Mark Twain Historic District
The Mark Twain Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The Mark Twain Historic District in Hannibal, Missouri, contains 55 buildings, the lighthouse structure on Cardiff Hill, the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn statue by Frederick Hibbard, and the riverfront area to the east. The area includes properties on Bird Street, Bridge Street, Front Street, Hill Street, North Main Street, North Street, and Third Street, plus a northward extension to include the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse.
To the east is the Mississippi River, "Rolling its mile-wide tide along." To the north rises the steep slope of Cardiff Hill, "Away off in the flaming sunshine, it lifted its soft green sides through a shimmering veil of heat, tinted with the purple of distance." Southward along Main Street the structures become larger, taller, and later in date reflecting the more elaborate architectural styles of the late-nineteenth century. To the west the hills rise in a steep slope revealing blocks of elaborate, late-nineteenth century residences.
In the 1840s the streets were unpaved, and more often than not, crowded with the herds of cattle or hogs being driven to the slaughterhouses. The streets are paved now, the slaughterhouses are gone; but just as in those early days, when the streets were thronged with men from the outlying regions coming to obtain supplies, they are crowded now with the many people who come to see Samuel Clemens' Boyhood Home and to relive the events of that early town as he recorded them in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and other writings. Then the area was a combined residential and commercial neighborhood. It still is.
The original City of Hannibal was plotted in a rectangular Philadelphia-plan grid. The major artery in the early village was Main Street, commencing at the foot of Cardiff Hill and running, in a southerly direction, parallel to the Mississippi River.
As the town grew a second business section developed along Market Street which is at right angles to Main Street and three blocks south of the Mark Twain Home. Because of the constrictive topography of Hannibal's early settlement area — surrounded by hills and the river — the initial development tended to be concentrated — buildings abutting one another with residential quarters located above the shops.
The buildings in the Mark Twain Historic District exhibit, primarily, the second to third quarter nineteenth century commercial style of architecture. The one, two and three-story structures in the Mark Twain Historic District are constructed of brick and wood-frame, on stone foundations. Third-quarter nineteenth century alterations introduced cast iron elements into many of these street facades.
The most notable example of architecture in the Mark Twain Historic District is the Pilaster House at 325 North Main Street, distinguished by its wall articulation — all in wood construction — including fluted pilasters on paneled bases, a second-story balcony and cornice at the roof line. Mark Twain once commented that as a boy this building had seemed very large to him.
"In 1847 we were living in a large white house on the corner of Hill and Main Streets a house that still stands but isn't large now although it hasn't lost a plank; I saw it a year ago and noticed that shrinkage, [written in 1903] My father died in it in March of the year mentioned but our family did not move out of it until some months afterward. Ours was not the only family in the house..."
The Mark Twain Historic District has a high rate of occupancy — only four of the 55 buildings are currently  empty — largely through the efforts of concerned local citizens who realize the historic value of the area and are actively seeking its preservation and appropriate use. An organization, Historic Hannibal, Inc., is working to preserve and renovate a building in the area (310-316 N. Main Street) utilizing a grant from the Bird Company. The Mark Twain Boyhood Home (208 Hill Street) is operated by the City of Hannibal in conjunction with the Mark Twain Home Board. There is a full-time curator for the Mark Twain Home and Museum.
The Mark Twain Historic District has one overpowering literary significance, since it contains a majority of the buildings and geographic features of the village of "St. Petersburg" immortalized by Mark Twain in his Adventures of Tom Sawyer and instances used in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain scholars agree that his love for and memories of this early settlement of Hannibal provided the richest store of material for those of his books which are now adjudged his greatest. To the two aforementioned should be added Life on the Mississippi and Puddn'head Wilson. The portions of his autobiography dealing with his boyhood have many descriptions and reminiscences of this very area. In addition, his notebooks and unfinished manuscripts tell of the people who lived in and carried on commerce in this area during the years of his childhood, from November 1839 to June 1853. The majority of the buildings in this area were built in the first period of growth of this river settlement, between 1836 and 1845, as commercial "store rooms," for the dispersal of goods and staples, which were shipped into the river port by steamboat to be dispersed to the people who had settled in the outlying areas. Since the city developed south and west, away from this area, the buildings which remain are excellent examples of that sturdy commercial architecture, which is a product of the hands and minds of craftsmen who settled the West. There are 42 known translations of Twain's books.
Because of its geographic location and the country's dependence on the river for speedy shipment of cargo, Hannibal, directly across the State of Missouri from St. Joseph, became a "jumping off place" for those individuals who were streaming into the interior of the unsettled West. During the years of the Gold Rush, the flow of emigrants increased and commerce in the village flourished.
