E.T. Cameron, key keeper for the Mark Twain Cave
Seated in front of the entrance to the Mark Twain Cave at Hannibal is Evan T. Cameron, who owned the cave from 1923 until his death in 1944. Photo from Steve Chou’s collection.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Living, as he did in June of 1915, on the banks of the Mississippi a mile south of Hannibal, dairy farmer Evan T. Cameron, 49, was accustomed to the noises associated with the ebb and flow of the great North American waterway, as yet untamed by a series of locks and dams installed years later in attempt to control that flow.
But on this day, there was a particularly chilling sound coming from the river. Cameron noted, as he was tending to his cows, desperate and exhausted pleadings for assistance.
Across the Burlington tracks from his multi-story concrete block house, and out into the river’s channel, there were two young men, clinging to an overturned boat. The vessel, and its white-knuckled appendages, were flowing like driftwood southward at the speed of the river itself.
Judge Cameron (as he was known, an elected commissioner for Marion County’s eastern district) later learned the young men had already ridden the tide for a mile and a half, from their ill-fated launching spot up river at Hannibal.
Cameron enlisted the assistance of his hired hand, and responded to the river’s bank, knowing that it would take quick action to catch up with, and hopefully save the young men from the river’s clutches.
Luckily, a skiff was on the shore near his house, and two oars nearby. The men hurriedly launched the row boat, and headed into the river’s course.
It would be another mile - in front of the Cement Plant - before Cameron and his hired hand could catch up with the young men, and maneuver them safely to the shoreline.
The men, saved from an almost certain extinction, were James A. Tankard, 19-year-old son of Joseph (a Burlington Railroad engineer) and Sarah Tankyard of 712 Ben Lomand, and George Lowe, grandson (or nephew) of Emma Calvert, 618 Sycamore.
Evan Thompson Cameron was born in Hannibal, Mo., Sept. 2, 1865, the youngest child of John and Mary Nelson Cameron. He was raised in South Hannibal, and remained loyal to this neighborhood. He was married to Mary Nelson in 1892, and toward the end of the century, settled with his wife and young children on his father’s farm, south of Hannibal along the Saverton Road.
The elder Mr. Cameron - John - died in 1904. E.T. Cameron took over where his father left off, operating the dairy farm on property located near the Mark Twain Cave.
There, near the Burlington rails, he and his family lived in a multi-story house built of manufactured stone on the bank of the Mississippi.
Due to that proximity (about a half mile) from the cave’s entrance, and his interest in the cave and its connection to the noteworthy writer, Sam Clemens, Evan T. Cameron became an unofficial tour guide for the property.
People knocked at his door, and he stopped what he was doing in order to satisfy their interests in touring Twain’s cave.
Much has been written regarding the cave and its connection to Clemens’ boyhood. But one particular story, credited to William E. Slosson of Park Ridge, Cook County, Ill., describes not only the cave and its connection to Clemens, but also describes the cave’s environment, circa January 1911. The story was printed in the Hannibal Courier, and reprinted in the Shelby County Herald Jan. 25, 1911. (newspapers.com)
“Ever since reading many times the world wide known book, ‘Tom Sawyer,’ my desire to see for myself the scenes where the beloved boys’ book history is laid has become intense,” Slosson wrote. “Today I had nearly three hours time between trains (at the Hannibal depot, located on South Main Street) and in spite of the threatening conditions held out by the weather man, I started down the road from Hannibal under the beetling cliffs for McDougal’s cave.”
(Note: McDougal’s cave was the name Sam Clemens gave to the cave in “Tom Sawyer.” The route Mr. Slosson would have followed to the cave was called Saverton Road, which paralleled the Burlington train tracks and followed the river bluffs from the railroad yards in South Hannibal, to the valley where the Cameron house was located.)
