Mark Twain's Hometown Survives

Flooding damaged one neighborhood in Hannibal, Mo., but a wall saved most of its histroic center

SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS walked these streets for the first 17 years of his life. They all slant down toward the Mississippi River, Hannibal's life blood and heritage. Clemens, who achieved enduring renown as Mark Twain, began his writing career here penning articles for his brother's newspaper - one of six that Hannibal supported in the 1850s.

In Clemens's youth, warehouses crowded the waterfront. Everything the surrounding land produced, from wheat to tobacco to hemp, was loaded onto riverboats and shipped south. Later, lumber harvested from forests in Minnesota was milled here, creating huge local fortunes. Shoemaking was big too, right up to the 1960s and '70s, when foreign competition closed the factories. At its peak in the late 1800s, Hannibal was the third largest city in Missouri, with 36,000 people. Its population now is 18,000.

The old warehouses Clemens knew were washed away by the river's recurrent floods. But no one - from the time the Clemens family arrived in 1839 to the present - had seen waters like those that assaulted Hannibal and other river towns this July.

"This time, the volume of water was unprecedented, as was the weather pattern that caused it," says Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain Home Foundation in Hannibal. Here, as elsewhere, the waters stayed at record flood levels for weeks.

Hannibal was ready for the river's assault. After some 80 years of debating the idea, the city completed a floodwall on April 1 - just in time for the first round of spring flooding.

That flooding brought the fourth highest water in Hannibal's history, but "nobody made a big deal about it," recalls Mike Strauby, who owns the Riverfront Inn, a restaurant situated a stone's throw from the new wall, on the dry side. Those waters turned out to be the merest prelude to what happened in July.

Because of the new wall - a concrete and earthen levee with steel floodgates - nearly all of Hannibal's historic downtown was spared the great flood of '93. Only a strip of riverfront - including a grain terminal, some parkland, and river-oriented businesses like marinas - went under. The city's chamber of commerce figures that the wall saved the town at least $15 million in flood cleanup costs. The barrier cost $8 million to build.

But just to the south of the downtown area, an entire neighborhood was flooded, displacing about 1,100 people. It is a poor section of Hannibal, built near the old rail yards and subject both to the Mississippi's inroads and flash floods coming from the other direction down Bear Creek.

From Lover's Leap, high on a bluff overlooking the city, the floodwall's selective protection is clear. But you can't protect everything, says Scott Meyer, who runs River City Restorations Inc., a building firm that specializes in historic preservation. One sad part of the scene below, Mr. Meyer says, is that the people who were flooded out of those modest houses will probably have trouble getting back in. He estimates that a house in this part of town might be worth $15,000 fixed up, but it will cost a lot more than that to repair the flood damage.

Sympathy for the flood victims runs deep. Doris and Erwin Givan drove down to Hannibal from their home 10 miles inland to climb the floodwall and take a look at things. Mr. Givan is a locomotive engineer with the Burlington Northern line, whose tracks run through Hannibal. The flood has idled the railroad and Givan. But the couple feels relatively fortunate. The floodwall was "good for the businesses, but not the people who live down there," comments Givan, pointing toward the inundated neighborhood.

In the short term, Hannibal could face a housing crisis, needing to find shelter for both its displaced residents - who are temporarily being put up in an old hospital - and for people from surrounding farm towns and hamlets who've lost their homes. That's just one facet of a larger flood-related economic crisis. Many farmers in areas away from the river will have decent harvests, and "What do you do when farmers are producing excellent crops and the grain terminals are still shut down?" Mr. Sweets asks.

Historically, Hannibal has been a transportation hub. The first railroad bridge connecting Chicago and St. Louis was built here. But all the conveyors of local commerce - barges, trains, and trucks - have been stalled by the high water. A lot of people here worked and shopped in Quincy, Ill, across the Mississippi, and vice versa. But that connection was effectively severed when the 52-mile Sny levee system on the Illinois side broke, flooding the approaches to the Mark Twain Bridge, which was built in t he late 1930s.

Meyer had a number of restoration projects under way in Quincy, but he has to put them on hold because it would cost him an extra $100 a day to send crews the long way around over bridges to the north. Mr. Strauby, who has a construction business in addition to his restaurant, says he'll continue to send employees over to Quincy, despite the high cost. "I want to keep them busy, first. And second, it took two or three years to build that market share up," he explains.

Strauby, a big, outgoing man who probably would be quick to laugh and joke under normal circumstances, feels the weight of the floodwaters lapping nearby. The worst part of the flood, he says, is "the uncertainty about doing stuff. You're used to making decisions every day and taking risks in business. But now, you can't make up your mind. You just have to sit back and wait for something to happen, and it's very hard to do."

He had to lay off summer help at the restaurant, since sales are down 80 percent. And he, like others here, is a little disgusted by media reports that convey the image of a totally flooded-out community. Sweets, for example, wryly recalls a St. Louis headline proclaiming that the "levee in Hannibal" broke. In fact, it was a levee in an agricultural area just north of the city. But the impression from that and from TV pictures of the flooded portions of town stuck, and tourism evaporated. Downtown untouched by flood

But if he can keep the Riverfront Inn going, Strauby says, there's one cause for optimism: Because of its new flood protection, Hannibal's historic district will be one of the few left untouched by the flood. Next year, the tourists could come back in force.

Protecting the city's historic legacy was a major motivation for the floodwall. In the view of Meyer, Sweets, and many other residents, assured flood protection was a prerequisite to restoring - and capitalizing on - Hannibal's glory as the quintessential river town that spawned the man often regarded as America's greatest writer. With the Mississippi held in check, the work of sprucing up old facades, attracting new businesses, and expanding historical exhibits could really get under way.

