top of page

Elevator operator a trusted post at Hannibal’s Mark Twain Hotel

This photo postcard represents the lobby of the Mark Twain Hotel, circa 1909. Steve Chou collection.


Victor Robbins was short in stature and considered to be thin by the day’s standards, but none-the-less, in 1914, the 15-year-old held true to the craft as elevator operator for the Mark Twain Hotel.

The employment opportunities in Hannibal for teens “of color” such as Victor were limited in 1914, as the town remained primarily segregated. There were two schools where his contemporaries could attend: Douglass and Lincoln. They could go to the local theaters, if they could afford the 5-10 cent admission fee, but seating was limited to the theater balconies.

Elevator operator was among the jobs deemed suitable for men of color, in Hannibal and elsewhere. Others who worked this job during the era were:

William Harris, elevator operator at the Mark Twain Hotel in 1916; and

Charles Brown, in 1911. (Source, Hannibal city directories.)

The other building where elevator operators were employed was the Hannibal Trust Company, at Third and Broadway.

Wikipedia notes that historically, “being an effective elevator operator required many skills. Manual elevators were often controlled by a large lever. The elevator operator had to regulate the elevator's speed, which typically required a good sense of timing to consistently stop the elevator level with each floor.”

Four stories high

The Mark Twain Hotel, proclaimed the grandest of all in Hannibal, was situated on South Main Street, just a block from Union Depot, where six railroads crossed paths. Also nearby, Hannibal’s downtown business district featured such locally prominent establishments as The Famous, Bowles Clothiers, and Sonnenberg and Son.  Nearby movie theaters included The Star, The Majestic and Park. Across the street from the hotel was Robinson’s Paint and Wallpaper, operated by Robert Robinson and his twin brother, Tom. Robert Robinson was among the key community leaders who dedicated themselves to the construction of the hotel just eight years prior.

Hannibal youth

Victor Robbins, the son of Charlotte (Lotte) Robbins, was born circa 1898 (or 1899), and grew up in Hannibal. He and his mother lived at different locations in Hannibal, namely:

In 1901, when Victor was still a toddler, they lived at the foot of Jefferson Street, South Side, while his mother worked as a domestic.

Sometime during that decade, he and his mother moved to a duplex located at 314 S. Tenth, where his mother took in boarders in order to support herself and her young son. 

In 1910, at the time of the census, the boarders included:

Kittie Julius, 20;

Jesse Watts, 27;

Charlie Watts, 21; and

Al Davis, 48.

Name change

Prior to the onset of the first world war, Victor changed his surname to Johnson, and he and Lotte moved to Chicago. They made their home together at 9 West 31st. Victor worked as a laborer for Swift and Co.

They returned to Hannibal after the war’s end, making their home for a time on Mark Twain Avenue.

During the 1930s, Victor moved to Peoria, Ill., and in 1938 was working as a bellman for the Hotel Jefferson. By this time he had taken a bride, Minnie L., and they made their home at 114 Jackson, Peoria.

In 1944, he worked as a maintenance carpenter and foreman for HW & Sons. He and Minnie, who were apparently childless, lived at 1011 NE Glen Oak Ave., in Peoria.

He last worked for Cohen Furniture Co., a long-time Peoria business, located on the corner of Adams and Harrison.

Sometime after his wife’s death, Victor Johnson moved to New London, Mo., Ralls County, where he lived out his life.

According to his obituary, he was born Dec. 31, 1899, in Hannibal, to Henry and Charlotte Robins (sic) Johnson. When he died on Jan. 8, 1989, he was survived by one cousin, Mary Robinson of Hannibal.

The Mark Twain

Constructed some four years prior to the great author’s death, The Mark Twain Hotel was the brainchild of the Hannibal Retail Merchants Association.

After Edward P. Smith moved his machine shop from the site sought for the hotel, shares of stock were sold in order to raise the necessary funds for construction of the four-story hotel. Some 100 business men purchased stock.

Nine contractors submitted construction bids, and the job was awarded to Burkina and Kaempen of Quincy, Ill. Specifications called for completion of the building within six months of the time the bid was awarded. On April 17, 1905, the Quincy Daily Journal announced that work was expected to begin immediately.

The original building was to be four stories tall, containing 70 rooms, in addition to dining rooms and a lobby. The building was to be faced with gray pressed brick. F.W. Menke of Quincy received the nod to complete the building’s stone work.

A. McPherson won the contract for the hotel’s electrical construction.

An advertisement in the Oct. 3, 1905, Quincy Daily Journal:

“Male Help Wanted

“Wanted: Plasterers at the Mark Twain hotel building, Hannibal. Plasterers 50 cents per hour, lathers $2 per thousand.”

The hotel opened for business on Jan. 23, 1906.

Early employees

W.M. Thackeray of Monroe City assumed duties of cook at the Mark Twain Hotel in February 1906.

In 1914, when Victor was elevator operator at the hotel:

Lawrence E. Bogard was chief clerk;

W.J. Mirtzwa operated the Mark Twain Barber Shop, 204 S. Main; and

A.W. Kohler was manager and vice president of the hotel company.

Damaged by fire

A year or two before Victor went to work at the hotel, the building was heavily damaged by a fire which claimed the life of one guest.

It was two weeks following the sinking of the Titanic that a fire erupted in the hotel’s linen room on the fourth floor, April 27, 1912. The hotel’s upper floors quickly filled with dense smoke.

The 44 registered guests were alerted by the sounding of the electric gongs installed in each chamber. In addition, bellboys were sent upstairs to hammer on the doors of the guest rooms.

The fire gutted the third and fourth story rooms, and the roof was burnt off.

The body of the fire victim, identified as James A. Miller, was found in his room on the hotel’s third floor.

The hotel reopened in about a month’s time.

Mrs. Robbins dies

Lottie Robbins, Victor Johnson’s mother, died at the Marion County Infirmary, Palmyra, on April 16, 1939, and was buried in the Baptist Cemetery, Hannibal. George E. Roberts was the undertaker. Her death certificate indicates that she was the daughter of Jerry Robbins, mother unknown. Her son was the informant. She was about 80 at the time of her death.

This author also has a story on the Mark Twain Hotel during the Louis J. Huegel era, first published in 2016

I worked there when I was 14! My first “real” job after being a paperboy and lawn mower. James “Jim” Wilson was the owner at the time (I think). For a young kid it was a great place to work and experience a world beyond your own backyard. I too learned how to operate the ole manual elevator and the switchboard; taking incoming and placing out going calls!!! It was a fun, fun place for a young teenager to learn skills from bussing tables, being a soda jerk in the “coffee house” snack bar off the main dining room, to learning basic bookkeeping from the “night clerk” at the lobby desk. In my time there I met railroad men, river men, most all of Hannibal’s dignitaries, and folks from all over the US and overseas. If I was Mark Twain I would write a book of my many experiences at the ole Mark Twain. Thank you Mr Wilson for giving a skinny drink of water kid a chance to earn a few dollars and learn a whole lot about the world.

This sketch of an elevator operator was published in the “The Daily News,” Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, June 10, 1906. Colorado Historic Newspapers 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 by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’ and the newest book, “Oakwood: West of Hannibal.” Montgomery can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


 Recent Posts 
bottom of page