On the Mississippi
Over the years the CLUI has been exploring the Mississippi River, from the water and from the land. This latest report is from a visit to the old river town of Hannibal, home of Mark Twain, when the water was rising and the levee floodgates were going in last summer.
HANNIBAL IS A PLACE LARGELY about Mark Twain. It’s a real town that presents its history as a fictional place, as if it were real—which it is, in a sense. This is a tourist town, with the Mark Twain Hotel, the Mark Twain Brewing Company, the Mark Twain Dinette, the Mark Twain Riverboat, and the Mark Twain Museum. Twain was a professional tourist storyteller, and his town has become a place about the fiction of tourism.
Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) told stories of the American Land in a very geographic way. He grew up in the middle of the country, at the gateway to the West, where he was weaned on the Mississippi, that great highway of early American commerce, and conveyor of liquefied national terrain. Twain went all the way west as a young man in the 1860s, with the miners of the Sierra Nevada, and then east, settling in Elmira, New York, and Hartford, Connecticut, where he wrote most of his stories. These stories were, of course, about his travels, or, most famously, about characters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, made-up people in a made-up town on the very real river.
His stories were his own story, his youth, and the young, growing nation. His lucid tales were interpretations of a place in the heart of the heartland, told to a nation developing its identity and minting its folklore. Twain’s tales of the American Land have become part of the American Land. And no more than here, in this little river town Twain called St. Petersburg in his novels, but which, in reality, such as it is, is actually Hannibal.
The epicenter of Hannibal is a block-long stretch of Hill Street that has been closed to traffic, where the fictional and real towns fuse and where differing realities and times are folded on top of one another in a kind of interpretive quantum space.
The entry point into the wormhole is the interpretive center of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Here, with an admission charged, you can consider exhibits, installed in 2005, that describe the story of Samuel Clemens’ life in Hannibal, and the people and places from his childhood that became the characters and locations in his books. Or you can walk out the door, and look around the amply text-enhanced buildings outside.
Passing through a gateway, you emerge on Hill Street, at the Boyhood Home of Samuel Clemens. This is where he did indeed live with his family for most of his formative years, between the ages of eight and eighteen (1844 to 1853), when he left town. After his family left, the house was rented for another fifty years, and was set to be torn down in 1911, when it was saved and bought by a local resident and donated to the city to be preserved as a museum about Mark Twain. It has been open to the public as a historic home since then, making it one of the most historic historic homes in the nation.
The centennial of Twain’s birth in 1935 brought a year of celebration to the town, a celebration that lasted even longer, boosted by Hollywood productions underway at the time. In 1937, with some of the cast of the film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer present, a new museum building next to the Boyhood Home was opened, with an expanded museum about Twain. Built of stone, in the style of the WPA that made it, it is now a gift shop. As if they couldn’t stop hefting rocks, the WPA extended the back wall of the building into a massive stone wall to separate the historic wooden buildings from an adjacent lumberyard, and the risk of fire it represented, allegedly. The lumberyard is now the interpretive center, but the stone wall remains, at the back of the backyard of the Boyhood Home.
Across the street from the Boyhood Home is Becky Thatcher’s House, which, of course, it was not. It was the home of Laura Hawkins, a friend of young Samuel Clemens, who was the model for the Becky Thatcher character in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
Next door to it is John Clemens’ Law Office, where Samuel Clemens’ father worked as a Justice of the Peace—though it was not actually there, where it is. It was located elsewhere in town, and was bought by Warner Brothers, who made the Tom Sawyer film in 1937. They gave it to the town, which eventually had it moved to its current location, next to Becky Thatcher’s House.
Nearby, too, is the Huckleberry Finn House. Of course, being a fictional character, Huck never lived here. This was the home of Tom Blankenship, the boyhood friend of Samuel Clemens who he cites as the inspiration for his Huckleberry Finn character. But this is not really the house that Tom Blankenship lived in. That was torn down more than a century ago. This is a reconstruction of what is suspected to have been his home, built in 2006, and opened as part of the museum in 2010.
A block away, at the base of Hill Street, is the river. This is the town’s front door, and the former commercial landing for ships and barges plying the rivers—the national interstate system at the time of Mark Twain’s childhood here. Like a transubstantiating exit ramp interchange, Hill Street itself emerges directly from the river, under a sign welcoming arrivals to town.
Prone to flooding in the past, and even still, the town is protected by a levee pierced by three streets connecting downtown to the waterfront, including Hill Street (no doubt named after the topographic feature that helps explain why the old town was established here). Removable steel gates are stored nearby to drop into slots where the roads pass through the levee. When in place, they cut off the town from the river that gave it life.
A great view of the town can be had from atop a bluff at Lover’s Leap. Many communities have a Lover’s Leap, a high place where heart-broken romantics can end their sorrows. Mark Twain in his Life on the Mississippi said there were fifty such places along the river, all of them associated with tragic Indian legends.
While it is unknown if any lovers leapt off this one, there is a plaque in the bushes that describes the tragic disappearance of three local boys lost around here, somewhere, in 1967. They were never found, nor were their remains. It is suspected that they might have succumbed while exploring one of the many natural caverns in the region.
Just south of town is a limestone region riddled with underground caverns. One, now called the Mark Twain Cave, is a place well known to the residents of the town and to a young Samuel Clemens, who wrote about caves extensively in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and other tales of his. Real stories about this cave include how a local doctor, who owned the cave in the 1840s, did experiments on preserving dead bodies in the cave, leaving corpses inside for years, including that of his own daughter. The cave was also used as a secret Confederate weapons stash, and as (yet another) hide-out for Jesse James, who signed his name on the cave’s wall. This cave and the adjacent Cameron Cave are to some degree mapped, and are known to have hundreds of interconnected underground passages and chambers. They are part of a larger suspected network of thousands of caves under almost 30 square miles of terrain.
This limestone formation is also why one of the largest and most historic cement plants in the nation is located here as well. Operated for years by the Atlas Portland Cement Company, this was the first large cement plant built west of the Mississippi—though it is right on the Mississippi, which enabled its product to be shipped nearly anywhere. Cement from the plant was used in the construction of the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, and some of the very locks and dams on the Mississippi River that helped ease the movement of the cement itself.
Established in 1903, the mine and the plant grew quickly, and employed as many as 2,500 people. According to the company, it was the largest cement plant in the world. The worker’s village, occupied by many immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, had a population of 3,000 at its peak. In 1921 it was absorbed by the company and became an official company town, named Ilasco, an acronym for iron, lime, alumina, silica, calcium, and oxygen, all ingredients in cement production. In 1963, the remaining residents were displaced by the company, and told to live elsewhere. The plant and mine continue to operate, though the townsite of Ilasco is now just a few empty buildings.
Though this was after Mark Twain’s time in Hannibal, he would have no doubt appreciated the bustling multicultural workers town right next door. He visited Hannibal for the last time in 1902, when the cement operation was under construction and eyeing the limestone around the cave that he loved as a child, and made famous all over the world. There is no evidence that he visited the site at that time. Though notorious labor disputes at the plant gained national attention in 1910, they started the day before he slipped into a coma and died.
A new era of industrialization had come to the interior, spreading from the cities of the northeast to Mark Twain’s fictional town of St. Petersburg, the former frontier. The days of America’s youth and innocence, so evocatively captured by Twain, were over, and the nation was on its way to becoming a construction of corporations, where history is often just another form of commerce. ♦