On November 11, 1934, construction on the lighthouse was commenced. The lighthouse, the first in the nation to be “inland” (which rendered it purely for decoration), would be built with WPA labor and dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the White House on January 15, 1935, to open the yearlong celebration. Technicians installed lines that connected the beacon of the lighthouse to the president’s desk in the Oval Office so that he could light the beacon with the turn of a key. Radio stations across the country broadcast the dedication, which featured an address by President Roosevelt from the White House and comments from Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, Mark Twain’s daughter, speaking from Detroit.
In June 1960, an enormous windstorm with seventy-mile-per-hour gusts blew apart the lighthouse on Cardiff Hill. When the structure was originally built in 1935, designers had only planned for it to be in place for twenty-five years.
A windstorm in June of 1960 demolished the original lighthouse
The first lighthouse, built in 1935 by the WPA
By the time of the storm, the lighthouse had become part of Hannibal’s landscape, and many wished to see it restored. Funds were raised by public subscription in a drive spearheaded by E.L. Sparks Jr., and the newly constructed lighthouse was dedicated on May 24, 1963. At the ceremony, Hannibal Girl and Boy Scouts formed a “Spiral of Light,” lighting a series of candles that extended from the base of the steps up to the top (244 stairs). The beacon light atop the lighthouse was donated by the United States Coast Guard and was ceremoniously lit by President John F. Kennedy at the White House in the same manner as the original dedication in 1935 by Roosevelt.
Cardiff Hill, the large bluff north of downtown Hannibal, was known as Holliday's Hill during Mark Twain's childhood. After his sister Millicent (Mrs. Richard Holliday) was widowed, Confederate brigadier general Angus W. McDonald built a home for her atop the grand overlook. Young Sam Clemens and his friends played on Holliday's Hill; one famous incident Twain recalled later in life was the day he and his comrades rolled a boulder "the size of an omnibus" down the side of the hill, hoping to see it splash in the Mississippi River -- to the boys' horror, the enormous rock took an unexpected route and ended up crashing into a cooper's shop at the foot of the great bluff instead.
Mark Twain remembered Mrs. Holliday and used her as his model for the character of Widow Douglas in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In the book, Twain changed the name of the bluff to Cardiff Hill, as he said it reminded him of the terrain he saw when visiting Cardiff, Wales in the United Kingdom some years before. The name stuck, and locals still call it Cardiff Hill to this day.
When visiting downtown Hannibal, one may climb the 244 steps to visit the scenic overlook at the foot of the lighthouse, or examine closely the Tom & Huck Statue which stands at the north end of Main Street at the foot of Cardiff Hill.
Winter on Cardiff Hill, February 2011
Click logo above to learn more about Cardiff Hill and the Lighthouse by visiting the Hannibal Parks & Recreation Department website