top of page

History a series of connections: Tilden Russell Selmes and his Hannibal link

This 1969 photo, from the Steve Chou collection, shows the building that housed the Tilden R. Selmes' mercantile store, beginning circa 1850. The building was torn down in the 1970s. The building was at Main and Hill streets, directly to the east of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home garden.

Mary Lou Montgomery

Tilden Russell Selmes was a tall, energetic and athletic man of about 40 when he left New York with his wife and young daughter in order to pursue business interests in the West. Back in 1842, the “West” referred in part to the Mississippi River Valley, where Selmes would settle a mercantile business into an existing log building on the northeast corner of Main and Hill streets in Hannibal, Mo. At the time the town’s population was just 500 people.

Selmes had already been a major player in the milk distribution business in New York, and if rumors are to be believed, he was primary in a business development in South Boston nicknamed Selmes’ Folly, which failed miserably, throwing the young man into bankruptcy.

So here he was during Hannibal’s earliest days, combining the lessons he learned in Boston and New York, and putting them into play with a business model by which other merchants measured their success.

In order to be successful, he continually adapted his business to meet the needs of the ever-changing populace. In 1849 he had a three-story brick building constructed on the log cabin site, and later (by 1853) he added a wing to the east of the building, which he named Benton Saloon.

  • Selmes sold supplies to fortune seekers heading to California during the Gold Rush of 1849.

  • During the same era, he sold Quincy, Ill., -ground flour to the Hannibal market.

  • In September 1851, he was offering for sale Mackerel, direct from Boston, in barrels, half barrels and kitts. Also in his store was glassware of every kind, for sale to both wholesale and retail customers.

  • On June 9, 1856, A.L. Gooding of LaPlata, Mo., was in Hannibal and bought nails at T.R. Selmes’ store at 5 cents per pound, and coffee for 13 cents per pound.

Identifiable location

A number of businessmen during the early 1850s identified their stores as to the west … or east … north or south of the landmark Selmes store. Examples:

  • In May 1850, Dr. J.S. Sherrard operated his office on Hill Street, a few doors below the store of T.R. Selmes.

  • During July 1851, The Hannibal Marble Yard, operated by P.A. Saul, was located three doors east of T.R. Selmes’ store.

  • In June of 1852, the Courier newspaper advertised its relocation to the corner of Main and Hill streets, over Brewington’s shoe store. The entrance was on Hill, opposite of Selmes’ store.

  • In August 1853, Richard Fitzpatrick operated a new book and shoe manufactory on Hill Street, a few doors east of Selmes’ store.

First wife died

Mary D. Selmes, first wife of Tilden, lived in Hannibal with her husband from the time they arrived in town until her death of “Dropsy” on July 3, 1849. So stated her death notice: Benevolent, cheerful, self denying and without guile, her many excellences commanded the respect of all, and won the affections of many.

Second wife

New England-born Sarah Benton came to Hannibal at the invitation of the Rev. F.B. McElroy, who was operating an English and Classical School in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church, located on the southeast corner of South Fifth and Church streets.

In 1849 she was visiting for a season with the Dr. A.G. Bragg family in St. Louis. It was during this visit that she learned about the job opening in Hannibal.

She arrived in Hannibal in November 1849, and was immediately disappointed with the lifestyle Hannibal and her new teaching position afforded.

A collection of Selmes family letters and other correspondence, contained within the Selmes family papers, Arizona Historical Society-Tucson, contains the following reference to her arrival in Hannibal:

“I may not remain here long, I am teaching classes in an Academy taught by an old school Presbyterian.”

Gold Rush

In writing home to her father in Vermont during May 1850, at the end of the school term, Sarah described the Hannibal scene as it related to the California Gold Rush.

“You would think that all the world had taken up their stakes for the Golden land if you could see the flood of emigrants that are constantly flowing down these prairies of the west, day following day with each its long train of covered wagons and long line of mules, each week presents a scene like a caravan camping near the city. Last Friday I was riding on horseback about eight miles in the country, and found a company camped for the night, they had about eight wagons or carriages for they were nicely built on springs and cushioned in very good style. Many ladies and families are on their way, two fine looking brides passed through here a few days since. But oh! The disease and sickness and distress that awaits them in a strange land. I cannot think of it but with horror – and I feel melancholy when I see them rushing on as it seems to be to destruction though I feel now as though California was but a near neighbor to me here, so many are coming as well as going and they make so little of the journey.”

Leaving Hannibal?

In the same letter she spoke of her excitement to leave Hannibal behind. “This is a most beautiful country and might be a perfect garden with Yankee spirit and industry but I would not remain in such a society for all the riches of ____. I leave this next week for good and am delighted with the anticipation.”

Six months later, on Nov. 8, 1850, she was united in marriage at St. Louis with Tilden R. Selmes, and they set up housekeeping in at the Brady House, operated by Thomas and Mary A. Ayres at the corner of Main and Center streets, Hannibal.

Business and pleasure

From the time of their marriage until the start of the war between the states, Tilden R. Selmes and his Vermont-born wife would make repeated trips back to New England to see family, negotiate with wholesalers and seek financial support for business expansion.

