Hannibal is an open book: Mark Twain's home, the river and the ghosts

By Suzanne BoyleAugust 25, 2013 

— This is the town you expected: Samuel Clemens' boyhood house with whitewashed fence, a ride on a riverboat and exploring Mark Twain Cave.

If you haven't been to this river town in a while, or you're making your first visit, your itinerary should include a stop at a budding winery, a view of the Mississippi from Lover's Leap, the chance to slither and crawl through a "new cave" and a trolley-car ghost tour that ends in an abandoned cemetery. In the dark.

Think of it as a day trip -- and a half. You'll travel 136 miles and spend about 2 1/2 hours to reach Hannibal from Belleville. It's an easy drive west on Interstate 64/Missouri 61. This route will take you past two new premium outlet malls, which may entice some of your passengers.

Or, take I-70/Missouri 79 and follow the river on a more rural route. It will take about 20 minutes longer, but going this way tempts you to stop in two other river towns, Clarksville and Louisiana, for lunch and antique-hunting.

Either way, you might want to consider spending the night in Hannibal. With so much to do, it will be hard to decide what to fit in just one day. And you might not get a chance to climb up the hill in Cardiff Park to get a closer look at the oddly placed lighthouse. Or eat excellent food on the porch at Labinnah Bistro just a few blocks away.

You'll find plenty of places to rest your head, and spend a little or a lot, from the Best Western in the heart of town to the majestic Rockcliffe Mansion high on the bluffs overlooking the community of more than 17,000. There also is a good supply of Victorian manors turned into bed and breakfasts. If you need company, Garden House Bed & Breakfast was named by NBC's "Today" show as "One of the 10 Best Places to Sleep with a Ghost."

Ready to explore? Main Street is full of shops and restaurants. It basically runs parallel to the river north and south, though your view is blocked until you get on the other side of the berms and floodgates. Broadway is the larger east-west cross street and thoroughfare that runs to the river. Take Missouri 79 (Third or Birch streets) out of town a mile or so and it will lead you to the Mark Twain Campground and Caves.

This is an easy town to navigate.To orient yourself, make your first stop downtown. Free lot and street parking is easy to find. The closer you are to the river, the closer you are to most of the action. Expect to be initially startled by the sound of steamboat horns, calliopes, and trains, which snake along the river's edge for miles.

Let's visit some of the reasons Hannibal first came onto the map for tourists.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

120 N. Main. St., marktwainmuseum.org; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Self-guided.

Visitors buy one ticket ($6 to $11; under 5 years old, free) and can see the museum, live performances, Becky Thatcher House, Interpretive Center, Huckleberry Finn Home, Mark Twain Boyhood Home and the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace office.

See and hear at the Museum Gallery:

4 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays, Jim Waddell as Mark Twain.

At 10 and 10:30 a.m. and 1 and 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays, Gladys Cogswell as a former slave.

The museum is separate from Samuel Clemens' home and other residences, which are two blocks away.

The museum houses exhibits that bring to life five of Mark Twain's tales. Climb aboard a raft and step into a stagecoach to watch old films of Twain's books.

For Norman Rockwell fans, the second floor holds many of the illustrator's works that he did for the author's books.

A lover of words? Listen to Jim Waddell perform as Mark Twain. While not for the little kiddos, who will have to sit still for about 40 minutes, it is a remarkable story. Waddell recounts Twain's Civil War adventures, which are both humorous and a glimpse into his life as a young man and politics of the time. (Waddell also makes appearances elsewhere in Hannibal, such as at the cave complex.)

Another storyteller is Gladys Cogswell. She portrays a former slave who told her story to Twain, and he, in turn, wrote about her.

Don't miss the gift shop, where you can buy a lookalike Tom Sawyer straw hat for $2.99 or some Wild Huckleberry Honey or Syrup for $7.95.

Stroll south on Main Street from the Mark Twain Museum and you'll spot his boyhood home on cobblestone Hill Street. It is cordoned off for foot traffic only. Follow the signs, which will direct you to the Interpretive Center, where you can buy tickets and take a self-guided tour. Here you'll find a timeline of Twain's life, from attending school (25 cents a week) to being thrust into an apprenticeship with a printer at age 12 to help support his family after his father's death. Perhaps later in life that led him to write: "Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first."