Mr. Slosson continued:
“This was the subterranean place where Tom Sawyer with Becky Thatcher, was lost for three days on the memorable occasion of the Sunday school picnic,” Slosson explained. “During their wanderings in the labyrinths of the great cave Tom found a chase of gold, so the story runs.
“McDougal’s cave is but two miles south of the center of Hannibal, Mo. One has but to walk or catch a ride from a farmer’s boy to go to it.
“The lad I bargained with was leisurely driving toward Hannibal with three watermelons which he was anxious to dispose of at 5 cents each. I induced him to cease the calling of merchant and become a master of transportation, which he did with alacrity and such speed that the old horse he was driving cast a shoe. The sight of the dumb animal moving will remain in my memory with as much interest as some of the sights I saw in the great cave.
“We stopped at the concrete built home of E.T. Cameron, who holds the keys to the great wooden barred door at the entrance of this historical hole in the ground. Mr. Cameron agreed to postpone his noonday meal and show me through part of the cave.
“The entrance is not very near the Mississippi. Probably a half mile walk up the valley with a lovely green sward will bring you to the picnic grounds mentioned in the book. Here in the side of a second growth crowned hill perhaps 200 feet elevation, is the massive timber door. Opening this with his keys Mr. Cameron led the way to a stone shelf where he had some candles. Each visitor takes a candle and follows the guide.
“As I was the only visitor (the boy having back out of entering the cold labyrinth with its grim
terrors), I followed the best I could, considering the stooping and sidestepping in some narrow passages. My guide pointed out the place where ‘Injun Joe’ got a drop of water every six minutes before he died of thirst.”
Mr. Slosson went on to describe cave landmarks that guides still point out to visitors.
Evan T. Cameron purchased the cave which adjoined his farm in 1923, and began improvements, which his son, Archie, continued during the next generation.
The cave was later managed by Judge Cameron’s descendants, most recently by (the late) James and Linda Coleberd.
In 2020, according to KHQA-TV’s web site, Linda Coleberd announced the sale of the Mark Twain Cave Complex to Todd and Austin Curry of Quincy, Ill.
Saved from drowning
While serving with the Army, James A. Tankard studied dentistry at Kansas City Western Dental College, and after graduation worked as a dentist in India for four years. In 1922, he opened a practice in Kansas City, where he worked as his profession until his death in 1957.
George Lowe earned the rank of sergeant major during the first world war, serving with 341st Field Artillery at Trier, Germany. He was the grandson (or nephew) of Emma Lowe (Mrs. Eugene) Calvert of 618 Sycamore on Hannibal’s south side. He returned to Hannibal following his discharge, but his later residency is unclear.
Note: The old dairy barn on the Cameron property was later converted into the main store at Sawyer’s Creek.
The old E.T. Cameron house still stands near the river and railroad tracks at what is now known as Sawyer’s Creek, just south of Hannibal, Mo. Contributed photo.
A sign on the Cameron house identifies it as the home of Judge E.T. Cameron. Contributed photo.
Advertisement from the June 16, 1916 edition of the Ralls County Record newspaper. newspapers.com.
E.T. Cameron, 78, is pictured in the St. Louis Star and Times on Dec. 1, 1943, reading to Danny Richart, dressed as Tom Sawyer, and Norma Jean Ross, as Becky Thatcher. newspapers.com
Evan Thompson Cameron stands in front of his short-lived grocery store, located on the northeast corner of Main and Center streets in Hannibal, Mo., estimated in 1910. Throughout his career, he operated a dairy farm south of Hannibal, and served as guide for the Mark Twain Cave, until he purchased the property in 1923. He died in 1944, and is buried at Riverside Cemetery. Photo: Steve Chou’s collection.
Seated in front of the entrance to the Mark Twain Cave at Hannibal is Evan T. Cameron, who owned the cave from 1923 until his death in 1944. Pictured behind him may be his son, Archie. Note the tour prices posted above the cave door. Photo from Steve Chou’s collection.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Montgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com