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A beautiful garden full of daisies along Main Street in Hannibal.

Hannibal is Gonna Get You: Mark Twain’s idyllic 1860s Hometown

Had Hannibal been chosen as the location for the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi over its competitor St. Louis, this sleepy town may have grown to be a Metropolis. But with Mark Twain’s chronicles of his childhood antics, Hannibal has remained a charming beacon to the nineteenth century, worthy of a visit!

Mark Twain’s Childhood home in Hannibal

Since Tom Sawyer’s adventures were based on Sam Clemens’ boyhood antics, sites in Hannibal weave between fiction and reality. Restored by the WPA in the 1930’s, Clemens’ childhood home is now a museum dedicated to his family, life and the people who became characters in his two most famous works. After whitewashing Tom’s fence and paying our entrance fee, we perused through a museum full of quotes and artifacts from Sam’s life, including an antique printing press!

painting tom sawyer's fence in Hannibal
“Tom Sawyer’s” fence outside of Sam Clemens home is one of the many adorable ways the town weaves between reality and fiction.

Wait, is it Sam Clemens or Mark Twain?

Born in 1935 shortly after the appearance of Hailey’s comet, Samuel Clemens spent his childhood avoiding school and exploring the hills surrounding Hannibal. After the death of his father, 11-year-old Sam went to work as a printer’s apprentice. Using his skill as a ticket to travel and further his education, he gained a spot as a Steamboat pilot apprentice, quickly earning his own ship.

mark twain sign on main street Hannibal
Echos of Mark Twain’s historic life and novels are sprinkled throughout downtown Hannibal.

While serving as a riverboat pilot, Sam picked up the term that would become his pen name. Lead pilots would cry “mark twain” when the river had safe clearance of two fathoms (12ft). After failing as a miner in Nevada, he began writing for the local paper and first used the pen name Mark Twain in 1863. As Twain he hit his stride, penning several more humorous stories before using his childhood in Hannibal as the basis for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876 and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn nine years later.

entrance to Sam Clemens House
Passing through the 1930’s WPA rock wall to the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal.

Homes of real people who inspired great characters

After fully immersing ourselves in Twain’s origin story at the museum, the next stop was the home of Tom Blankenship, the basis for Huckleberry Finn. By far the smallest of the houses, it was unfurnished and definitely gave the vibe of a less affluent household. Then it was onto the upper level of the Clemens house, which was much larger than Huck’s, but apparently also meager for its time.

front room of the Clemens house in Hannibal
Mark Twain looks out of the front window of the Clemens house toward Laura’s house.

Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart Becky Thatcher was based on Sam’s lifelong friend Laura Hawkins, who lived across the street. Her home provided a charming insight into children’s lives in the 1850s, showcasing clothing and toys of the different social classes. Next stop was the law office of Sam’s father, set to depict a scene where Tom Sawyer sees a dead man.

Becky Thatcher's house in Hannibal
Becky Thatcher’s house stands across the street from Twain’s in Hannibal.

Lastly, we explored the town pharmacy, home to the Grant family with whom the Clemens family stayed for a time. This somber exhibit depicted the stark reality of infectious diseases prior to industrial sanitation, antibiotics and vaccines. Of the seven children born to Sam’s parents, only 3 survived to adulthood. Sadly, this was the norm of the time. As one exhibit shared: 25% of children died before age one, 25% didn’t make age 21 and another 25% didn’t see age 40.

pharmacy counter grants house hannibal
Pharmacy counter at the street level of the Grant’s house containing treatments for the many ailments of the day.

Strolling down Main Street Hannibal

As a small-town girl, I always get excited to see a vibrant historic Main Street! While most of the shops were closed during our Sunday afternoon visit, we were pleasantly surprised to see most of them occupied. If visiting during the late week or Saturday, various restaurants, trinket shops and snack vendors occupy vibrantly painted buildings.

downtown Hannibal
A beautiful garden full of daisies along Main Street in Hannibal.