It's quick work going through his boyhood home. Rooms are viewed behind plexiglass walls, including the upstairs bedroom where Twain climbed out the window to meet to meet boyhood friend Tom Blankenship, who became Huck Finn.

"He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had," Twain wrote of Blankenship in his autobiography.

Across the street is Twain's father's law office, where the boy recounted how he came to find himself in a dark room there with a murder victim on the floor. Next door is the newly opened Becky Thatcher House, which currently houses background and memorabilia on another real-life friend, Laura Hawkins, who became Becky in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

Back on the cobblestone street, you might encounter a pair of Hannibal's young ambassadors from its 57-year-old annual Tom and Becky Program: This year, you could meet Nathan Lewton and Shelbie Mays, both 13. For 2013, they were among many Hannibal seventh-graders who went through rigorous testing, auditions and interviews to be chosen to portray Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. They stroll Main Street, answer questions, give directions, get their photos taken, make personal appearances, greet riverboat riders and re-enact portions of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" outside the home, on board the Mark Twain riverboat and elsewhere.

Mark Twain Riverboat

Center Street Landing, 573-221-3222, marktwainriverboat.com

One-hour narrated sightseeing cruise, 11 a.m. 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. (through Labor Day weekend); $11/$16.

Two-hour dinner cruise, 6:30 p.m.; $21.95 to $39.95 (ages 2-5, $5). Advance purchase required. Includes food, music, dancing and cash bar.

Check website for seasonal schedules for both cruises. Last cruise of 2013 is Nov. 2.

Even if you cross the Mississippi River twice a day, seeing this body of water in a rural setting is like paddling back in time to a pristine, peaceful landscape. No industry. No casino. No traffic. Just wooded islands, sandy shores and farmland. Find a seat and let Capt. Steve Terry, who is also one of the owners of this family-operated riverboat, entertain you with stories about Twain's life on the water, river trivia and some history of Hannibal as he takes the big wheel. First, you head north toward the bridge to Quincy -- that's the old 1871 Wabash Train and Wagon Bridge in the distance -- then make a gentle turn and head south to Lover's Leap and then back north to dock in Hannibal.

"The river is 35 feet deep here," Capt. Steve, 53, announced. "But it gets deepers as you go south. By the time you get to New Orleans, it's 100 feet."

The Lindsey brothers, Gabriel, 6, and Cain, 4, wore sailor caps and practiced salutes. Mom Pamela Clark kept an eye on the pair as they twisted around in their seats on the top deck of the riverboat. Dad Michael Lindsey and son Seth Clark, 13, found a shady spot under a deck to watch the water and scenery flow by. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, family traveled 4 1/2 hours to come to Hannibal.

"Just a chance to get away. And it's such a beautiful day!" said Pam. Imagine this cruise in the fall.

Back on land, the waterfront has a nice walk that includes a park with a statue of Twain as a riverboat pilot. If you're there on the right day, you might see and hear the arrival of one of the great steamboats, the American Queen, as it docks to let passengers visit Hannibal for a few hours before heading north to Minneapolis or south to St. Louis.

Time to head for the cool caves. But first, as you travel Missouri 79 south, make a left-hand turn 1 mile outside Hannibal and follow the winding road up to Lover's Leap. (You'll see a sign on the highway.) The park includes a picnic shelter, benches and information about the Romeo and Juliet tale of Indian lovers. (If you ride the Mark Twain riverboat, you'll hear more about this story.) Visitors will find panoramic views of Hannibal, the river, miles of Illinois farmland and occasionally a tug pushing a barge upstream.

Mark Twain Cave Complex

300 Cave Hollow Road, off Missouri 79; 573-221-1656 or 800-527-0304. marktwaincave.com

Caves -- 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through Labor Day weekend; to 6 p.m. through Oct. 31; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 1 to March 15. Guided tours. Check online for family tour packages.

Mark Twain Cave -- Open year-round. $3-$15.95; one-hour tour. Lantern Tours available 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Haunted Tours at 6 p.m. on select weekends in October.

