A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck

A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck

by Joel P. Rhodes


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Lawyer and journalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Louis Houck is often called the “Father of Southeast Missouri” because he brought the railroad to the region and opened this backwater area to industrialization and modernization. Although Houck’s name is little known today outside Missouri, Joel Rhodes shows how his story has relevance for both the state and the nation.

Rhodes presents a more complete picture of Houck than has ever been available: reviewing his life from his German immigrant roots, considering his career from both social and political perspectives, and grounding the story in both state and national history. He especially tells how, from 1880 to the 1920s, this self-taught railroader constructed a network of five hundred miles of track through the wilderness of wetlands known as “Swampeast Missouri”—and how these “Houck Roads” provided a boost for population, agriculture, lumbering, and commerce that transformed Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area.

Rhodes discusses how Houck fits into the era of economic individualism—a time when men with little formal training shaped modern industry—and also gives voice to Houck’s critics and shows that he was not always an easy man to work with. In telling the story of his railroading enterprise, Rhodes chronicles Houck’s battle with the Jay Gould railroad empire and offers key insight into the development of America’s railway system, from the cutthroat practices of ruthless entrepreneurs to the often-comic ineptness of start-up rail lines.

More than simply a biography of a business entrepreneur, the book tells how Houck not only developed the region economically but also followed the lead of Andrew Carnegie by making art, culture, and formal education available to all social classes. Houck also served for thirty-six years as president of the Board of Regents of Southeast Missouri State Teacher’s College, and as a self-taught historian he wrote the first comprehensive accounts of Missouri’s territorial period.

A Missouri Railroad Pioneer chronicles a multifaceted career that transformed a region. Solidly researched, this lively narrative also offers an entertaining read for anyone interested in Missouri history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826221414
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 09/20/2017
Series: MISSOURI BIOGRAPHY Series , #1
Edition description: 1
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

Joel P. Rhodes is Associate Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University and lives in Cape Girardeau. He is also author of The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era and coauthor of Historic Cape Girardeau: An Illustrated History.

The Missouri Biography Series, edited by William E. Foley

Read an Excerpt



I gradually became familiar with all parts of the printing business and my father allowed me to run the printing office after I was about sixteen years old almost as I pleased.

Louis Napoleon Hauck shivered as his father Bartholomeaus told him about the Cossacks again. Since first publishing the Belleviller Zeitung in 1849, Bartholomeaus had worked alongside his nine-year-old son in the family's printing office, teaching him every aspect of publishing a German-language newspaper while regaling the boy with marvelous stories of his adventures and travels in the old country. Of all Bartholomeaus's recollections of Bavaria — about famous generals and royalty in the Hauck family tree — the story of the Cossacks seemed to impress young Louis most of all. As they labored, Bartholomeaus earnestly recounted how, as a child almost Louis's age, he had watched the fierce warriors, loyal only to the czar, ride through his village on their way home to Russia after tormenting Napoleon Bonaparte's retreating army across Europe. There, at the fifteenth-century stone bridge spanning the Main River in Würzburg in the winter of 1813, the soldiers had dismounted and chopped through the ice to bath in the freezing water. For Bartholomeaus, a feeble boy who could not walk until after his fifth birthday, and then only after doctors painfully embedded his slender legs in hot sand, the memory of the will and discipline of these powerful men resonated deeply, already spanning continents. Now, in passing it on to his oldest son, the crippled printer hoped it would span generations.

Bartholomeaus Hauck was born on August 24, 1805, St. Bartholomew's Day, in Heidingsfeld, near the historic fortified city of Würzburg, in what is today a region known for its vineyards in southwestern Germany. The son of a Bohemian weaver, Bartholomeaus's frail physical condition, probably the result of polio, made his childhood burdensome with frequent visits to the doctors at Würzburg's celebrated sixteenth-century Julius hospital. While his brother Franz pursued a university education and a career in law among the Romanesque cathedrals and baroque palaces of Würzburg, the Haucks apprenticed young Bartholomeaus to the Archiepiscopal printing office in the city in 1819. Arranging a standard apprenticeship, the family paid an up front fee of 700 florins with the stipulation that the fourteen-year-old serve for seven years without pay.