The name Mark Twain, pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), is known the world over. This area is visited by people from all over the world, ever since his home was opened to the public in 1912. During the past year, about 200,000 people registered at the Mark Twain Museum. No longer are these people content to see just the little house in which the author lived; they want and expect to find more of the locale, in which the author played and developed. During the past few years, we find these people, more and more, studying Mark Twain as an embodiment of the American spirit of his time. Many of the buildings in this area are the same that Mark Twain knew and the ones which stored the tools and provisions which enabled the hardy settlers of the western regions to push further on.
Moses D. Bates and Thompson Bird, carrying the power of attorney and New Madrid certificate of his father, Abraham Bird, selected the land on which the town of Hannibal was founded in 1819. To untangle the web of legalities arising from this invalid Power of Attorney would fill a book, but word spread among the incoming settlers of the clouded titles, and the population did not increase. By 1829 there were only eight or nine log cabins and around thirty people in the place. In 1835 a scheme to build a great metropolis, Marion City, just 8 miles further up the river, was heralded across the land. Captain William Muldrow traveled to the east coast and sold building lots in his settlement, which was, in fact, a city only on paper. The site was poorly chosen, although construction of some log cabins was started by the spring of 1836. When those who had purchased lots arrived, with the accompanying supplies of construction materials, the town site had been completely inundated and disease had made the survival of its inhabitants impossible. Many of these settlers proceeded the few miles down river to the Hannibal site to settle here, and this city enjoyed its first "population explosion." In 1831, Thompson Bird quit-claimed his property to Steven Glascock, a new town company was formed, and once the question of the legality of titles was quieted, settlers arrived in great number. "In 1840, the population amounted to four hundred and fifty souls. The present population (1847) is supposed to be about 3,000 souls, but the census to be taken in the spring will prove to be over 3.500."
It was into this hustling, boisterous village that John Marshall Clemens brought his family in the fall of 1839. Sam, the second from the youngest, was four years old. Judge Clemens bought an entire city lot on Main Street, on which stood a frame "hotel" and several outbuildings. The structure faced Main Street, which was indeed the main street, over which the inland stage passed thrice weekly, stopping to discharge its passengers at the Old Tavern just one-half block south. One block east of Sam's first home in Hannibal was the river front. The brick commercial buildings on the east side of Main Street were standing at that time, and by 1847 both sides of the street were entirely filled with business houses. The streets at right angles running west from Main contained both commercial buildings and residences.
By 1839 there were three packing houses in the city, the first newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, had been established, and Hannibal had been incorporated as a town. Its affairs were managed by a Board of Trustees. The first tobacco warehouse was in business. By 1844 the town had flourished to the extent of housing four general stores, three sawmills, two planing mills, three blacksmith shops, two pork houses, three saloons or dram shops, two churches, two schools, a tobacco factory, hemp factory, a tan yard and other smaller establishments. In 1845, the City of Hannibal was incorporated as a city under the Mayor-Council form of government and the first public meeting was held to consider the question of building a railroad from Hannibal to St. Joseph, and the Legislature was "memorialized" to grant a charter. On November 3, 1851 ceremonies were held to break ground for the Hannibal-St. Joseph railroad.
"From the first of September to the present time (1847), one house purchased and received 30,000 bushels of wheat. The number of bushels delivered in the city during this time was about 110,000. The quantity of hemp received is about 200 tons, of tobacco, 400,000 pounds. One house has received 400 casks of bacon, near 13,000 hogs and 4,500 beef have been slaughtered. The number of Steamboat arrivals during the last season was 1,080, up and down, which discharged at this point, freight for the great region of the country lying around us, and carried away produce to the value of near $1,200,000."
In preparation for the 1847 season Dowling and Company built a new stone "hog-hospital" with 20,000 square feet of floor space, plus a 66 by 90 foot addition for the packing operation. As the season progressed, Dowling's "Hibernia Packing House" alone was able to turn out some 500 barrels of processed meat daily.
The Forwarding and Commission Houses, which were one of the first commercial enterprises, grew in importance as the steamboat traffic increased. According to one account, when the roads were passable and the country merchants came in to haul their goods back to the interior counties, it was not unusual to load two hundred and fifty wagons in a single day. Supplies were hauled all over Northern Missouri, and in a great many instances as far west as St. Joseph and Leavenworth.
Hannibal was indeed the focal point not only in the commercial growth of North Missouri, but as it was the center of highest population density in that area, political activity too was focused there. U. S. Senator Thomas H. Benton made a political speech at Hannibal debating the hotly contested slavery issue in the 1849 campaign in which he opposed the pro-slavery movement of John C. Calhoun. The local newspaper reported "a large assemblage" of local citizens were present to hear him speak from a stand in front of his hotel.
