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1860 excursion to Hannibal's McDowell’s cave a summer highlight for Quincy High students

Known simply as “Hannibal Cave” when this photo was taken about 1880, Mark Twain Cave hardly resembles the major tourist attraction it is today. Pictured here is the original cave entrance. The present entrance was opened up in the 1890’s. From Steve Chou’s book, Bluff City Memories.


It is a commonly recognized belief that the cave now known as Mark Twain was originally discovered back around 1820 by a man named Sims. By the time Sam Clemens was old enough to go exploring with his friends, a man named Dr. McDowell had purchased the land, and the cave subsequently carried his name.

It was Sam Clemen’s writings, some years later, that eventually resulted in the cave’s renaming in Hannibal’s most famous author’s honor: Mark Twain.

But Sam Clemens wasn’t alone in his quest to explore the cave; throughout man’s presence in this Northeast Missouri region, the cave itself has served as an enormous curiosity.


The Palmyra Weekly Whig picked up an item of interest from the Hannibal Messenger, published well before the Civil War, on Aug. 28, 1856.

A group of men from Hannibal and Palmyra planned on studying the cave, the newspaper noted, for the “purpose of making a scientific exploration thereof, and have with them such instruments as they need for that purpose.” The outing was expected to last several days.

The men planning that journey included:

Rev. Mr. Comings, who was present at the laying of the cornerstone at the Palmyra’s original St. Paul’s Chapel in 1855.

Dr. Taylor, who may have been Dr. E. Taylor, a resident dentist in Palmyra.

B.N. Crump, who operated a hardware store at 10 Main Street in Hannibal, and a brother-in-law of Judge John B. Helm.

And: Messrs. Pittman, Brown, Wiggins and Hays, of Palmyra, and S.A. Forbes, and B.M. Hawkins of Hannibal.

Unfortunately, no subsequent information about their exploration can be found in the Palmyra newspaper.


But four years later, the Quincy Whig carried a summary of Quincy High School’s excursion to McDowell’s Cave, which took place on June 30, 1860. The article, published in the July 7, 1860 edition, offered numerous details allowing the article’s readers the opportunity to envision for themselves the day-long outing.

An estimated 250 people joined the early morning excursion on Quincy’s riverfront, boarding the steamer Pike, captained by Charles C. Brand.

“On board were parents, teachers, pupils, several clergy of the city; strangers and others, and as the young men and maidens came gaily on the boat, every lassie having her laddie, it was evident that, like another craft, its inmates came aboard in pairs.”

The newspaper described the cave’s location as about two miles south of Hannibal, and a half mile from the river.

“The walk to the cave is through a beautiful ravine, and a pleasant lawn, well shaded, spreads out in front of the opening of the cave.

“(The cave) is entered some forty feet up the side of the mountain. The mouth is about fifteen feet in diameter, and enables one to stand erect in it.

“From this, three crevices open into the mountain, into all of which some of the company wandered. A spring is found on the one to the left, which is formed by the water dropping from above.”

One industrious man brought with him a large roll of tarred twine, which he affixed to the cave opening, to allow exploration of the cave without fear of becoming lost. He estimated that he walked two miles inside of the cave, all the while holding on to the twine.

The lush grounds near the cave entrance served as a picnic spot for the Quincy visitors. There, “the bounteous and elegant table was spread on the grass,” consisting of 100 baskets of food which had been packed for the occasion, plus hot coffee and ice cold lemonade.

The high temperature for the day was 100 degrees, and once back on the boat, the cooler river breezes were refreshing to the cave visitors.

Among the participants on the outing:

Charles A. Savage, then 46 years old, a Quincy banker who was instrumental – during his lifetime – in procuring railroads into Quincy, which contributed to the city’s prosperity. He was instrumental in securing a charter for the company that built the first iron bridge to span the Mississippi River.

W.M. Baker, the 37-year-old principal of the high school at Quincy, who was credited with organizing the trip.

Rev. Dr. Joseph Warren, pastor of the Old School Presbyterian Church of Quincy. The following year, he transferred to the Presbyterian Church at Macomb, Ill.

Mr. Keyes, the president of the high school.

Fred Collins, 59, early associate with Comstock Castle and Co., stovemakers in Quincy, Ill. He died in May 1863. Timothy H. Castle and Enoch Comstock were witnesses to his will.

Samuel P. Church, insurance agent of Quincy, who was elected secretary of the Board of Education in 1861.

President Julian Monson Sturtevant, 55, of Illinois College, who gave an “able and eloquent address” to the audience at the cavegrounds.

Stop at Hannibal

On the way back up the river, Capt. Brand stopped the steamboat at Hannibal’s wharf, where the guests were treated to music provided by Frank Ray’s Band. The same band would provided musical entertainment the following September during the Eighth Annual Fair at Palmyra.

Note: The identities of the participants on the boat are calculated from abbreviated names in the newspaper’s text, comparing people of the era who worked in associated businesses at the time.

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