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.