At the conclusion of his servitude, Bartholomeaus embarked on his "wanderjahre," or years of travel, a lengthy journey of discovery customary for young workmen to complete their education and become a master. For the next three years, he painstakingly made his way on foot throughout central Europe, strengthening his legs and honing his craft by working with a succession of master printers.

Bartholomeaus's wanderjahre took on a transatlantic dimension when he began reading the emigration literature becoming popular in Germany during the late 1820s. In these promotional accounts of America, the roaming printer discovered a vibrant New World, unlike the old one where he could see firsthand how population pressure and the oncoming Industrial Revolution were already threatening the traditional economy. In particular, Gottfried Duden's influential Report of a Journey to the Western States of North America, published the year Bartholomeaus emigrated, painted an alluring picture of the now midwestern portion of the United States, especially the state of Missouri with its steep river bluffs and rolling wooded hills. Here was a land at once somehow familiar and yet new, a country where equality of opportunity offered an unstratified society that rewarded daring and hard work. In 1829, Bartholomeaus Hauck made his way to the port of Hamburg and walked up a gangplank onto a ship bound for Baltimore.

Like most German immigrants of the era, Bartholomeaus did not linger in the port of entry. Short of money and sleeping in doorways, the newcomer searched in vain for a German printing office, eventually settling for railroad work and drifting around the region before finally ending up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Determined to find gainful employment as a German-language printer, Bartholomeaus headed for the Midwest and the "German Triangle," an area with a heavy concentration of his countrymen staked out by the vertices of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee. He arrived in Cincinnati around 1833, but despite the growing German population in that city, he again struggled to catch on at a print shop. By mid-decade Bartholomeaus boarded another steamboat, bound this time for St. Louis, and the state he had read travel writers describe as Deutscheim, or German Home.

Clearly Missouri's premier city in terms of population, trade, and culture, St. Louis's location below the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers positioned it historically as the commercial clearinghouse of river trade in the interior of the continent, and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 as the gateway for western expansion. At the time Bartholomeaus climbed up its crowded and slippery stone levee — where moored steamboats stretched out as far as his eyes could see — St. Louis was also the regional epicenter of a substantial German migration to the interior of the continent just then under way. Coming up the Mississippi River from the port of New Orleans, tens of thousands of German immigrants would eventually flow through the city. While thousands stayed, significant numbers settled farther west along the Missouri River and south along the Mississippi. Still others crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, moving first up to Chicago and then later concentrating in the southern portion of the state.

Amid what became the largest immigrant population in antebellum Missouri, Bartholomeaus finally found newspaper work printing the Anzieger des Westens (Western Gazette). He also became acquainted with Anna Senn Deppler, a recently widowed German immigrant. Born June 10, 1804, in the village of Villigen, on the Limat River in the Canton Argau region of Switzerland, Anna came to America with her husband Jakob Deppler around 1829 as well, stopping briefly in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh before finding their way to St. Louis. The young couple mingled with other Germans moving through St. Louis on their way into the Missouri hinterland to settle and probably made the determination to follow. In 1835 Jakob sailed back to Switzerland to resolve their affairs and sell off all their assets in order to raise the necessary capital. Anna anxiously waited in St. Louis for months, only to receive news that her husband had died of cholera on a Mississippi riverboat within miles of completing his journey. Adding to her considerable distress, Anna discovered that of the $7,000 she knew Deppler was carrying in his belt, only $1,500 was returned to her.

During this difficult period, Bartholomeaus befriended Anna, first helping the illiterate woman arrange her finances and later comforting her as best he could. The couple married two years later in 1837.

The first of Bartholomeaus and Anna Hauck's five children, Louis, was born on April 1, 1840, in tiny Mascoutah, in St. Clair County, Illinois, some twenty-five miles east of St. Louis. Throughout Louis's early childhood, fierce competition among German-language newspapers compelled Bartholomeaus to ply his craft at a number of ephemeral presses around St. Louis and in central and southern Illinois. By the mid-nineteenth century, every German enclave of any size in the region supported a daily paper, usually aligned with the Democratic Party in the years before slavery divided political loyalties. But few communities could support more than one, which meant that once a German press firmly established itself, rivals found it nearly impossible to start another.

