About Lost River Stories

As a historian, university professor, and singer-songwriter born in Hannibal, Missouri, I’ve spent the past thirty years digging up lost narratives of “invisibles” in the American heartland. The digging has taken me from dusty courthouse basements, archives, and libraries to Potter’s Field, unmarked graves, and unsolved murder mysteries on the Mississippi River. In the process, I’ve unearthed, written, and sung about a once-thriving immigrant town that was bulldozed, and I’ve recovered the stories of long-slighted and abused river roustabouts and invisibles in shantyboat settlements. To flesh out the narratives, I’ve researched gangplanks and lower decks of steamboats, workhouses, poor farms, state penitentiaries, insane asylums, waterfront barrelhouses, dangerous workplaces, dark islands and bayous, and the roots of ragtime, blues, and riverboat jazz in Jim Crow America. In the process, I’ve found some fascinating subjects, including a labor, civil rights, and women’s rights activist whose enslaved grandparents paddled to freedom across the Mississippi near Hannibal on the eve of the Civil War.

Born in 1950, I grew up on the west bank of the “Father of Waters” about three miles south of Hannibal in the cement company town of Ilasco, a largely southern and eastern European immigrant community. In the decade after its post office opened in 1903, Ilasco was home to perhaps as many as 3,000 residents in company barracks and tar paper shacks along Marble Creek. Ilasco’s rise and fall were tied directly to the fortunes of the Atlas Portland Cement Company’s new plant on the riverbank near the Mark Twain Cave hollow. For most of the community’s sixty-year existence, it was under the thumb of “Old Man Atlas.”

Our modest house, which lacked indoor plumbing, was one of 30-35 houses in a section of Ilasco in the river bottoms dubbed “Monkey Run.” Prior to 1865, the Monkey Run tract was a slave-based tobacco farm of more than 78 acres.

Partial view looking north of Monkey Run and Atlas cement plant, ca. 1930s.

The river was my childhood playground, and so was the creek that ran past our property and emptied into the river nearby. I often fished and daydreamed on a pile of tangled driftwood at the mouth of the river. For me and neighborhood friends–Tharrell, Bobby, Howard, and Merrill Wheeler–a treehouse in the tall cottonwoods near the mouth was our lookout perch on the river of our dreams. At the steady prodding of the Universal Atlas Cement Company and Hannibal Chamber of Commerce, the Missouri Highway Department rerouted today’s Great River Road through the heart of Ilasco to raze the community. The goal was to make way for construction and expansion of a modernized plant and quarries, and to build a scenic highway to the Mark Twain cave for tourists and others. In came highway engineers with maps in their hands, down fell the churches and schools, and up went the new plant. Bulldozers flattened Ilasco in the 1960s, but Monkey Run, which sits pinched between steep limestone bluffs and the river on a low-lying tract that was of no intrinsic value to the corporation, persists today in spite of devastating periodic floods.

Confluence of Marble Creek & the Mississippi River, Monkey Run, Mo., ca. mid-1980s. Photo by Kevin Andrews.

Three generations of my mother’s maternal ancestors lived on shantyboats in Hannibal in 1900. To understand and frame their waterfront world in a broader historical context became one of my projects in retirement. I love teaching, research, and writing, but because of my roots, I felt out of place at times in academia and retired on the day I turned 59 in 2009 after 21 years as a history professor at Texas State University. As a diabetic since 1969 with a lower life expectancy, I wanted more time to pursue creative interests and to return to the Mississippi River, which for me has provided props for so many songs performed and recorded with my central Texas band, Doctor G and the Mudcats. After coronary quadruple bypass surgery in September 2018, I felt a pressing need to write a childhood memoir so that my own river story would not be lost. In December 2019, I published My Daddy’s Blues: A Childhood Memoir from the Land of Huck & Jim to share my intimate lyrical journey with readers. With a similar sense of urgency, I followed up by researching and writing Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875-1930, published by Louisiana State University Press (release date, Dec. 7, 2022).

Photo on book cover was taken in a St. Louis shantyboat community during the flood of 1903. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

I look forward to sharing my research and music with all who are interested in furthering their understanding of the history of life and labor on the nation’s inland waterways in the age of Mark Twain and beyond. In Shantyboats and Roustabouts, I use the St. Louis riverfront as a window into the world of shantyboats and roustabouts in the Mississippi valley from St. Paul to New Orleans. My far-ranging interests include the eco-systems, culture, and racial makeup of waterfront communities as well as their portrayal in novels, songs, movies, and art.

Roustabouts at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, ca. 1880. Photo courtesy of John J. Buse Collection, State Historical Society of Missouri.

From time to time, this blog will feature invited guest posts and links to other blogs, websites, and resources. My site is designed for both educational and enjoyment purposes. I look forward to learning from others as well as sharing my own research on river communities whose history has been largely ignored, devalued, and/or buried. I encourage interactions between scholars, river experts (broadly defined), and those who have labored, hunted, fished, and grown up on the river and its tributaries. Guest posts will include a number written by “river rats” outside the corridors of higher education. I am married to historian Victoria Bynum, whose book, Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, examined Jones County Unionists who fought against the Confederacy in the swamps of the Leaf and Pearl rivers in southeast Mississippi. Her book inspired a major motion picture, Free State of Jones, that premiered in 2016 with Matthew McConaughey in the starring role as Newton Knight. She hosts a blog, Renegade South: Histories of Unconventional Southerners.


6 responses to “About Lost River Stories”

  1. Rejeana Loeblein Avatar
    Rejeana Loeblein

    Looking forward to any and all. Home news

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rejeana. There’ll be a lot here for you.


  2. So very glad that you did this. Looking forward to all of the content that you will post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Bev. I’m looking forward to it,


  3. Chuck Shoemake Avatar
    Chuck Shoemake

    Looking forward to more posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Chuck. I’ll have more.

      Liked by 1 person

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