Not that some didn't fight the floodwall. As in other Mississippi River communities, the thought of blocking off a view of the river stirred criticism. But what people forget, says Sweets (who certainly couldn't be accused of slighting the town's heritage) is that there never was an unobstructed view of the Mississippi from downtown - just a tunnel view of it between storefronts and warehouses. When the river is at normal levels, he says, that same view will still be there on the major streets leading to

the river, since the flood gates will be open.

Beyond the "view" issue, Sweets adds, a few people just don't like the idea of developing the downtown and luring in thousands of visitors. Hannibal already gets some 350,000 tourists a year, though the figure this year will be a fraction of that. A typical summer day brings 700 to 900 people to the Mark Twain Home, Hannibal's central historic fixture. Right now, the home is fortunate to draw 50 people a day.

Beyond the Twain home and a few surrounding buildings that date from the same early period, Hannibal's downtown is dominated by late 19th-century stone and brick commercial buildings, only some of which have been restored. It also has its share of vacant lots, where old structures were either torn down or collapsed. Fanning out from the river, the town's streets run past mansions built by lumber barons and beside humble bungalows. Business development varies from old buildings restored as office space to

modern supermarkets. In some sections, it's a fairly typical-looking older American town.

Marketing efforts over the years "conjured up a community that's totally different from the one people end up seeing," Meyer says. Nancy Stuenkel, executive director of the chamber of commerce, puts it this way: "A lot of people come to Hannibal expecting to see Colonial Williamsburg, but we never were Williamsburg." Both emphasize that their city was, and is, a working river town.

Now, however, the center of commerce has moved from the riverfront out to the western edge of Hannibal, where a full-to-capacity industrial park includes companies that make electrical fixtures, rubber products, and a vast Pet Inc. plant that turns out Old El Paso Mexican foods, Progresso Soup, and Underwood Deviled Ham. To the north of town, a large American Cyanamid factory produces agricultural chemicals. Mark Twain's home restored

But Hannibal's civic identity still gravitates toward the river and the downtown district that abuts it. Plans to revitalize and preserve Hannibal's historic downtown got an initial impulse back in 1984, according to Sweets. That's when a structural engineer looked at the Mark Twain home and recommended that it be closed immediately. The foundation that supports and operates the home, along with interested architects and preservationists, got to work on a strategy for fixing it up.

But in the course of those discussions, says Herb Parham, president of the Mark Twain Home Foundation and its chief fund-raiser, people realized that not just the home, but its downtown surroundings, needed attention.

As part of a step-by-step process, the work of shoring up and refurbishing Mark Twain's boyhood home was completed a little over two years ago. "We spent about a half million on that $12,000 house," Mr. Parham says, noting what the property was worth when the city acquired it in 1912. The little white clapboard home now has meticulously restored rooms furnished as they would have been in the 1840s.

The next step in the plan is a museum devoted to Twain's life, his writings, and Hannibal. The building, an old two-story brick structure that used to house a local department store, has already been purchased. Right now, the building is in ruins, with its lower floor gutted. When the project is finished, three or four years hence, that floor will display a chronology of Twain's life, with alcoves devoted to each of his major works. A split stairway will take visitors past an observation deck looking out

on the Mississippi, where they can turn the massive steering wheel from an old riverboat, and up to a second-floor auditorium.

This undertaking, plus future ones like recreating a Twain-era print shop and schoolhouse, will severely test the foundation's fund-raising ability. So far, Parham says , $235,000 has been raised, about 10 percent of what's required. "What we really need," he says half jokingly, "is a Mark Twain buff with lots of money."

The museum will be purposefully located a couple of blocks away from the Mark Twain Home. "We want to keep people in Hannibal longer," Parham says. Or, in Sweets' analysis: "When we can move 200,000 people up and down those blocks, you won't have any vacant lots there."

Indeed, "we probably have more people interested in moving downtown than we can accommodate," Mrs. Stuenkel says. One lure for business people considering downtown Hannibal is the Main Street Program, part of a nationwide redevelopment effort sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Through the local Main Street office, downtown merchants can get low-interest loans and design advice related to the area's historic theme. "I wish we had five or 10 more buildings down there, because we cou ld fill them," says Karol Mueller, who heads the Main Street Program in Hannibal - in fact she's the entire staff.

But the prospect of restoring old buildings near the riverfront and moving businesses into them is anything but simple. Meyer is the midst of one such restoration right now, the three-story Farral Building, on the corner of Broadway and Main. You think these old buildings are going to be "overbuilt," Meyer says, "but this one was poorly constructed - some of the internal framing was really poorly done." He points to exposed joists that have split over the years. To make the place safe, Meyer's crew is ha ving to reinforce nearly all the joists and beams. Another problem is the moisture that rose up through the building from a regularly flooded basement. Countless rotted boards have to be replaced.

Still, a handsome building is emerging, with newly exposed brick walls, repointed mortar, and cast-iron details restoring some of the classical grandeur that probably led the original builder and architect to chisel their names on a stone quoin right over the front door.

This restoration is relatively thorough and costly. It's being paid for by a successful printing firm that plans to occupy the second floor. The lower level will be a clothing store. But many business people can afford little more than a facade face lift, and compromises are inherent in his business, Meyer says. "Preservation has to work within the local economy."

The hope - indeed the faith - of most people in Hannibal is that it will also work for the local economy, attracting both tourists and entrepreneurs. That is all part of this community's plan to keep pulling itself up by the bootstraps - flood or no flood - in a way that might have made its most famous native son proud.

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