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Toncray’s riverfront hotel early Hannibal landmark

This is an illustration showing trains and steamboats at Hannibal, Missouri. The illustration appears in The Great South-West, June 1874. It is credited to both Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier. The Virginia Hotel, circa the 1850s, was located to the north, between Hill and Bird streets.Kansas Memory, Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas. Steve Chou collection.


In those early days of Hannibal, Missouri, when the river ran unencumbered by man’s interference, the town’s shoreline served as the center of commercial trade.

And on that shoreline, as early as the mid 1840s, a hotel was in place to welcome steamboat travelers who had dreams of prospering in the “new west”.

The Virginia Hotel. Many towns had hotels of the same name, but Hannibal’s Virginia Hotel was unique in that it served as a welcoming port just steps from the steamboat landing during the years before the construction of westward reaching train connections.

Located on the levee - or Front Street - between Hill and Bird, the hotel was owned for a time by John Marshall Clemens, father of the famed author and humorist Sam Clemens. The Clemens ownership can be traced to between 1839, when the elder Clemens first moved his family to Hannibal, and 1847, when John M. Clemens died.

Perhaps as early as 1846, and certainly by 1854, the hotel was owned and operated by Virginia native John G. Toncray. It stood at three stories high, and was built of brick and stone. In 1856, Toncray added an ell-shaped stone addition to the building, expanding its capacity. In 1859, the hotel featured a 50-foot river frontage, and boasted 30 guest rooms.

A central feature of the hotel was a saloon, also operated by Mr. Toncray, which served to satisfy the thirst of travelers and townsfolk alike.

Mr. Toncray posted a notice in the Aug. 28, 1856, edition of the Hannibal Tri-Weekly Messenger: “Thankful for past favors of the last ten years, the proprietor solicits a continuance of the same on an enlarged scale, being better prepared now than before. Come one and all, and give me a trial.”

According to the 1850 census, Toncray, his wife Mary, with their young children, were living at the hotel. But by 1860s, the business was prospering enough to allow for the Toncrays to purchase and live in a two-story frame home built on the south half of Lot 2, in Hannibal’s Block 22. (The west side of the 300 block of North Fourth Street, between Hill and Bird, across the street from the 1st Presbyterian Church.)

Looking ahead

Changes were on the horizon as the decade of the 1860s neared, which would significantly affect both the economic and social future for the Toncrays, and for Hannibal as a whole.

First, effective Feb. 14, 1859, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was making daily (except Sunday) runs between the two aforementioned towns. Long in the works, construction of the rails was finally complete, allowing steam driven passenger trains to cross the state in 12 hours. A train left Hannibal’s depot, located on Third Street, South Side, at 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, arriving in St. Joseph, located on the western boarder of the Missouri River, at 7 p.m.

Conversely, the train left St. Joseph at 6 a.m., en route to Hannibal.

Gold run

Secondly, about the same time period, a rush to the new gold fields in Western Kansas and Colorado was enticing speculators from across the nation. Steamboats brought hoards of adventurers to Hannibal’s shoreline, where they awaited (hopefully, in Mr. Toncray’s hotel) the next train across Missouri.

In February, a new guidebook for these gold seekers was written by Wm. B. Parsons, offering information about routes to follow, camping places, tools and clothing needed by the miners. Mr. Toncray sold these books at his hotel on the riverfront.

The Hannibal Daily Messenger reported on March 17, 1859: "Pike’s Peak emigrants are fairly overrunning us; they are crowding in at the rate of from 200 to 500 per day. … we have been filled to overflowing for the past two weeks, and from all accounts the tide has but commenced. We do not know how our hotel keepers will manage things when the tide arrives at its height.”

In addition, merchants, including Tilden Selmes, offered enticements via the local newspaper for these miners to purchase their supplies in Hannibal, before boarding the new westward-bound train.

The railroad purchased two new locomotives to accommodate the westward-bound gold seekers, and the engines arrived in Hannibal during mid March, 1859. The March 22, 1859 Hannibal Daily Messenger reported:

“The working power of our road was yesterday re-enforced by the arrival of two new locomotives, named respectively the “Oneida” and the “Mohegan.” They both appear, so far as we are able to judge, to be very excellent engines, heavily built, and very well suited for the heavy and constantly increasing business which our road does, and they look as if they might draw a tolerably heavy train with considerably facility. We believe they were manufactured at Taunton, Mass., at which shops nearly all the best engines used upon the road were turned out.”

That same newspaper reported the scene at the Hannibal depot on Third Street, south of Bear Creek:

“We saw yesterday morning, on a walk down to the depot, a large force of Pike’s Peak emigrants, numbering probably some hundred or two, who had been remaining ‘in camp’ there over Sunday. They were engaged, when we saw them, preparing their breakfasts.”

The tides turn

Just as rail transportation opened across the state, and as emigrants were flooding the town, Mr. Toncray’s health began to wane.

He placed an advertisement in the June 24, 1860 edition of the local newspaper, offering his hotel for sale.

“This House has always done, and is now doing an A No. 1 business, it being the best location in the city for making money. My only reasons for selling this property, is, that my health is such I cannot attend to business.”

In addition, Mr. Toncray was offering his two-story, frame house for sale on the west side of North Fourth Street. The house featured a cistern, smoke house and fruit bearing trees.

Death calls

John Toncray died Aug. 14, 1860, of consumption, which was the most common cause of death of that era. He was 50 years old.

The Aug. 19, 1860 Messenger:

“He was a man of noble and generous impulses, high minded and, above all, in the sight of God a strictly honest man. He daily illustrated these acts of charity and love for his fellow men, which should govern all who belong to that most ancient and honorable body (Masons) of which he was a worthy member.”

He was buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery.

Left behind were his wife, and children, including, according to the 1860 census:

Alexander C. Toncray, born 1837 in Illinois, died in 1933, Los Angeles;

Addison O. Toncray, born in 1843, Iowa;

Mary V. Toncray, born in 1848 in Hannibal;

Charles F. Toncray, born in 1854; and

John G. Toncray, born in 1856.

The house where the Toncrays lived was sold at a trustee’s sale on May 29, 1861.

Source for John M. Clemens’ association with the Virginia Hotel, “History of Marion County, Missouri.”

John G. Toncray placed an advertisement in the June 24, 1860, Hannibal Messenger, listing his hotel and house for sale. He was suffering from consumption. He died Aug. 14, 1860, and is buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery.

Tilden Selmes, a leading Hannibal merchant, placed an advertisement in the Feb. 27, 1859, edition of the Hannibal Daily Messenger, offering mining supplies to the people who were traveling west to the newly opened gold mines in Western Kansas and Colorado.

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," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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