Accordingly, Bartholomeaus, who was primarily a printer and publisher rather than an editor, led an almost itinerant existence during the 1840s, frequently moving from one Democratic paper to the next as the family grew with almost every stop. While Louis was still an infant, Bartholomeaus left the Anzieger des Westens for another job in Red Bud, Illinois, where Louis's brother Julius was born in 1841. By 1845, circumstances once again relocated the family — which now included a daughter, Louisa Appolona, born in 1843 — to Quincy, Illinois. Here, 140 miles north of St. Louis along the Mississippi River, Bartholomeaus published the Stern des Westens (Western Star). Following the birth of their third son, George, in 1846, the restless Haucks made a brief return to the St. Louis area, with Bartholomeaus, by this time an artisan of some local repute, printing first the St. Louiser Zeitung (St. Louis Newspaper) and later Cosmopolite. In 1848, with some difficulty they were back in Quincy where a fourth son, John, was born.

Curiously, in the interim, Bartholomeaus briefly tried his hand at farming in 1843, purchasing land in the heavily German region along the Gasconade River near the community of Hermann, Missouri. And although Louis worked in his father's various printing offices nearly all the time while growing up, it was the Haucks' rocky hillside farm, located fifteen to twenty miles south of the Missouri River in Gasconade County, that provided the setting for the boy's earliest memories. Only three years old, Louis, known to most as Louie, remembered delighting his parents in the amusing way only a toddler can: helping out by hoeing up freshly planted corn and obstinately refusing to collect eggs from the scary barn loft despite fervent and careful prodding from Anna.

Yet aside from quaint reminiscences, Louis also vividly recalled traveling by steamboat up the Missouri River to Hermann where a rented skiff took the family up the Gasconade to their farm. During the trip he marveled at the unspoiled timber-covered bluffs that rose above the river and the isolated farms clinging to the water's edge. Writing more than seventy years later, he warmly recalled how "the people along the bank, hunting and spearing for fish, were a great revelation to me." This personal connection, however brief, to what was still a relatively rough and unpolished part of the world, began a lifelong fascination with the landscape, heritage, and folkways along the rivers of frontier Missouri. Later as a historian of the state's territorial period, Louis obviously wrote with a twentieth-century nostalgia and longing for the authenticity of the vanishing wilderness and the bygone pioneers he observed as a boy in central Missouri.

In December 1848, Bartholomeaus finally put down some roots for his wife and five small children, trading the erstwhile farm in Missouri for a house in Belleville, Illinois, where he started publishing the Belleviller Zeitung (Belleville Newspaper). The Zeitung, which first appeared in January 1849, marked a reunion between Bartholomeaus and Theodore Engelmann, an intellectual refugee of the recently failed democratic unrest in Germany. The two had briefly worked together five years earlier on the Belleville Beobachter (Belleville Observer) before Engelmann sold that operation to Bartholomeaus when the former's duties as circuit clerk diverted his time and energies away from editing. For this second go-around at the Zeitung, the two duplicated their previous working arrangement, with Engelmann again taking up the editor's pen and Bartholomeaus serving as his foreman.

From their office, probably located somewhere near the bustling public square, Engelmann and Hauck would have chronicled a dynamic period in Belleville's early history. Founded in 1814 in a cornfield on the high ground inland from the Mississippi River roughly where East St. Louis is today, Belleville had grown sparingly in the early years of Illinois statehood. Yet by the middle of the nineteenth century, Belleville was establishing itself as a minor political, judicial, and commercial center in the agricultural region of southern Illinois. And most of these transformations could be traced directly to the arrival of what local politicians were already referring to as the "German element." At a time when railroad construction and shifting populations were quickly erasing the frontier atmosphere of Illinois — with enterprising settlers leaving for California and Colorado and even larger numbers of immigrants replacing them — the town's population nearly quadrupled from two thousand in 1840 to seventy-five hundred in 1860. Two-thirds of these newcomers were German-speaking, placing Belleville alongside Chicago, Galena, Quincy, Alton, Peoria, and Peru as the towns having the highest concentrations of Germans in the state. The town was in fact the St. Clair County seat, a county well on its way to becoming one of only a handful in Illinois with almost half its population foreign born. It is little wonder that Belleville's thriving milling and mining operations were increasingly overshadowed by its reputation throughout the Midwest for breweries, beer gardens, and superb lager.