In April 1851, a popular mode of transportation was offered by the Michigan Central Rail Road Line, a trip that crossed both Lake Erie and Lake Michigan by steamer.

Ticket agent James Crummey of Milwaukee boasted that the Michigan Central Rail Road Line could transport passengers (and freight) from Milwaukee all the way to Buffalo, N.Y., in just 44 hours. Facilitating this rapid and economical mode of transportation was the addition on Lake Michigan of two “low pressure” steamboats, the Arctic and Ward, together with standbys the Pacific and St. Louis.

Tilden Selmes was a passenger aboard the Michigan Central Rail Road Line of Steamboats on the Lake in late August 1851, traveling from Buffalo, N.Y., to Chicago. Service was such that a group of passengers came together and wrote a protest letter addressed to newspapers along the route. The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette published the letter on Sept. 2, 1851. On Sept. 11, 1851, the same newspaper published a counter letter. Between the two letters, the story of this 167-year-old mode of transportation emerges.

The Arctic and Ward steamers alternately left Buffalo and Detroit, Mich., at 7 o’clock in the evening, crossing paths midway on Lake Erie.

At Detroit, Chicago-bound passengers met a scheduled train, which took them from Detroit to Hillsdale, Mich. The rail connection between Hillsdale and New Buffalo, Mich., on the eastern bank of Lake Michigan, was scheduled to open in April 1849.

Once at New Buffalo, passengers boarded a Lake Michigan steamboat that ran daily between New Buffalo, Mich., Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis.

The timeframe for a trip from Buffalo, N.Y., to Milwaukee was predicted at about 45 hours.

Aboard the Arctic

Instead of 45 hours, the trip in which Selmes was a passenger took nearly 72 hours, according to the complaining committee.

Instead of departing from Buffalo at 7 p.m., the Arctic left dock at 10 p.m. on Aug. 28, 1851. Fingers of blame for the late departure pointed each way, but it seems that late-arriving passengers were the cause of the delay.

When the boat arrived in Detroit, the passengers had missed their rail connection by just a few minutes. The next train was at 8 o’clock the next morning, thus leaving the passengers stranded in Detroit overnight, with few options for accommodations.

Finally aboard the train as scheduled the next morning, the passengers arrived in New Buffalo, Mich., only to learn that the steamer on which they were to ride across Lake Michigan was delayed.

The scheduled steamer – the St. Louis – had been disabled by a collision with a propeller. A substitute steamer, on which Selmes was a passenger, was in actuality a mail boat, and by regulation could not leave port until a connecting mail train arrived, delaying the travelers even further.

Hannibal’s mayor

Tilden R. Selmes was mayor of Hannibal in February 1853 when a curious concern was brought up before the city council.

Hiram A. Westfall asked the council to back an ordinance allowing Hannibal residents to shoot and kill tame pigeons, which were making their roosts on the town’s rooftops.

Mr. Westfall told the council, “(The pigeons) were flying about the city in large numbers, and alighting on people’s houses, and behaving quite contrary to all proper ideas of cleanliness.”

He made mention of the cisterns which supplied water to many residents in the town.

The Hannibal Journal reported on Feb. 17, 1853:

“(Mr. Westfall) had cleaned his own cistern out a few days ago, and was astonished at the result, and he could not conceive of any other way to learn them (the pigeons) better manners, except by shooting them.

A discussion ensued, ending with the decision to draft an ordinance:

“Be it Ordained, by the City Council of the City of Hannibal: Sec. 1. All tame pigeons flying and going at large in this city, be and they are hereby declared a nuisance.

Section 2: So much of Ordinance No. 30, entitled “An ordinance for the Prevention of Fires,” approved May 29, 1852, as relates to shooting fire arms in the city of Hannibal, be, and the same is, hereby suspended for 90 days, so far as relates to the shooting of pigeons by persons 21 years old and upwards.

Section 3: This Ordinance to be in force from and after publication.

T.R. Selmes, Mayor”


Tilden R. Selmes died in April 1870 in Quincy, Ill., where Mr. Selmes and his family settled after the end of the Civil War. He and his wife left Hannibal at the start of the war, and Mr. Selmes was on the staff of General W.T. Sherman during the war. Mrs. Selmes lived to be 95, spending her later life in Concord Vt., but never losing connection with her hometown.

They were the grandparents to Mrs. Isabelle Selmes Greenway, noted Congresswoman of Arizona.


Capt. F.G. Butlin commanded the steamer Arctic beginning in

1851, and continued in that position until the railroad completed it’s lines around the lake. He was born near London, England, in 1824, and came to the United States as a child with his parents. His motto was: “Eternal vigilance is the price of success.” In late life was considered to be among prominent self-made men of Chicago.

This is an 1850 map of the United States, accessed through the Library of Congress.

This map shows the railroads in Michigan with steamboat routes along the Great Lakes, circa 1848. Accessed via the Library of Congress.

 Recent Posts 
bottom of page