The Great River Road follows the Mississippi River’s length, on both sides, providing access to much of this beauty, mixed with the industrial history of America. I’ve had the pleasure of following most of it, and I can tell you that it rivals Route 66 for nostalgia and drama. And it’s more scenic than people realize, with massive islands, steep cliffs, and bald eagles soaring over the sometimes mile-wide ribbon of water. And the food is out of this world.

Here at See America, we’ve covered several Mississippi river towns – Minneapolis, Rock Island, St. Louis, Memphis – but there’s one town where you can get the quintessential Mississippi river experience. A town where much of the popular image of the Mighty Miss’ was born, home to Samuel Clemons, who would use a Mississippi River term to craft his pseudonym—: the second mark on the line that measured depth signified two fathoms, or twelve feet—safe depth for the steamboat – Mark Twain.

Listen Below:

Mark Twain’s Hannibal Missouri

Downtown Hannibal, MO.

Founded in 1819 by Moses D. Bates, the river town of Hannibal, Missouri quickly became a principal docking port for steamboats, flatboats, and packet steamers traveling the upper Mississippi. After the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848, linking Chicago to the mighty ‘Miss, the population more than doubled, making Hannibal the second largest city in the newly formed state. 

Early industries influencing the city’s growth included pork packing, soap and candle making, coopering, and lumber milling.  As railroad transportation became less prominent, other business ventures took its place, including shoe manufacturing, button making, and cement production.

Hannibal has a proud list of well-known sons and daughters, including William Lear (designer of the Lear jet), Congressman William Henry Hatch, Navy Admiral Robert E. Coontz, sculptor John Rogers, Margaret Tobin (the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown), composer Egbert Van Alstyne, and artist Carroll Beckwith.

But Hannibal’s most-famous son is Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known worldwide as Mark Twain. 

History of Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30‚ 1835 in Florida‚ Missouri‚ the sixth of seven children. At age 4‚ his family moved to Hannibal‚ Sam’s father owned one enslaved person, and his uncle owned several. On his uncle’s farm, young Sam spent summers playing in the enslaved people’s quarters‚ one of many experiences that would undeniably inform his future work. 

At age 11‚ Sam’s father died, and he left school to work as a printer’s apprentice for a local newspaper, arranging the type for each of the newspaper’s stories‚ allowing him to read the news of the world every day before the rest of the community.

At 18‚ Sam headed to New York City and Philadelphia‚ where he began to write articles but shortly decided to head back home, with hopes of starting a new career as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River. But with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861‚ all traffic along the river came to a halt‚ Sam instead joined up with a volunteer Confederate unit called the Marion Rangers‚ but he quit after just two weeks.

In search of a new career, he headed west ‚ at the invitation of his brother‚ Orion, who had just been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory. Sam traveled across the open frontier from Missouri to Nevada by stagecoach in hopes of striking it rich in silver mining, but quickly failed, so he returned to writing for the Territorial Enterprise‚ a Virginia City‚ Nevada newspaper where he used‚ for the first time‚ his pen name‚ Mark Twain. 

He then headed for San Francisco, writing for local papers. He was tapped by the Sacramento Union to report on Hawaii. These writings became immensely popular and upon his return, he embarked on a lecture tour, a skill he would become known for. 

Mark Twain’s newspaper assignments quickly began to send him around the world— first New York, then a steamship tour of Europe and the “Holy Land.” His travel letters‚ full of vivid descriptions and tongue-in-cheek observations were later reworked into his first book‚ “The Innocents Abroad,” published in 1869. It was also on this trip that Clemens met his future brother-in-law‚ Charles Langdon. Langdon reportedly showed him a picture of his sister‚ Livy, and Clemons fell in love at first sight.

After courting for two years‚ Clemens and Olivia Langdon were married in 1870. They settled in Buffalo‚ New York‚ where Sam had become a partner‚ editor and writer for the Buffalo Express. While they were living in Buffalo‚ their first child‚ Langdon Clemens‚ was born.

Sam then moved his family to Hartford‚ Connecticut‚ a city he had come to love while visiting his publisher there and where he had made friends. His tall tales from his frontier adventures were published in his book “Roughing It,” and shortly after, the Clemenses’ first daughter Susy was born‚ but their son‚ Langdon‚ died at age two from diphtheria.