Twain’s fingerprints abound on plaques throughout the town sharing many of the structure’s connections with him. Statues depicting Twain as a pilot near the Riverboat landing and Tom Sawyer at the end of main street highlight the pride Hannibal takes in its connection to the author. Built to honor Twain’s 100th birthday, the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse provides panoramic views of the town along the mighty Mississippi. Finding each nod to the legend feels like completing an unexpected scavenger hunt!

plaque on main st hannibal
Plaque depicting a building’s ties to Mark Twain on Main Street in Hannibal.

Adventure with Tom Sawyer into the Mark Twain Cave

After visiting several big-name caves during the past year (Mammoth Cave NP, Carlsbad Caverns NP, Cathedral Caverns SP), the kids said they were not interested in any during our 2022 Summer Road Trip. But after visiting Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher’s homes, they decided we must see the famous Mark Twain Cave!

Like everything in Hannibal, the one-hour cave tour wove historical and scientific facts with the fictional tale of Tom Sawyer. Unlike the aforementioned caves created by underground rivers or acidic water seepage, these labyrinthian caves were created when the weight of an ancient body of water fractured the even more ancient limestone into a matrix.

mark twain cave hannibal
We were instantly in awe of the unusual mazelike Mark Twain Cave.

Nineteenth century Hannibal locals, including Sam, loved exploring the winding caves by candlelight, leaving their names etched into the walls. Just inside the cave entrance lies a nook used by famous outlaw Jesse James, who left his name and date behind. Visible behind a small frame in “Autograph Alley” we found the verified scribble of Sam Clemens!

In “Grand Avenue” we learned the cave was owned by a physician who stored his deceased daughter’s remains in an alcohol filled copper barrel to examine a better way to preserve bodies. Dark spots mark the ceiling in this expansive room where columns of bats once hung in the dark, inspiring another scene from the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Long shelves in the “Parlor” invite guests to have a sit and spy the crystals lining the walls that children used to mine as “diamonds”. A treasure box can be found in the “likely” location that Tom Sawyer discovered it. Fabulous lighting makes the “Glacier” and “Aladdin’s Palace” rooms a treat for the eyes. As we passed several historical entrances on the way back to the gift shop, we decided this is our favorite cave thanks to a fabulous tour guide and the magical story from Mark Twain.

Panorama with a sad story at Lovers Leap

Between the town and cave lies a steep hill to the Lover’s Leap lookout over the Mississippi River. The story goes that a young man and woman from warring Native American tribes fell in love. When her father found out that he had come to visit, he sent a party out to kill the man. Cornered at this location, they chose to leap to their death versus being captured or living without one another. Definitely worth a stop, I’m sure it would be an optimal place to catch a sunrise:)

Lover's Leap Hannibal
View from Lover’s Leap in Hannibal.

Perfect Camping location at Mark Twain Cave RV Park

Quietly nestled into the property behind Mark Twain’s Cave, the RV park spots were generous and littered with huge shade trees. We prefer flat spots with lots of shade, and the northern spots are definitely better in our opinion. Bathhouse amenities were clean and the small playground was just right for the kids to stretch their legs. With the Cave and Winery located just paces from the RV park and tours that transport guests into town, a family could easily spend a whole weekend enjoying this lovely retreat.

Missed Connections

Since we rolled through on a Sunday afternoon, several things were closed. Any other day of the week, or arriving earlier, would have yielded a few more opportunities:

  • Mark Twain Riverboat: with sightseeing, dinner and Sunday Brunch cruises, there are so many ways to feel just like Sam Clemens during his riverboat pilot days.
  • Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse: apparently provides a fabulous view of the might Mississippi
  • Chocolate
  • Molly Brown Birthplace Museum: favorite spot of Titanic lovers, this museum captures her story as she grew up in Hannibal
  • The Mark Twain Cave has several more attractions that we likely would have enjoyed if we’d had more time:
    Mark Twain Live: a live daily one man show
  • Hannibal Truck Tour: one hour sightseeing voyage around the city
  • Cave Hollow West Winery: tasting after a cave tour

Have you been to Hannibal? Tell us about your experience in the comments!


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