’s life, is a good starting place for your tour of Hannibal. Next to the museum is the two-story house where Twain grew up. And next to the house is the famous whitewashed fence that the fictional Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into painting. Across the street is Grant’s Drug Store and Judge Clemens’s Law Office. Two blocks away is the New Mark Twain Museum, which recently opened. On the first floor, scenes from six of Twain’s books will be recreated. A scene from Huckleberry Finn is already completed. On the mezzanine level, you can take hold of the pilot wheel or sound the steamboat whistle inside a replica of a Pilot House. The second floor features fifteen original Norman Rockwell paintings from special Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn editions.

The Mark Twain connection is pervasive among Hannibal’s businesses. There are the Mark Twain Dinette and Drive In, the Becky Thatcher Book Shop, and Tom Sawyer Dioramas and Gifts, to name just a few.

“I can’t think of another small town that is synonymous with one person,” Sweets says. “When people say Mark Twain or Tom Sawyer, you instantly think of Hannibal.”

Tom & Becky go to Disney World

The Twain heritage is being passed on to the town’s future generations. Ben Richardson and Clare Blase are only fourteen, but they can rattle off the history of their hometown, recite Twain’s stories, and tell you the hours and admission prices of local attractions.

The pair were crowned the reigning Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher after winning the annual competition. For forty-four years, Hannibal has held the contest as part of Tom Sawyer Days, which takes place during the Fourth of July weekend.

Last year, fifty-four girls and thirteen boys vied for the honor of impersonating Tom and Becky. After a panel of judges evaluated the candidates’ knowledge and speaking skills, the field was narrowed to five Toms and five Beckys, all dressed in homemade costumes and all serving as the town’s ambassadors.

But only one girl and one boy were chosen as the official Tom and Becky. Ben and Clare gladly adjust their schedules to make room for hundreds of Tom and Becky appearances throughout the year. Sometimes they have to miss school, which, in true Tom and Becky form, they don’t mind a bit. A big perk for the pair was a trip to Disney World with their families. The Tom Sawyer Island was reopening, so Ben and Clare stayed on the island for three days signing autographs and greeting visitors. They also served as grand marshals of Disney World’s Thanksgiving parade. And with all their knowledge about Mark Twain and Hannibal, what question do Ben and Clare get asked the most?

“Where’s the bathroom?” they reply in unison.

Hannibal Yesterday and Today

The area surrounding and including present-day Hannibal was first inhabited by American Indians, including the Missouri, Sac, and Fox tribes. French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet are credited with discovering the future site of Hannibal in 1673. Don Antonio Soulard, a Spanish general, mapped the area for the Spanish government in 1800. He named Hannibal Creek, now known as Bear Creek, after the famous Carthaginian general who herded elephants across the Alps in his 218 a.d. invasion of Italy.

Moses Bates founded Han-nibal in 1819, and the city was chartered in 1845. Shipping became a major economic mainstay of the river town, followed by the railroad industry with the 1859 completion of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.

During the Civil War, the town suffered a setback, as did most communities at that time. Although many residents sympathized with the Confederacy, they lived amid the Union soldiers who occupied the town during the war years.

You might say the post-Civil War period in Hannibal was a time of bridge building, figuratively and literally. The town’s first bridge was built for the Wabash Railroad and opened in 1871. It was only the second bridge over the Mississippi that linked Missouri and Illinois. For a toll, automobiles were permitted to cross, too.

In 1936 cars got their own bridge when Mark Twain Memorial Bridge opened amid much fanfare, highlighted by President Franklin Roosevelt’s dedication speech. After sixty-three years of carrying traffic over the Mississippi, the venerable old bridge is now deteriorating and will soon be replaced.

A new $55 million bridge, located about a quarter-mile north of the old one, stands as a symbol of change. The four-lane structure will connect Hannibal to Interstate 72, which currently ends in Illinois. “When this bridge project is completed, we will be the hub of two four-lane highways, and we’ve been told we will experience growth in Hannibal,” Faye says.

However, progress comes with a price. The current bridge provides visitors a glimpse of the quaint downtown as they cross the Mississippi. It leads directly into Hannibal’s historic district, whereas the new bridge will put drivers farther north. Faye says the Missouri Department of Transportation is working with the city on directional signs to help tourists locate the downtown area.

Two local residents, Roberta and Hurley Hagood, are writing a history of Hannibal’s bridges, Hannibal Bridges the Mississippi. They have written other books about the town, and when asked to name the most significant event in Hannibal’s history, Roberta  replies that it was the 1935 yearlong observation of the hundredth anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth. The celebration included the printing of special editions of Twain’s books, parades, and much pageantry.

“Honestly, without the claim to fame, we’d be just another river town,” Mayor Robert Moloney says.

But, in fact, tourism is not the number one industry in Hannibal. It is number three, after manufacturing and agriculture. All three industries and the opening of the new bridge have Hannibal poised for growth. The city recently annexed sixteen hundred acres and hired its first professional city planner and city manager.

The local economy is strong, with only a 3.5 percent unemployment rate, says Deanna David, development specialist for the Northeast Missouri Development Au-thority. Some of the largest employers in Hannibal include American Cyanamid,  DieMakers, Goodyear, Dura Automotive, and Pillsbury.

Nineteenth-Century Charm

Much of Hannibal’s charm comes from the lovingly restored nineteenth-century buildings and homes that grace the town’s undulating landscape. Perhaps the most impressive of these is Rockcliffe Mansion. Taking its name from its perch high on a rocky cliff, the mansion was built for John Cruikshank, his wife, and their four daughters. Cruikshank owned the largest lumber company west of the Mississippi in the mid-1800s. When he decided to build a new house, he hired architects Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, who designed the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City and the St. Louis Cathedral, to design his dream home. Finished in 1900, the Greek Revival house was constructed of the finest lumber and cost $125,000.

On Mark Twain’s last visit to Hannibal in 1902, he dined with the Cruikshanks at the mansion in celebration of the honorary degree he had just received from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

After Cruikshank died in 1924, the house sat empty and fell into disrepair. Vandals broke almost all the windows. Incredibly, the magnificent Tiffany stained-glass window on the landing was spared.

The once-extravagant home was slated for destruction in 1967 when three families stepped in at the last moment to buy it. Descendants of these families still own the home, but live-in caretakers Jerry and Mary McAvoy now oversee the mansion’s thirty-three rooms, twenty-seven closets, third- floor ballroom, and observatory.

The home is open for tours. It is also available for weddings and receptions but is already booked through October 2000.

New Artist Program

A new program called Project Provenance encourages artists to join several artists already in residence in Hannibal, Louisiana, and Clarksville by offering low-interest loans to restore historic buildings as studios. The towns will promote the artists and benefit from the added tax revenue and tourism.

With all the changes Hannibal faces, Mayor Moloney doesn’t want to lose sight of the town’s river heritage. Development of a riverfront hiking and biking trail is underway to make the Mississippi’s riverbanks more accessible.

“What we are trying to do is restore Hannibal to the expectations that people have when they come to visit,” the mayor says. “It’s the most famous river town in the U.S. and maybe even the world.”