In 1873 Sam’s focus turned toward social criticism. He and Hartford Courant publisher Charles Dudley Warner co-wrote The Gilded Age‚ a novel that attacked political corruption‚ big business, and the American obsession with getting rich that seemed to dominate the era.

For the next 17 years in Hartford Sam completed some of his most famous books, steeped with biting social commentary—including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi, set in his boyhood home of Hannibal. The Prince and the Pauper then explored class relations, along with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Finally, he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, attacking the institution of slavery‚ reconstruction, and the continued poor treatment of African Americans.

Mark Twain in 1907.

Huckleberry Finn was also the first book published by Sam’s own publishing company‚ The Charles L. Webster Company. In an attempt to gain control over publication as well as to make substantial profits‚ Sam created the company in 1884. A year later he contracted with Ulysses S. Grant to publish Grant’s memoirs; the two-volume set provided large royalties for Grant’s widow and was a financial success for the publisher as well.

Although Samuel Clemons enjoyed financial success during his Hartford years‚ he continually made bad investments in new inventions‚ which eventually brought him to bankruptcy. In an effort to economize and pay back his debts, Sam and Livy moved their family to Europe in 1891. When his publishing company failed in 1894‚ H4 was forced to set out on a world wide lecture tour to earn money. But two years later,  tragedy struck when his daughter Susy at age 24‚ died from meningitis while on a visit to the Hartford home. Unable to bear being in the place of her death‚ the Clemenses never returned to Hartford to live.

For the following decade, they traveled the world. Clemons witnessed the increasing exploitation of weaker governments by European powers‚ which he described in his book Following the Equator. The Boer War in South Africa and the Boxer Rebellion in China fueled his growing anger toward imperialistic countries and their actions. With the Spanish-American and Philippine wars in 1898‚ Sam’s wrath was redirected toward the American government. When he returned to the United States in 1900‚ his finances restored‚ Sam readily declared himself an anti-imperialist and‚ from 1901 until his death‚ served as the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League.

Clemon’s writings turned dark. They began to focus on human greed and cruelty and questioned the humanity of the human race. His public speeches followed suit and included a harshly sarcastic public rebuke of Winston Churchill in 1900. Even though Sam’s lecture tour had managed to get him out of debt‚ his anti-government writings and speeches threatened his livelihood once again. He was labeled by some as a traitor‚ and several of his later works were never published during his lifetime.

In 1903‚ after living in New York City for three years‚ Livy became ill, and Sam and his wife returned to Italy, where she died a year later. After her death‚ Sam lived in New York until 1908 when he moved into his last house‚ “Stormfield,” in Redding‚ Connecticut. In 1909 his middle daughter Clara married. In the same year, Jean‚ the youngest daughter‚ died from an epileptic seizure. Four months later, on April 21‚ 1910‚ Samuel Clemens died at age 74.

Visiting Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal, Missouri may have once been one of the largest towns on the river, but it didn’t really grow too much in the 1900s. Today, it’s a city of about 17,000 people and home to General Mills’ Progresso Soup plant. Much of the charm and character of the town remains as it was in the days of Samuel Clemon’s childhood. 

Today you can walk in Mark Twain’s footsteps, discovering the places that inspired “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “ including the eight buildings that comprise The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, where you’ll see the writer’s childhood home, a National Historic Landmark and one of the earliest home preservation projects in the country. You can visit the home of Laura Hawkins, the little girl who inspired the character of Becky Thatcher, along with his father’s Justice of the Peace office; 15 original Norman Rockwell paintings and a reproduction of the home of Tom Blankenship, who was the inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. At the back of Twain’s house, you can even paint the famous whitewashed fence.

There’s also Mark Twain Cave, Missouri’s oldest show cave, where Clemons played as a child. The cave boasts a winery and cave-aged cheeses. You can even ride the Mark Twain Riverboat on the Mighty Mississippi River, where narrated cruises take you past Hannibal landmarks and locations Twain memorialized in his work like Cardiff Hill and Jackson’s Island.

Historic downtown Hannibal is full of small, locally-owned shops, restaurants, art galleries, and theaters. The town also has over 20 parks full of scenic river overlooks.

Hannibal Missouri is about an hour and a half west of Springfield, Illinois, and about 2 hours north of St. Louis, right along the Mississippi and the Great River Road. 

Want more great destinations? Continue exploring unique overnight destinations with a stay at the Lizzie Borden Bead & Breakfast, or check out the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Co.


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