Civic leadership in Hannibal began to have a major impact on the new city’s future. In 1846, a public meeting was held in the office of Judge John Marshall Clemens (Sam's father). About a dozen people attended the meeting to discuss a new plan for Hannibal: the establishment of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. The group adopted the plan and asked Robert F. Lakenan, secretary of the committee, to prepare the charter immediately for presentation to the Missouri state legislature. Although the small group had no experience and little knowledge of what was involved in building a railroad, it did have the foresight to know the impact the railway would have on the future of Hannibal. A rail line that cut directly across the state to the western city of St. Joseph would provide a route to ship Hannibal goods to markets in the developing West, possibly equaling the volume of goods currently being sent south by steamboat. It would take more than twelve years before the line was completed, but the small group of men from Hannibal, including the town’s justice of the peace, was instrumental in securing a major transportation pipeline that would have an impact Hannibal for more than a century.
The final spike connecting Hannibal to St. Joseph was struck at Chillicothe, Missouri on February 13, 1859, almost thirteen years after the first meeting in Justice Clemens’ office and over seven years after the first groundbreaking ceremony. By then, business speculation in Hannibal had set the foundation for the most successful period in the town’s history, nearly tripling its population in ten years and making it the second largest city in the state behind St. Louis—both being the first rail centers west of the Mississippi.
Emphasis on the importance of the railroad’s existence could not be overstated. First, the route was the first to cross the state of Missouri and connect to an in-progress Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad to the west. Second, it connected the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, offering a faster route than river traffic for passengers and some cargo. Third, eventual cooperation with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad positioned Hannibal as a pivot point for multiple railroads in the future to add service between Chicago, eastern Iowa and St. Louis. Eventually, six different lines would simultaneously provide service to and from Hannibal.
Do You Know:
The first railroad mail car was built in Hannibal and became the first leg of the Pony Express
General postmaster Montgomery Blair (brother of Missouri congressman General Francis P. Blair) authorized the construction of two thirty-foot postal cars to be used to sort mail while in transit from a railroad car builder in Quincy, Illinois. The cars were scheduled to be ready for a trial run in early July, however, the Quincy branch of the railroad did not meet its deadlines. Postal officials turned to master car builder H. C. Whiting at the Hannibal maintenance shops for help.
The Hannibal crew converted a baggage car for mail use by installing sorting tables and shelving to imitate the workspace of a post office on wheels. Their design was a major success. Hannibal would continue to be the prime mover of mail across the Midwest until the completion of the Union Pacific railroad system caused a permanent shift of main postal traffic to the north.
The H&SJ railroad experienced instant success simply by virtue of its geography and timing. Just a year after service from Hannibal to St. Joseph commenced, the Pony Express transcontinental mail service began, running its two-thousand-mile route from St. Joseph to San Francisco, California. At the time, April 1860, the best means of delivering westbound mail to the St. Joseph office remained the H&SJ line; Hannibal had become a de facto eastern hub for the Pony Express until the latter’s demise at the hands of the Union Pacific telegraph line. Until other rail lines started to crisscross Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, the H&SJ featured prominently in the delivery of mail to lesser-developed western territories and states.