Hannibal, Missouri; Bluff City Memories. By Steve Chou. Arcadia Publishing, 2002. Pp. 128. Softcover. $19.99. ISBN 0-7385-2018-7.

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The following review appeared 27 November 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed by
David Thomson

Steve Chou has been a serious collector of Hannibal ephemera for the last 20 years. In 1994 he privately published a collection of his vintage Hannibal photographs and this year Arcadia Publishing invited him to contribute to their marvelous series "Images of America" which has given the same professional treatment to over a hundred communities in the last several years. The book is titled Hannibal Missouri: Bluff City Memories. The nickname "Bluff City" was incorporated into the name of the Bluff City Shoe Factory (founded in 1904).

With a selection of 233 photographs spanning over ninety years from the mid-1860's to 1959, Chou gives glimpses of much that has vanished from Hannibal all together or has changed to a lesser or greater degree in the last century. Mark Twain enthusiasts will find sufficient scenes along the way to make it worth their while.

The first section, "Beginnings and Growth: 1819-1889," begins with the earliest known photographs of the town taken from hilltop vantage points. These images lack the clarity of later photographs but provide an idea of how the town looked when young Sam Clemens left it. The Clemens family was living with Dr. Grant and his family in the second floor of the Pilaster House when John Marshall Clemens died in 1847. A photo of the Pilaster House circa 1885 shows it with a front porch rather than the balcony it sports today. The last picture in the first section shows the old entrance to Dr. McDowell's cave immortalized by Mark Twain as "McDougal's Cave" in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and would later be called "Hannibal Cave" and today "Mark Twain Cave." To see this old entrance with its tantalizing glimpse of the interior reawakens that old feeling of mystery and intrigue that makes one want to go on in and explore.

Section two, "Hannibal's Heyday: 1890-1929," depicts the prosperity of the riverfront and steamboats, the frequent floods, Central Park, schools and streetcars. On page 26 a winter scene shows ice skaters in the 1890s on frozen Bear Creek, where Sam Clemens and Laura Hawkins had skated forty or so years earlier. An 1899 photo shows the Victorian style Federal Building which was built in 1888, four stories high with a tower on the corner, it still stands today as a landmark that evokes that era splendidly. Diverse photos by local photographer Anna Schnitzlein captured steam locomotives passing local landmarks and familiar landscapes containing buildings that have long since gone. Schnitzlein's view of Riverview Park the year of its dedication in 1909 shows it before the growth of trees that make it resplendent today.

Two photos of individual homes with Mark Twain connections include C. R. Martin's 1900 photo of the Clemens family Hill Street home on page 33 that the photographer would use to create the earliest post cards of what we now know as the Mark Twain Boyhood Home. On page 67 is a photo taken during the1920s by the Frazer Studios of the home where artist Carroll Beckwith was born in 1852, this house is only a block and a half west from the Clemens home. The year after Beckwith was born Clemens left Hannibal. Thirty-eight years later the two fellow Hannibalians would meet at a resort in Onteora, New York and Beckwith would paint a colorful portrait of Mark Twain with a corncob pipe clenched in his mouth that would be featured on the cover of Harper's Weekly, September 26, 1891.

Section three, "Hard Times and War Times: 1930-1945," gives us a fine view of the dedication of the Burlington train called the Mark Twain Zephyr in 1935. Mark Twain's grand daughter Nina Gabrilowitsch is on hand with a remarkably credible Tom, Huck and Becky who make the costuming of their contemporary counterparts in Hannibal today look generic and one dimensional by comparison. The waning years of the landmark railroad station Union Depot, including interior shots, are shown including the reduction of its once high tower to its abandonment then demolition in 1953.

Section four, "Just Yesterday: 1946 - Present," is evocative of Ron Powers' White Town Drowsing and provides a pictorial accompaniment to Powers' memoirs. Chou's book concludes with a 1959 photo of the Douglas High School band. Douglas was an all-black school that was closed that same year, which marked the end of segregation in Hannibal. The photo preceding that is an unusual one of Hal Holbrook in full Mark Twain makeup riding in the back of a Chevy convertible in the 1957 Tom Sawyer Days Parade. Holbrook was a young and slender 32-year-old under the white wig and mustache and hadn't evolved into the actor who is now seven years older than the 70-year-old Mark Twain he portrays.

Throughout the book business and manufacturing are well represented with stores and shopkeepers; factories and laborers. Disasters are documented including train wrecks from 1883 and 1915, a 1919 plane crash and a 1949 tornado. Stately homes and modest homes, churches, theaters and hotels are all represented and plenty of groups of people at work and play. Pictures of the early Autumn Festivals show the temporary wooden arches spanning Main Street that eventually were illuminated with electric bulbs to create a night time tunnel of lights stretching north to the foot of Cardiff Hill. The wrap-around cover of the book uses a large image of one of these tunnels of arches and makes one wish that the format of the book were a bit larger. The average image size is about 3 ½ x 5 inches and makes one long to see 8 x 10s of them.

Chou includes a paragraph of acknowledgments, an introduction, and relatively brief captions under each photo. For those interested in more detailed histories of the individual buildings -- such as who built them and occupied them and when, they can be found in the pages of the rare out-of-print books written on Hannibal history by the late Hurley Hagood (deceased Nov. 16, 2002 at the age of 90) and his wife Roberta. The Hagoods' titles include The Story of Hannibal (1976), Hannibal, Too (1986) and Hannibal Yesterdays (1992). Steve Chou graciously acknowledged the Hagoods as his principal inspiration and greatest influence.