The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Hannibal

It doesn’t take a literature professor to figure out who the most famous resident of Hannibal (pop. 17,757) was: His name prefaces half the signs in town, and the names of his characters preface the other half. Cross the Mississippi River on the I-72 Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, shop at the Huck Finn Shopping Center or swim at Mark Twain Lake, then spend the night at Injun Joe Campground or the Tom N’ Huck Motel. Turn onto 3rd Street (the Great River Road) near the Hotel Clemens and park yourself in the heart of historic old Hannibal, and visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Mark Twain Museum. Take a very expensive ride on the almost miniature Mark Twain riverboat, docked at the Center Street Landing; browse Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium (318 N. Main St., 573/221-0822) or eat Mark Twain memorial chicken at the Mark Twain Dinette. Not to detract from the credit due him, but don’t look for any subtlety or modesty surrounding Mark Twain’s achievements here.

Most of this Twainery is located downtown, within a few blocks of the Mississippi River, and enjoyment requires at least a passing familiarity with (and fondness for) Tom Sawyer, Twain’s fictionalized memoir of his boyhood here. A statue of Tom and Huck stands at the foot of Cardiff Hill, and two blocks south, the white picket fence featured in that book still stands in front of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home (120 N. Main St., 573/221-9010, daily, $11), where young Samuel Clemens (Twain’s real name) grew up in the 1840s. The historic site preserves a half dozen buildings, including his father’s law offices and the drugstore above which the Clemens family also lived. The home of Tom Sawyer’s “girl next door,” Becky Thatcher, is actually across the street, and the upstairs parlor and bedrooms have been re-created to evoke the era. The main Mark Twain Museum (415 N. Main St.) recently moved into a much larger space in an ornate Victorian building two blocks away but is still part of the same operation. Exhibits, including a steamboat pilot’s wheel and numerous first editions, bring to life scenes from Twain’s Mississippi novels.

A pair of high hills bookend Hannibal, and climbing up either (or both) gives a grand overview of the town and the broad Mississippi, its historic lifeblood. On the north side, climb up the staircase from the Tom and Huck statue to the top of Cardiff Hill, where the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse, built in 1935 to celebrate the centenary of Twain’s birth, offers a fine view. South of town, Lover’s Leap is higher and more breathtaking—best visited by car or bike. Farther south of downtown along the GRR (Hwy-79) is Hannibal’s most kid-friendly attraction: the Mark Twain Cave Complex (daily, $16), where costumed guides spin tales about Tom and Huck on an hour-long tour.

The most popular annual festival is Tom Sawyer Days, held the weekend nearest to the 4th of July, when children take part in the National Fence Painting Championship (a whitewashing homage to Tom Sawyer), a frog-jumping competition (remembering Twain’s Gold Rush-era short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County), and the very messy Mississippi Mud Volleyball Championships.

 

Hannibal Practicalities

To immerse yourself fully in the Mark Twain experience, try the Mark Twain memorial chicken (or a Mississippi Mud Malt) served all day at the Mark Twain Dinette (400 N. 3rd St., 573/221-5300), adjacent to the Mark Twain Home in what looks suspiciously like a converted A&W. A step up the culinary scale, Ole Planters Restaurant (316 Main St., 573/221-4410) has a full range of lunches and dinners; dessert fans will want to sample the German chocolate pie, a specialty of the house. This species, like rhubarb, is predominantly found in pie cases along the middle Mississippi, so if you’re planning a scientific sampling, start now.

Consistent with its status as an international tourist attraction, Hannibal has plenty of motels, B&Bs, and campgrounds. The Best Western (401 N. 3rd St., 573/248-1150, $90 and up) sits downtown at the foot of the old US-36 bridge. The national chains line up along busy US-61 west of downtown.

For a complete list of lodgings, restaurants, events, and tourist traps, pick up a free guide from the Hannibal visitors center (505 N. 3rd St., 573/221-2477 or 866/263-4825).

Hannibal

Becky’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and Emporium (318 N. Main St.)

Mark Twain Boyhood Home (120 N. Main St.)

Mark Twain Museum (415 N. Main St.)

Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse

Mark Twain Cave Complex (300 Cave Hollow Rd.)

Lover’s Leap

Mark Twain Dinette (400 N. 3rd St.)

Ole Planters Restaurant (316 Main St.)

Best Western (401 N. 3rd St.)

Visitors Center (505 N. 3rd St.)