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Riverman Charles W. Curts left a lasting imprint on Hannibal

Charles W. Curts’ last home, (see picture at right) where he breathed his last breath, and where his daughter Josephine Ayers continued to live until her death in 1951, was located next door (to the south) to what is, in 2015, the only surviving house on the east side of the 100 block of South Fourth Street. The footprint of the two houses are nearly identical.

Photo of Charles W. Curts, noted steamboat pilot. Contributed by Delmas Anderson, descendant of Charles Curts.


Born in Lexington, Ky., in 1827, and relocated with his family just five years later, Charles Wickliff Curts was considered a pioneer in Hannibal, Missouri, a resident when the town was little more than a clearing along the banks of the Mississippi, and when the log school house was in the midst of “woods,” which he would later help clear and grade in order to establish Central Park.

A boyhood schoolmate of Sam Clemens, Charles Curts shared the same memories that his young friend Sam would later transform into legend known the world over.

Both Clemens and Charles Curts started out their careers as riverboat pilots. While Clemens would leave Hannibal, travel worldwide and gain fame as among the greatest of American writers, Curts kept his homebase at Hannibal while venturing out as a steamboat pilot on a number of this country’s waterways.

Charles’ parents, Abraham and Mildred A. Branham Curts, arrived in Hannibal with their young son in 1833, during an era when Indian wigwams still dotted the hills around the town, and when Bear Creek meandered through the downtown, meeting the Mississippi just south of what would become Broadway. The creek’s path would be straightened by a core of men of Charles Curts’ generation, wielding shovels, by 1854.

When the Curts’ family arrived in Hannibal, the population was just 35, with one steamboat arriving and departing per week.

The oldest portion of the town was settled by the ferry landing, near the building that now houses Mark Twain Brewery. The next land to be developed was along Palmyra Avenue, and after that, construction started along Main Street. The land south of Market Street, later renamed Broadway, was a dense forest, and land to the west of town was a popular hunting ground.

All of Charles Wickliffe Curts’ childhood memories were built along the banks of the Mississippi River, and he seldom – if ever – during his 75+ years of residency in Hannibal, lived more than five blocks from the shoreline.

Curts’ last home, where he breathed his last breath, and where his daughter Josephine Ayers continued to live until her death in 1951, was located next door to what is, in 2015, the only surviving house on the east side of the 100 block of South Fourth Street. The address at the time of his death was 115 South Fourth, later re-numbered 116 South Fourth. The dwelling still standing is numbered 114 South Fourth.

Sanborn maps of 1885 and 1899 show that the two aforementioned houses on South Fourth Street possessed nearly identical footprints.

Notable lineage

Delmas Anderson of Odgen, Utah, is a direct descendant of Abraham and Charles W. Curts. Abraham Curts (1806-1880) is Anderson’s great-great-great grandfather. Charles W. Curts, (1827-1908) the famed riverboat pilot, and Sam Clemens’ pal, is Anderson’s great-great grandfather.

Curts, the pilot

Del Anderson has shared information he has gathered during his lifetime regarding Charles Curts, including the death notice that appeared in a 1908 Hannibal newspaper:

“He engaged in steamboating when he was 30 years old and soon became pilot and captain. He was a licensed pilot on the Mississippi, Illinois and St. Croix rivers and renewed his license from year to year, and was a licensed pilot when he died. His run on the Mississippi was from Keokuk to St. Louis, but he often piloted steamers from St. Paul to New Orleans and on the Illinois and St. Croix rivers. He was familiar with every sandbar between St. Paul and St. Louis and is said to have been the best posted pilot on the river. His services were in great demand and he could command almost any wages.”

In an undated Hannibal newspaper, circa 1903, Capt. Curts offered a description of the mildest winter of his previous 48 years on the Mississippi:

“Captain C.W. Curts says that the winter of 1864-65 was extremely warm, and no ice of any great volume was in the river during the whole of that period. He at that time was a pilot on the Warsaw, one of the finest packets in the river service running between Keokuk and St. Louis. At the end of the season he contracted with Captain Malin, who had chartered the Jennie Whipple, also plying between those two cities, to pilot the boat, and states that not a trip, not even an hour was missed throughout the months of December, January and February, the period for which he had contracted to run, and at which other boats entered into the trade for the season. He ran the boat alone, the services of no other pilot could be secured, and received as a compensation $200 each month.”

Curts: The man

While no photos of Capt. Curts have surfaced, a description of the man at the age of 76 was included in the 1903 newspaper article:

“Although 76 years old he never uses spectacles and can see better than most men, at the age of forty; in fact, his sight is perfect and he can see as well as anyone. His hearing is likewise good, and his physique is in a wonderful state of preservation, he standing over six feet, lithe as an Indian and straight as an arrow; no one would suspect him of being almost four scores of years in age. He has the appearance of a man around sixty.”

Fifth St. property

In 1880, Capt. Charles W. Curts owned the property at the southwest corner of Fifth and Broadway, Hannibal, Mo. He was approached by the leaders of the Congregational Church about selling the land for construction of a new church.

Capt. Curts agreed, and sold the corner lot for $3,200. The sale was noted in the St. Louis Globe Democrat on Dec. 1, 1880. (Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers)

The church was to cost $25,000, and building was to be started early in the spring. The deed was in the name of Rev. Dr. Goodell, of St Louis.

Early history source: Early Hannibal landscape description from Ell’s Gazetteer of Missouri, Marion County, rootsweb

The membership of the Congregational Church constructed this church building on the west side of the 100 block of South Fifth Street circa 1880. The members purchased the land from Capt. Charles W. Curts. OTIS HOWELL PHOTO/STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

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