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Lost in debris of bridge collapse: A jewelry trunk valued at $15,000

This photo represents the northern side of now abandoned Minnow Branch bridge. It is located to the south of Market Street, near Bowen Auto Body. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

NOTE: This story makes reference to a railroad accident that took place on July 31, 1875, which was featured in the Hannibal Courier-Post and on Feb. 2, 2019.


During the 24 hours following the 10:20 p.m. July 31, 1875 bridge collapse that sent H&StJo engineer, Frank Bradley, to a watery grave, an estimated 5,000 curiosity seekers visited the scene of the accident, which was just to the west of Lindell Avenue, Hannibal, Mo.

The steam engine, buried in the silt and debris left behind by the rush of Minnow Branch during a summer storm, was topped by the tender, and on top of that, the baggage car.

Remarkably, in a little more than 24 hours following the accident, the bridge and tracks had been repaired by some 100 workers; Frank Bradley’s body had been found, removed and autopsied; and passengers and freight were once again on the move east and west.

So what did those thousands of onlookers see when they went to the scene of the unspeakable tragedy?

Pulled from the receded creek were five pouches of “mail matter”. Four of the pouches were recovered during the first hours following the tragedy, and work began in an attempt to identify the mail and return it to the senders. Unfortunately, much of the paper material was reduced to pulp by the raging creek, making identification impossible.

But even more curious than that is what wasn’t found at the accident scene.

Traveling in the baggage car was a trunk owned by a company in New York, which contained samples of jewelry, valued at some $15,000.

By all reports, it was never recovered.

Brown brothers

In 1875, J. Van and John J. Brown operated a jewelry store at 304 Broadway, in a building that in 2019 houses The Appliance Depot.

Van Brown was the oldest of the brothers, born in 1838 in Ohio, and arriving in Hannibal with his parents by the year 1850. His father, George Brown, was a wagon maker and painter by trade, and was later associated in the jewelry business with his sons.

Representing the New York firm, the Brown family announced a reward for the recovery of the treasure chest, which of course attracted the attention of scavenger hunters from near and far.

The Hannibal Clipper of Aug. 25, 1875, carried the following notice:

“$1,000 reward

“One thousand dollars will be paid for the recovery of the trunk of Jewelry lost at Bear Creek on the night of July 31, 1875. Brown Bros. Hannibal, Mo.”


The railroad itself likely disavowed itself of responsibility for the lost jewels.

In 1864, as more and more Americans were traveling by rail, “Laws Applying to Railroad Travel” were established.

Among the rules listed was one that would have particular impact some 11 years later, in Hannibal, Mo.

The Quincy Whig published the rules in its Aug. 20, 1864 edition.

Included in the rules listed under “Laws Applying to Railroad Travel,” it was specifically noted that the railroad companies were not liable for valuable trunks of jewelry, money or merchandise, unless special terms were made ahead of time with the railroads or their agents.

Brown Bros. Jewelry Co., became the agent in charge of administering the reward.

Brown Bros. Jewelry

The Brown jewelry store was located on the corner of Main and Center streets in Hannibal circa 1871. It later moved to 304 Broadway.

The 1875 city directory described the store and its operation:

“Brown Brothers, 304 Broadway, is the oldest jewelry house in the city, and their magnificent store is a popular resort for all who desire a first class article in this line. They make a specialty of fine silverware, fine gold jewelry and fine clocks and watches. They employ skilled workmen in the engraving and repairing departments, and guarantee as good work as can be done in the large cities.”

Rural home

At the same time, the Brown brothers were living on the north side of Paris Road, near the city limits. That translates in today’s street names to the north side of the intersection of Pleasant Street and Country Club Drive. In the 1890s, there were 20 acres of land associated with this property, owned by Van Brown, who operated a fruit orchard in addition to the jewelry store.

Van Brown died unexpectedly on June 1, 1895, at the age of 57.

His brothers and nephews kept the business going until the 1930s.

Van Brown had two sons, Arthur Van Brown and George Walter Brown, both of whom took up railroading as a profession.


Thanks go out to Archie Hayden, who assisted with the research for this story.

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at

This is the bridge deck over the Minnow Branch. The railroad ties have long since been removed, but the structure remains as a relic of Hannibal’s days as a railroad hub. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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