Plans for the first railroad to run east to west across the state of Missouri were made in the office of John M. Clemens, father of Samuel (Mark Twain) Clemens, in the spring of 1846, in Hannibal, Missouri. Attorney R. F. Lakenan drew up the charter, "An Act to Incorporate the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad Company", which was passed by the Legislature in February, 1847.
Hannibal was to be the eastern terminal of the railroad which would run through the county seats of Palmyra, Shelbyville, Bloomington, Linneus, Chillicothe, and Gallatin, then on to St. Joseph. At the time, there was no fast way to travel or transport goods to the western border of the state where much of the pioneer traffic embarked for the northwest.
The newspapers in these towns began to encourage the idea of a railroad spanning the state and several other cities began vying to be the eastern terminus. There was no question that St. Joseph would be the western terminus.
State Senator Robert M. Stewart of St. Joseph worked hard to ensure the Hannibal would be the eastern point instead of St. Louis or Quincy, Illinois. He also raised capital for the railroad and was elected its first president. Part of the agreement which he made to secure Hannibal was that a separate company would build a branch line from Palmyra to West Quincy, Missouri, which was across the Mississippi River from Quincy, Illinois. His diligent work in promoting the interests of the railroad helped him in his successful campaign for Governor in 1857.
Formal groundbreaking ceremonies were held in Hannibal on November 3, 1851, with a great many influential persons present. The event was accompanied by speeches, firing of a cannon, cheers, a great procession to the site, the turning of some spadefuls of earth, and a bountiful dinner.
Construction of the road proceeded slowly until the railroad's president, Mr. Stewart and its attorney, Mr. Lakenan, went to Washington, D.C. and petitioned Congress for a grant of public lands to help build the road. A bill was introduced in May, 1852 which provided for 600,000 acres of land to be given to the railroad. The state was also given alternate sections of land to be held in trust for the benefit of the railroad. The state then turned these lands over to the railroad, ensuring that it would be built.
The first contract was let to Duff and Leamon of New York in August of 1852, to build the entire line along what was known as the "northern route". However, in March, 1853, the Board of Directors decided to opt for the "southern route" and the contract was renegotiated. By the time the line was finished, the rolling stock consisted of six passenger cars, fourteen freight cars, and four engines.
The contract for the St. Joseph end of the line was awarded on May 10, 1853, but construction had begun for the first twenty-five mile segment on April 23. In August, 1857, the steamer Saranak brought an engine and a cargo of rails to St. Joseph, some grading was done, a track was laid, and the engine hauled out onto the bank with all the people in town and vicinity looking on. When the two ends of the line were a hundred miles apart, stages were used to transport passengers from one point to the other.
When the work was finally completed, the rails were joined at Cream Ridge, two miles east of Chillicothe, on February 13, 1859, and a "golden spike day" was celebrated early in the morning. The first passenger train arrived in St. Joseph from Hannibal on the fourteenth of February, 1859, with George Thompson as engineer. The train carried a bottle of water from the Mississippi River to be poured into the Missouri River signifying the joining of the two rivers by the steel rails. The first regular passenger train left St. Joseph on February 14, 1859, with engineer E. Sleppy.
During the Civil War the railroad was subject to damage by secessionists because the majority of the stock was held in Boston and most of the principal officers were northerners. On September 3, 1861, the Platte River bridge was destroyed and a train ran into the river, killing several passengers. As a result, detachments of soldiers were stationed at the bridges and trestles. However, many of the cars and stations were burned and the tracks were torn up, causing an enormous loss to the railroad.
In 1861, the railroad was forced by the military authorities to join with the Quincy and Palmyra Railroad. Inasmuch as the stock in the latter had been acquired by the former, on March 2, 1867, the entire line, with the terminal now at Quincy, became the property of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad.
The bridge across the Mississippi River at Quincy was jointly built by the Burlington, Hannibal and St. Joseph, and the Wabash Railroads. Completion occurred on November 9, 1868.