When the Haucks returned to Belleville, the impressionable Louis soon came to especially appreciate the "old Virginia style" courthouse adjacent to the public square. At the Zeitung, Bartholomeaus and Louis supplemented their newspaper work by printing custom jobs, including many of the "blanks," or legal forms used by the county and circuit court clerks. While delivering blanks to the circuit clerk's office upstairs in the courthouse, Louis often peered into the windows of the courtroom on the main floor, studying the lawyers as they paced the brick floor in front of the bar and the audience arranged in amphitheater style to the sides. The judge, seated behind a slightly elevated bench affixed with a brightly painted Illinois coat of arms, probably called to mind his father's stories of Uncle Franz, by now a judge himself back in Würzburg.

Thoroughly impressed by the spectacle and drama of the law, Louis also came to recognize the desirability of a more formal education while making one of his deliveries at the courthouse. On this particular occasion, Louis submitted the proof of a legal blank to circuit court clerk William Thomas for his approval. Too small to see over Thomas's desk as the clerk carefully proofread the document out loud in German, Louis pulled up a stool and listened. When Thomas reached the end, he recited "A.D. 18 —." Looking over his spectacles, he earnestly asked, "Louie, what does A.D. mean?" Owing in part to his nomadic upbringing and printing chores, Louis's schooling had been piecemeal and sporadic, attending various German parochial schools whenever possible and, now in Belleville, occasionally attending classes held at the local Odd Fellows Hall. The boy sheepishly replied he did not know. "Louis," the clerk instructed, "that means Anno Domini, year of our Lord." Impressed that two letters could mean so much, Louis left the courthouse to ask his father about the possibility of getting some type of "special instruction."

Sometime in 1852, Bartholomeaus consented to a compromise, arranging with friends back in Gasconade County for twelve-year-old Louis to study under the private tutelage of Eduard Muehl, an iconoclastic printer and scholar in Hermann. For the next two years, Louis lived and worked with Muehl's family in Hermann, a collection of some ninety predominantly brick buildings and vineyards nestled at the foot of the hills along the Missouri River near its confluence with the Gasconade. Founded just fifteen years earlier as a settlement colony by immigrants from Pennsylvania hoping to preserve their language and heritage in Duden's Missouri, Hermann was, in Louis's words, "altogether a German town." He later remembered only one American among its several hundred inhabitants.

The surroundings were certainly familiar enough, and for the most part so was the curriculum. Eduard Muehl, a graduate of the University of Leipzig and trained Lutheran minister, published the Wochenblatt (Weekly Paper) in the basement of a home built by his brother-in-law Carl Procopius Strehly. The Strehly and Muehl families shared the white neoclassical-style house, now part of the Deutscheim State Historical Site, and during his tenure as Louis's teacher, Muehl spent mornings training his young apprentice on the technical art of publishing and afternoons working through comprehensive lessons in German.

But perhaps the most significant education Louis received in Hermann lay outside the Washington hand-press he learned to print on or the romantic literature he read. Eduard Muehl embraced the philosophy of "rationalism" and had left the pulpit to follow this movement committed to finding truth through reason and factual analysis rather than faith, dogma, supernatural revelation, or the other fundamentals of organized Christianity. The philosophical Wochenblatt, like his Lichtfreund (Friend of Light) before it, addressed the major issues of the day, but the paper Louis helped Muehl print interpreted them from a rationalist perspective, using deductive reasoning to discover the essential self-evident truths thought to be inherent to all reality.


Excerpted from "A Missouri Railroad Pioneer"
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Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri.
Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1    Wanderjahre
Chapter 2    Volksblatt
Chapter 3    The Belle of Cape Girardeau
Chapter 4    To Cogitate and To Dream: The Coming of the Railroad
Chapter 5    The Houck Roads
Chapter 6    Zwei Meinungen: Of Two Minds
Chapter 7    A Damn Fine Lawyer
Chapter 8    St. Louis, Kennett and Southern Allied Lines
Chapter 9    Academic Hall
Chapter 10    The Histories
Chapter 11    Cape Girardeau Northern
Chapter 12    The Big Ditch
Chapter 13    A Quiet Religious Mood

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