Cameron Lantern Cave -- Open through Labor Day weekend. $3 to $18.95; 90-minute tour.

Total Eclipse Cave -- 2:30 p.m. in Cameron Cave. $32. Two-plus hours long for those 13 and older. Guide leads visitors crawling through tunnels, straddling crevices and sliding down muddy slopes. Maximum 10 people; reservations required. Open through Labor Day weekend. Other times may be available by special request.

Cave Hollow Winery -- 11a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 573-231-1000. Enjoy cave-aged cheese and sip Mark Twain Reserve Wine, as well as other wines. Indoor and outdoor seating on a rise above the cave visitors center.

Sticks, Stones & Bones -- 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Kids pan for genuine gemstones; $6.95 a bag. (Each bag is seeded with natural stones, such as quartz crystal and orange calcite.)

Campground -- Open April 1 to Nov. 1; reservations, 800-527-0304. 99 sites, plus pavilions, hiking trails, playground and more. Family fun park with miniature golf and other activities across the highway.

"There aren't a lot of gimmicks, which is what I like," said visitor Mark Kalzberg about the caves. He and his family, from Leesburg, Va., were back for the third time to visit Hannibal, camp, hike and explore caves. "You get a flashlight, you follow the guide, he talks and you listen and look. That's all you need. And it's great."

Especially in the heat, when the caves typically are a mere 54 to 56 degrees. Bring a sweatshirt or jacket and wear closed-toe shoes.

Cameron Cave winds and twists upon itself and is not lighted; Mark Twain Cave has the high ceilings and is easier to move around in. You can take a lighted tour, or a lantern tour in this cave, which also has a direct history with the author. (Be sure to ask about the girl in the coffin.)

When you're done, walk across the street and let the kids discover gemstones at Sticks, Stones & Bones. The old-fashioned-looking water sluice is 50 feet long. Youngsters can empty a bag of stones into a pan, slip it into the water, shake and see what they can find.

Ray and Tara Moreland, of Ramsey, Ill., got a chance to sit down while their three children got their hands wet searching for treasure.

"I found a lot!" said Kevin, 7 as he matched up a big piece of amethyst with its photo on the bag.

Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tours

7 p.m. (sometimes a 10 p.m. tour, depending on demand); 90-minute guided tour. April-October. $15/$7.50

Purchase tickets at the Hannibal History Museum, 200 N. Main St.; 573-248-1819; hauntedhannibal.com.

When Ken and Lisa Marks moved to Hannibal from St. Louis, they didn't expect to operate a ghost tour.

But after Lisa kept hearing interesting and ghoulish true stories about past people and residences in town, the couple decided to let the rest of the world in on the fun. They operate a trolley that Ken drives while Lisa narrates with entertaining tales of mayhem and murder.

Visitors say they see and hear things on the tour, so Lisa keeps an open mind.

Karen Butler, 38, of Chicago, could't stop snapping photos as Ken stopped the trolley by the old city jail.

"See that window there? People say they've seen a man in that window," Lisa said. Check out their website for photos of what may, or may not, be a confined spirit.

Around the corner, the 1888 murder of a high-society businessman, Amos Stillwell, took place. Did his wife Fannie do it? Did the doctor help? Take the tour and find out.

Before long, Ken is manuevering the trolley up a narrow lane, around a wooded corner to arrive at the abandoned Baptist Cemetery. It's about as scary picture-perfect a resting place as you'll find for a final stop on a ghost tour.

Lisa explained how to use the divining rods by which "unseen forces" led passengers through the cemetery. Imagine a trolley car full of adults (and a few children) wandering this place of tumbled tombstones, twisted trees and dark corners.

"Boy, this is so great!" said Cate Well, 28, of St. Louis, as she held the rods in front of her. "I could feel myself being pulled in this direction. I stopped here (in front of a fallen gravestone) because the rods crossed and that means something here wants to communicate with me." She stood quietly for a few minutes and asked some questions (instructing the spirit to open the rods if it understood), then moved on.

Bob Christiansen, 49, of Memphis, stopped at one point and pointed his rods to the ground. Nothing much was happening for him, but it didn't matter.

"You know, this is kind of creepy. But, it's fun."

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