The river town of Hannibal, Missouri rests along the banks of the “Mighty Mississippi”. Growing up in such a world, during the mid-1800s, would have surely presented an adventurous world to any boy. This was certainly the case for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who would seal his fame with the pen name of Mark Twain. Born the sixth of seven children, Samuel would lose three siblings at an early age. His parents uprooted their family to move to Hannibal when Samuel was four-years-old. This new wonderland would serve as the backdrop for many of his stories and characters and end up being where Twain meets his destiny.
Home Sweet Home
Our visit to Hannibal was a return from many years past. During our first trip, we had our children in tow, so our energies were spent corralling them. On this turn, the time would be spent refreshing ourselves on the life and times of one of America’s most well-known authors. There is no better place to start than at the beginning. A stop to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum would provide us plenty of background and dust off the cobwebs since our last visit. Samuel’s younger days were filled with illness (from being born prematurely), but this didn’t prevent him from testing his mother’s patience. While good-natured at heart, the boy was prone to mischief.
Girl Friend or Girlfriend?
Across the street from the Clemens’ home sits the house of Laura Hawkins. Samuel drew life for his literary characters from people he had met in real life. Laura was Sam’s classmate, playmate, and even childhood sweetheart. He would immortalize her as the character of Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He would even name one of his characters in The Gilded Age by Laura’s given name. Clearly, she made a lasting impression on him.
Sam’s father, John Marshall Clemens, was an accomplished attorney and judge. He also happened to be a bit of a gambler, but his game of choice was investments. He began various retail business ventures, but all ended in failure. In 1846, due to financial difficulties, the Clemens family was forced to leave their home on Hill Street. A family friend, Dr. Orville Grant, offered the family a place to stay at his home across the street. Being in a tight spot, they took him up on his offer. As we toured the home, which is on the second floor of the pharmacy, we wondered how they could have all fit in this cramped space.
A Short Childhood
At the age of 11, Samuel’s father would pass away from pneumonia. With an already strained financial situation, this loss pushed them to the edge. Sam would leave school and begin a long string of various careers. Time spent as a typesetter put him in touch with the literary world, which he would visit time and again. Growing up along the river’s edge is where Twain meets his true passion. It’s not hard to imagine that a young boy wouldn’t become enamored by the riverboats plying the waters. Such was the case for Sam, who would fulfill his dream of becoming a steamboat pilot.
Where Twain Meets
After paying a fee to learn the ropes, he began his study of the Mississippi River. While the caption of one of these vessels had great responsibility, it was the pilot who commanded more esteem. To be a successful pilot, one had to become acquainted with every snag and sunken tree along the waterway. When piloting along the river, depth checks would be shouted out to the pilot. A level of “Mark Twain” meant that the water was 12 feet deep, which was a safe amount for a steamboat. Hearing this phrase was where Twain meets the pen name that he would use for many of his literary works.
During Samuel’s youth, the country was still split between slave-holding states and free states. Living in Missouri, slavery was a norm that he grew up with. His witness to the brutality of it left him with a disdain for the unfair treatment doled out on all people of color. During our stay in Hannibal, we had an opportunity to visit the Huck Finn Freedom Center, which focuses on the plight of slaves in this region. With the guidance of director Faye Dant, we learned about the wins and losses that have been seen by the black community over the years. This eye-opening attraction helps piece together the journey that an entire race of people have made as they incorporated themselves into the heartland.
Fast-Forward in Time
Lest you think that Hannibal is solely about where Twain meets his future, there are also plenty of other things to capture the attention of visitors. Perhaps you are one of those road-warriors who wandered off of Route 66 looking for adventure. You will certainly be wanting to drop in Karlock’s Kars for a peek at his collection of classic vehicles. This eye-popping emporium is also home to a vast array of pop culture items that we immediately recognized from our youth. We are betting a visit here will open the floodgates of nostalgia for many of you. Of course, if you have your kids (or grandkids) in tow, there may be a lot of explaining to them about the significance of the pieces.
While the downtown is filled with memories of where Twain meets his now-famous characters, there are some other sites worth checking out around town. To get a bird’s eye view of Hannibal, we journeyed up to Lover’s Leap. From that vantage point, visitors can watch the Mississippi River roll by on its way to the Gulf. The Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse is another great place to get some great views. While you are still on the Twain Trail, be sure to check out some of the hidden spots where his characters came to life. The Old Baptist Cemetery will have you picturing Tom Sawyer skulking around the gravestones.
Where Twain Meets Eats
All of this exploring certainly left us with an appetite. Fortunately, Hannibal is filled with plenty of edible options. During our visit, we enjoyed a meal at the town’s oldest restaurant, as well as a couple of more recent additions. Your taste buds are sure to be pleased with the variety of cuisine choices that can be found. All of the places we dined at were within easy walking distance of the main city’s attractions. There were plenty of other places to dine, but you know we can only eat so many times a day.
Cast of Characters
Exploring downtown Hannibal was like a walk back in time. The spirit of the characters from Twain’s stories still resides in the buildings and streets of this river town. While the days of Samuel’s youth are long gone, it is easy to see how the rolling Mississippi would certainly capture the imagination of the boy. Perhaps the next great American author is awash in the imagination of childhood, even as we write this article.
Get To Know Twain’s Hannibal
Hannibal, Missouri is filled with the memories of the characters brought to life by Mark Twain. Almost every building has some connection with his stories, so it was easy to completely immerse ourselves in this past. It certainly took us back to our younger days and gave us moments to pause in childhood play. We hope that you have an opportunity to visit this town to walk the paths that were trodden by Samuel Clemens and his band of childhood friends. Who knows, you may even want to take a turn at whitewashing Tom’s fence.