Hannibal: A View from Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home in 1841


Samuel Langhorne Clemens had gone to Hannibal, Missouri at the age of four and that he did not leave there until 1853, when he was eighteen years old. Afterward, of course, the world would know him as Mark Twain, narrator of life on the Mississippi and the memorable adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

When young Clemens lived in Hannibal, the boats were ornate structures with luxurious accommodations for the passengers. The finest meals were served, and for the gentlemen there were games of chance, such as cards and dice: here was where the notorious riverboat gambler flourished, eager to take advantage of the more gullible travelers.

The crews who worked the boats’ cargo had a tough job; all the thousands of tons of merchandise had to be moved by hand, and carrying bales of cotton and hemp down the wide boards that served as a makeshift gangplank was very dangerous work. For men in the boiler room, where hot, dirty stoking of the fires never stopped, a little free whiskey was often provided. There were tragedies on the river – some because of snags in the Mississippi, which could knock a hole in the boat’s bottom. Faulty boilers were a frequent cause of explosion. In the winter the steamboats would be frozen in solid ice, and in late summer and early fall there was the problem of low water.

But the captains themselves were to blame for some of the disasters. It was considered a point of pride no to let another boat overtake you, and some captains were known even to chop up the boat’s furniture and feed it to the boiler in order to beat another man out. Hannibal not only served as a port to the steamboats, but many hulls were built there in Soap Hollow shipyard just north of town. The boating industry was so integral to the development of Hannibal that the seal of the city had a stern-wheel steamboat center.

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