The town grew rapidly and substantially during the 1850s. The population was 2,319 in 1850; in 1856 it was nearly 6,000. Sam Clemens left Hannibal in 1853 to seek his fortune in St. Louis. During this decade the Hannibal-St. Joseph Railroad was completed. The lumber yards established to mill the timber felled in the northern states and rafted down the Mississippi River grew in importance, as the railroad was able to carry the lumber further into the western regions. The steamboats were at the height of their importance and each one which landed here brought and took away passengers and goods. The emigration to Pike's Peak and the newly discovered mines of Colorado was of great value to the railroad. Many people went by rail from Hannibal to St. Joseph and "outfitted" there. No longer could Hannibal be called "the white town drowsing in the sunshine."
Mark Twain's boyhood here coincided with the time in which the city contributed most to the press of people pushing to settle the western regions. But the town had further importance in the history of the country. As the city prospered, the center of commercial activity moved away from the first "heart" of the town. The buildings were used, but rarely remodeled to keep pace with the times, so that many were left very close to their original state. This area, however, has never had the complete oblivion afforded so many of the "old original towns" within their growing cities. Year after year, more and more people came to see the famous author's home; and various citizens, whose interests were not always in preservation, found it expedient to remove the old landmarks and construct "intrusions" of varying degrees. The city government, realizing only that there was always increasing need of parking spaces, was disposed to destroy the old buildings, as the closest and cheapest source of parking lots.
In 1974, a Historic Zoning Ordinance was passed, and we firmly believe this will be a viable tool in preventing more of these losses. In hindsight it is easy to recognize how much was lost, but there is now a growing number of citizens who are interested in the area for its literary and historic aspects, and we firmly believe that its designation as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places will be an aid in protecting it from further destruction. The bulk of Cardiff Hill (or Holliday's Hill as it was known in those early years) has remained close to its natural state, except for the Memorial Lighthouse erected by the Chamber of Commerce in 1936. However, it is eyed from time to time by various speculators as an obvious site for a modern motel and is therefore included in the Mark Twain Historic District. The slightly more than four block area lying in the valley beneath the cliff of Cardiff Hill contains all the elements of the heart of the town, as it was in the boyhood of Mark Twain and the first rush of commercial and transportation activities in the westward migration: residences, commercial, wholesale, and retail establishments, the site of the old ferry landing and the riverfront where all those steamboats discharged their cargoes. It has had the advantages of vigorous restoration activities, supervised by the Mark Twain Home Board, of the four buildings most notably associated with Mark Twain: his boyhood home, the Hawkins family home (Becky Thatcher House, 209-211 Hill Street), Mark Twain's father's frame law office, and the Pilaster House, where his family lived for a year and within which his father died. In that period of the 1840s, this was a mixed residential and commercial area, and it has remained so throughout the years. Most of the original buildings which remain are still in use.
The stone and brick structure at the corner of North and Main streets, which was used early as a livery stable is in use by an automobile dealer. The two tiny old buildings on the north side of Bird Street are used and have been used for many years as a viable family restaurant and a TV repair shop. Robard's Flour Mill, with a few modifications, now houses an air-conditioning dealer. The stone stable fronting on Dead Man's Alley, just west of Main Street, is being remodeled carefully to reflect the flavor of those early times and will open soon as a restaurant. The contiguous row of early commercial storehouses on the east side of Main Street has been carefully stabilized and they are in various stages of restoration, while having been occupied continuously through the years. As of this date, most of the buildings of historic significance are in the hands of those who see the value of preservation and will continue on this course. A great part of the open land belongs to the City of Hannibal, and with guidance can be developed with the history of the area in mind. With the continued increase of visitors to the Mark Twain Home area, the need for careful planning to retain the historical integrity of this area is becoming more and more evident, and will be a consideration in future plans.
Green, C. P. A. Mirror of Hannibal. Hannibal, Mo.: C.P. Green, 1905.
Hannibal Gazette, February 25, 1847.
History of Marion County. Missouri. St. Louis: E.F. Perkins, 1884.
Chambers, William Nisbet. Old Bullion Benton. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1956.
Missouri Courier [Hannibal, Mo.], November 1, 1849, p.2.
Neider, Charles, ed. The Autobiography of Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, ."
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 1, 1900, part III, p.11.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Hartford, Conn.: Chicago, 111.: Cincinnati, Ohio: The American Publishing Company, 1889.
________. Life on the Mississippi. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1902.
Wecter, Dixon. Sam Clemens of Hannibal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952. While not directly quoted this source supplied information leading to other sources which are cited. It is a useful secondary reference.
Welsh, Donald H., "Sam Clemens' Hannibal, 1836-1838 [1846-1848]," Midcontinent American Studies Journal, III, No. 1 (spring, 1962), pp.28-43. While not directly quoted this source supplied newspaper references to check for further information.
† Mrs. Charles Anton, Mark Twain Historic District, Hannibal, Marion County, Missouri, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Registr of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.