On May 1, 1883, the Burlington took over the Hannibal and St. Joseph and when the Burlington reorganized in 1904, the Hannibal and St. Joseph name became obsolete.
Over the years, with the advent of increased traffic by other modes of transportation, the need for the railroad gradually decreased. The year 1962 saw the end of passenger service between Chillicothe and St. Joseph and in 1982 came the announcement of the abandonment of the section from St. Joseph to Needles, just west of Brookfield. Between 1983 and 1990, this portion of the railroad, part of the Burlington Northern, nearly 100 miles, was dismantled. There are still many grade cuts and fills to be seen as remnants of the line. A steel bridge, previously used by the Burlington Northern but never removed, still spans Interstate 35 at Cameron. Here and there a telegraph pole still stands along the old right-of-way, and in the towns once served by the railroad one can sometimes find Depot Street or Railroad Avenue. The original track from Needles eastward is still used by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
There are a few interesting stories about the old Hannibal and St. Jo Railroad:
The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad was the first to use what is now the "standard" gauge of four feet, eight and one-half inches between the rails. Other railroads were required by charter to use five feet, six inches.
"Perhaps the most unusual thing that ever happened on this or any other railroad was the "The Pony Express Run." Quincy, Illinois wanted to be connected with the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. Palmyra and Quincy interests organized the. Palmyra and Quincy Railroad on April 15, 1856. Construction was begun in June of 1858 on this distance of only thirteen and four-tenths miles, and completed on April 1, 1860, ending close to the tracks of the Hannibal and St. Joseph, only eight-tenth of a mile apart. Due to a restriction in the charter of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, the two lines could not connect. Quincy, Illinois had direct connection with Chicago."
"Mr. W. H. Russell was trying to obtain the United States Mail contract for the "Pony Express" and he needed to cut time to the absolute minimum from Chicago and points east. The mail came to Quincy and an agreement was reached by Mr. Russell and the two railroads to cut time on this run to St. Joseph, which was the eastern end of the Pony Express, so that the mail contract could be secured. April 3, 1860, only two days after completion of the Quincy and Palmyra Railroad, was the day set for this run."
"The ferry ride of the mail run from Quincy, Illinois to West Quincy, Missouri took six minutes. The mail was loaded on the waiting Quincy and Palmyra train which took twenty-three minutes to run the thirteen and four-tenths miles to Palmyra. It was transferred to the waiting Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad special, consisting of the engine "Missouri" and one baggage car, with Engineer Adison Clark, who had orders to make a record-breaking run to St. Joseph."
"For this special run, all switches were spiked; the tracks walked and people or teams not allowed to cross the tracks for one-half hour before the train was due. The first stop was at Macon after an approximate speed of sixty-five miles an hour across the flat Monroe and Shelby Counties, where the station agent had a special loading platform built to the height of the tender to speed the transfer of fuel. He had men standing there with their arms full of wood which was transferred to the tender in fifteen seconds. There was a four minute stop at Brookfield for the men to eat, then on the Mooresville for more wood. His time for the 192 mile run from Palmyra to St. Joseph was four hours and twenty minutes. This record, made on April 3, 1860, with a wood burning steam engine, has never been broken." Normally the trip took about 12 hours.
In 1861, William A. Davis, a veteran of over thirty years in the postal service, came up with the idea to sort and distribute mail on the westbound trains of the Hannibal and St. Joseph. When Postmaster J. L. Bittinger saw the plans and drawings for such a distribution car, he forwarded them on to Postmaster General Blair with his recommendation. A special agent was dispatched to oversee the new plan and the first Railroad Post Office car was subsequently built in the railroad's shops in Hannibal. It had its first run on July 28, 1862 between West Quincy and St. Joseph. The idea was later adopted nationwide and was a great benefit to the postal service.
Hamilton Missouri Advocate
History of Northwest Missouri