Joe Line

My parents and their families lived and worked in Hannibal, a bustling river town located on the Mississippi River an hour or so north of St Louis. It was the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, known to the world as writer and humorist Mark Twain, who learned to pilot steamboats on the Mississippi. Hannibal was already an important river town by the year 1859, boasting over 1000 steamboat landings annually.
1859 is also the year the first railroad to cross the state of Missouri was completed from Hannibal on the Eastern border to St. Joseph on the Western edge, north of Kansas City. The Hannibal & St Joseph Railroad was completed when lines being built from either side of the state met in Chillicothe, Missouri, on February 13, 1859 with great fanfare, marking the beginning of an important era in the history of the river town now turned railroad hub.Construction on the railroad originally started during an 1846 meeting at the Hannibal office of John H. Clemens, father of Mark Twain. After land grants and financing had been arranged, track work was started in 1851 from both cities. Bonds from counties along the route, along with the donation of 600,000 acres in land voted by Congress, paid for construction.

In 1860, the Hannibal & St Joseph Railroad began carrying westbound Pony Express mail across the state on a test basis, to win a contract from the postal service. On the very first test the messenger carrying the mail from Washington and New York missed a train connection which made him two hours late leaving Hannibal. However, men of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad met the emergency with one of the most famous “fast mail” train rides in history.

In preparation for the high speed run, the main track was cleared of traffic all the way from Hannibal to St Joseph and all switches were aligned for the main line and spiked in place. No one was allowed to cross the tracks for half and hour prior to the train’s scheduled arrival. Station Agents telegraphed reports of the train’s progress as it passed their location. Engineer Addison Clark made history that day as he high-balled the locomotive, “Missouri,” pulling one coach, the entire distance for a run that was to stand as a speed record for 50 years.

The H&StJ railroad shops constructed the first railroad post office car for sorting mail while the train was en route to its destination. The mail car was a converted baggage car that made it possible to expedite the transfer of sorted mail to the Pony Express, and won the “Joe Line,” as it was nicknamed, a much coveted mail contract from the U.S. Postmaster.

The “Joe Line” shops also built the first railroad locomotive manufactured west of the Mississippi River. It was a 34-ton locomotive named the Colonel Grant, in honor of the army colonel who was assigned at that time to protect the railroad and Pony Express mail during the American Civil War. In Civil War years, the majority of Hannibal citizens favored the Confederate cause, but the city was occupied by Colonel U.S. Grant’s union soldiers throughout the war due to its importance as a railroad center.

At that time nearly all that portion of the State of Missouri through which the railroad ran, was in a state of rebellion against the United States. For some months previously, armed bands of rebels had committed frequent depredations on the railroad by firing into trains, burning bridges, trains of cars, and station-houses, destroying culverts, and tearing up the track.

Over the years, the lively river traffic and the continual expansion of railroads combined to bring great prosperity to Hannibal, and by the 1940s it had grown into a good sized industrial center, with factories of many types located along the Wabash Railroad and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad that followed Bear Creek, a major Mississippi River tributary, through town.

Seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River and Hannibal’s creeks caused heavy damage to the railroad properties, and the factories that lined the tracks. The flooding also eventually caused the closing of the Burlington Northern roundhouse and shops which lay in the Mississippi River flood plain in Hannibal. Through trains still pass through Hannibal regularly, but the days of being a railroad town are now long gone.



About Larry E. Vaughn Jr

Larry E Vaughn is a Missouri-based blogger/ content writer, and former career counselor. His published works can be found at HeliumNetwork, and InsideBusiness360 . He wrote for℠ and has additional websites at,,, and is publisher of The Self-Employment Journal,
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3 Responses to Joe Line

  1. Steve Martens says:

    Fun to read about the historic H&StJ. I grew up in Meadville, about 13-miles east from Chillicothe and thanks to my grandparents, I had the pleasure of riding an eastbound passenger train out of my hometown on a couple of occasions in the late 1950s. I also remember the steam-powered switch engines that were used on the line at that time, because my Grandma used to pick me up and run about a block away to wave at the locomotive engineers. Meadville is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, and images of its passenger depot figure prominently in their promotional materials. Sounds like the tracks are all gone from the H&StJ line now, except for a short stretch of siding between Brookfield and Laclede.


  2. Philip Costa says:

    I happened across your blog about JOE LINE. It was very interesting to me because I was born In St. Joe in 1937 and graduated from high school in Chillicothe, MO in 1955. I am a railroad buff and have several HO locomotives and cars but no layout. There were several railroads through Chillicothe during the heyday of railroading. I had an Uncle who was a Milwaukee passenger engineer. The Burlington used to go through Chillicothe but I believe the tracks have been removed west of town. More than likely those were probably the same tracks in your story.
    My daughter lives in Jamestown, CA where the Sierra Railway
    Museum is located. During the summer months the railroad has sightseeing rides on part of their system. The last time I was there I rode the train, that day it was pulled by a Shay Locomotive. The usual Locomotive a steam engine that was used in over 25 movies and TV shows including Pettycoat Junction which some of the sets are on display there. You can probably find more information on the internet than I can begin to tell you. That particular locomotive was brought from a bankrupt railroad in Arizona, shere I live, to the Sireea railway in California.

    Philip Costa


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