Late last month, a new mural at the corner of Ste. Marie and Jackson streets was completed by Craig Thomas, with assistance from Alison Rademaker and Michael Themm.
The colorful landscape from 1904 features four stamps, a larger one with the Houck Railroad train station and the Perry County Courthouse in the background.
The three smaller stamps, one on the left and two on the right, provide a glimpse of life in a blacksmithing shop, a retail store and a streetscape scene.
For me, it hearkens back to a simpler time, when there was less to worry about. In the train painting, a family of four along with their dog, enjoy a partly sunny day and appear as if they’re ready to embark on a journey. The blacksmithing scene shows a man working on iron beside a fire while a penned-in horse watches from behind the man’s shoulder.
It’s impossible to determine the thoughts and feelings it can evoke. It certainly is interesting and raises questions. Where was the family traveling to? What was it like to journey to another town more than 115 years ago? What was the Houck Railroad? When was it prominent in this area? What led to its demise?
Perryville’s Houck Railroad train depot was at the corner of Grand and Jackson streets, in the vicinity of the Quonset hut where the Colonnade room (old library) is located.
I know there are individuals in this area with a great deal of interest in the history of the Houck Railroad. In what I’ve gathered while doing a very limited amount of research, the man behind this railroad line is Louis Houck, a noted lawyer and journalist, among other titles.
Southeast Missouri State University history professor Joel Rhodes wrote a biography on Houck in 1990 titled “Missouri Raiload Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck,” that describes the German immigrant’s vision in the development of railroads that boosted the area’s population, agriculture, lumbering and commerce.
Apparently, the track split in Perryville, with separate tracks continuing to both Farmington and Ste. Genevieve (via Claryville and St. Mary).
The “Houck roads” as they were referred to included “Houck’s First Railroad” (Cape Girardeau southwest to Hunter in Carter County), “Houck’s Northern System” (Cape Girardeau to Ste. Genevieve) and “Houck’s Southern System” (Cape Giradeau south to Deering in Pemiscot County). The most productive years of the railroad, according to Rhodes, were the 1890s, when all three of the “Houck roads” ran simultaneously.
I’ve been told areas of where the track used to be are visible on portions of Highway B. Obviously, the tracks are not there anymore. Now all that’s left is basically just the crest of a small hill where the tracks were laid.
Rhodes isn’t the only one to write extensively about Louis Houck.
“Louis Houck (1840-1925) began his career as a printer and newspaperman, studied law, married rich, speculated in land, built five hundred miles of railroad in southeastern Missouri, served on the board of regents of the State College at Cape Girardeau, was a generous philanthropist, and wrote an authoritative history of early Missouri,” according to a June 1961 book review written by Homer Clevenger on William Doherty’s work “Louis Houck: Missouri Historian and Entrepreneur” which appeared in the Journal of American History.
In today’s world of constant distractions, perhaps a fine piece of artwork is just what the area needs for a good conversation starter.
Previously, the only thing I knew about Houck was that Southeast Missouri State’s aged football stadium bears his last name. Houck sounds like this area’s Andrew Carnegie: A wealthy businessman not afraid of taking risks who had a vision for a better future.
Check out the new mural. It provides a glimpse into the past and an opportunity to reflect on the area’s unique history.
Daniel Winningham is the managing editor of the Republic-Monitor. He may be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 573-547-4567.