Exploring Mark Twain’s Hometown in Hannibal, Missouri

Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer Statue

On our journey to the upper Midwest, we made a stop for three nights at Mark Twain Cave and Campground in Hannibal, Missouri. The historic town of Hannibal is known as the boyhood home of famous author Mark Twain. When Twain was growing up he was known as Samuel Clemens and here on the Mississippi River he drew from his life experiences to create the characters in two of his books, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I was excited to visit his former home, especially after seeing other Twain historical sites including his home in Hartford Connecticut last year. Some years ago we also visited the old mining town of Virginia City, Nevada where Twain had been a newspaper reporter.

Stream next to our campground

This campground was a good choice for us as it was only a few miles to the downtown and the Twain Cave was walking distance. The campground was also pretty with our site backing up to a stream and woods. We set up our bird feeders and had some good sightings. My favorite was the Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak (a life bird)!

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

In Hannibal you can visit Twain’s boyhood home as well as other homes significant in his life. I started at the Visitor Center which has exhibits, information and a film. I have always enjoyed Twain’s witty humor and some of his quotations and sayings were on the walls like the one below where he describes his younger years along the Mississippi.

From the Visitor Center I went on a self-guided tour of Twain’s boyhood home with the entrance at the back of the house. Following the directions you visit the various rooms which have been set up to look like the period of time in which he lived here. All of the rooms had been glassed in for protection and therefore did not look very natural. Once I saw the rooms, the route took me back out through the front to a small street. There are several other buildings of significance that can be toured on this street including the home of Twain’s childhood friend Laura who was the inspiration for Becky Thatcher in the book Tom Sawyer. There is also a house that was the law office of Twain’s father and around the corner is the former home of “Huckleberry Finn.” Although informative, I was a little disappointed in the homes which seemed too sanitized and did not grab my attention as I thought they would.

Mark Twain’s boyhood home and location of the fence from his novel Tom Sawyer
Becky Thatcher Home

A museum in town has a collection of Mark Twain memorabilia and information about many of his books. Areas have been set up to portray scenes, for example visitors can sit on a raft on a simulated river while watching a segment from a Huckleberry Finn movie. In another area, kids can try their hand at whitewashing a fence like Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into doing. In the photo above next to a bust of Mark Twain is a type of bicycle that he learned to ride at the age of 48. He wrote humorously about the experience: “Get a bicycle, you will not regret it. If you live.” One area of the museum has paintings done by Norman Rockwell, my favorite American artist. I really enjoyed visiting his museum in Massachusetts last summer although I haven’t blogged about it yet. Perhaps some day. Rockwell was commissioned to complete illustrations for Twain’s books and traveled to Hannibal so he could immerse himself in Twain’s world. He even spent some time in Twain’s Cave so he would have a feel for what it would have been like when Tom Sawyer and girlfriend Becky got lost.

Norman Rockwell’s painting of Tom Sawyer white washing the fence

Hannibal was a nice town for walking around with well maintained old buildings. At the edge of the downtown you can walk up several flights of stairs to a small park and then on to a lighthouse memorial on a bluff. I was hoping to have some good views of the Mississippi River and the town up there. I got up below the lighthouse but the stairs leading up to it were closed. I did find beautiful wildflowers though.

Purple Wallflowers

Hannibal lies right next to the Mississippi River which when we visited had been flooding. I climbed the levee and was amazed at how wide the river was. Nearby roads had been flooded as well as a few buildings, a park, parking lot and walking paths. In the photo below you can see railroad crossing signs emerging from the water.

The flooded Mississippi next to Hannibal’s levee

While I was standing on the levee another woman visiting the town came up and we talked about all the water. I exclaimed how neat it was and then had to catch myself. This wasn’t neat for the people of Hannibal and neighboring communities. It was also interesting to watch large cranes continuing to pile sandbags along the levee. While visiting the local museum I had asked a staff member how to find the statue of Mark Twain with a pilot wheel. (Twain was once a riverboat captain). She told me I wouldn’t be able to get to it as it was now in the flooding river.

Sandbags along the levee
Someone thoughtfully put a life jacket on Twain in the flooded river!

There was also flooding across the road from our campground. The driveway leading to a resort was too flooded to cross and part of the property was inundated as well. In addition, the main road heading past our campground was closed. Right before the “closed road” sign was the turnoff to the campground. We were very glad that the camping entrance was not flooded as that easily could have been the case. I read that this year has been the worst along the Mississippi in several states since the great flood of 1993. Concerns continue even as I write this article as flood waters in some areas have not receded. (We arrived here on May 4).

One afternoon I visited Mark Twain’s Cave and took a tour, the only way to see it. As a boy, Twain explored this cave and wrote about it in his autobiography. He also used the cave for his book about Tom Sawyer. Tom and his friends spent time exploring it and got themselves into a fair amount of trouble.

Mark Twain Cave Entrance – upper left of photo is a green sign marking the “discovery entrance.”

This cave was much different than others I have visited. Most have had bigger rooms and included formations like stalagmites and stalactites. The Mark Twain Cave has many narrow, winding passages and lacks formations. It would definitely be easy to get lost here and our group was glad to have a guide showing the way!

A narrow passage in the Mark Twain Cave
Our cave guide

Our guide told us stories about Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher getting lost in the cave for several days trying to find their way out. At times they put out their lamp light to conserve it. The lights were turned out for us as well and to be expected it was pitch black. Crawling around there would have been a nightmare! She also shared stories about other people that have explored or used the cave and the walls have a number of signatures from long ago. Jesse James, Missouri’s most notorious citizen also had a hideout here and his signature can be found in a remote part of the cave we could not see.

Jesse James Hideout

It was a great few days exploring Hannibal and Mark Twain’s Cave! I hope you enjoyed coming along.

5 thoughts on “Exploring Mark Twain’s Hometown in Hannibal, Missouri”

  1. Fantastic bird photo- you had to be quick with that one! The floods are pretty impressive (and very sad). Love the Mark Twain stuff and I bet you loved those wild flowers!!

  2. Thank you for bringing back to me many cherished childhood memories of our family trips to Hannibal. Twain’s house w a s every real to us & the rooms not glass enclosed. I also distinctly remember seeing Jessie James’s signature. The neat statues of Tom & Huck were not there as well as Twain at the paddle wheel. You made me want a return visit to see the museum.

  3. Great history, well written, well illustrated. Hope you are still safe. We are now experiencing some serious rain. It has been a very wet winter and spring. Lake levels are very high. Lots of biking trails are closed due to water over the trails. Many homes next to water bodies are close to flooding. No place for the water to go. Where are you stopping next?

    Had a marine garage sale this weekend. Moving our 23 ft sailboat up to Duluth/Lake Michigan on Thursday. Maybe a better market there. Going to spend several days there.

    Remember our home is in Roseville, MN, a suburb of St Paul and Minneapolis. You can be at our curb for a number of days without problems. Can run power out to you. Or …. you could stay inside in a king size bed!

    Take care.

    Ilona

    1. Hi Ilona, nice to hear from you! Sorry to read you are experiencing so much wet weather. I hope it dries out for you soon! The flooding issues in the Midwest have certainly been serious! We are still in Ohio and finishing up some time in the Hocking Hills area in the southern part of the state. Will head toward Cincinnati next. Have lots to write about during our time in Ohio! Thanks for the generous offer to stay at your home. We don’t have our itinerary planned yet for Minnesota, but will keep it in mind!

  4. You guys have had to deal with lots of flooding and rain in your travels! Did you read Mark Twain or Huck Fin when you where there?

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