Missouri’s Route 79 is a beautiful roadway cutting through the state’s eastern hills and tiny subtle towns.
It slithers and curves through the land just like the Mighty Mississippi River. Adjacent to the deep muddy waters, it’s the perfect route for the country’s Great River Road. You can take it all the way down to New Orleans if you wanted to and in Missouri it’s quite picturesque for travelers making their way between the northeastern portions of the Show-Me State and the Greater St. Louis Metropolitan Area.
Motorists are always making their way along Route 79 at it’s origin, along the calm banks of Hannibal, and for many it’s just a daily routine. Yet there is a mystery on a portion of this roadway that has yet to be solved, a mystery as cold as a brisk Midwest winter. Some of the drivers may not know it, but a portion of Route 79 in Hannibal could be the final resting place of three missing boys.
A normal day
Life in Hannibal was as it is today, relaxed. The sun shined brightly in the blue sky and the temperature was very pleasant. The perfect weather for being outside. For Billy and Joey Hoag, it was more than perfect because they had plans after school to go and do what they did best, exploring.
Hannibal’s south side sits at the base of many high hills and within those hills are caves, many, many caves connected in one way or another. For two young explorers and the rest of their south side friends, exploring the caves was something everyone did.
“They were so adventurous,” remembers DeDe Hoag, the boys’ older sister. “Billy, I’d say was a little bit more mischievous than Joey. Joey was a little more serious. He was into astrology and he was more grounded. Billy was a little stinker. He just had that red hair and those blue eyes and those freckles. He was an instigator, but not in a bad way.”
The Hoags were a big family of 11 children and were known around town. They owned Hoag’s Tavern, a popular restaurant along Hannibal’s Historic Main Street.
It was a Tuesday night when Billy and Joey came back home covered in mud. A new Route 79 was being constructed (that’s the route everyone knows today) and the deep holes dug into the hillside along the roads that lead into Lovers Leap and Riverside Cemetery had revealed a maze of passage ways which led into the caves. The Hoag brothers did some exploring, but were sure to be back home when expected. DeDe recalls her mother, Helen Hoag, scolding the boys to wash their clothes and stay away from the construction zone they were in. Unexplored caves or not she didn’t want her children being somewhere they shouldn’t.
Page 2 of 5 - But boys will be boys.
Billy and Joey were making plans to go caving and they were recruiting some of their friends at A.D. Stowell Elementary School the next day. It was Wednesday, May 10, 1967. Greg Henderson was one of the neighborhood boys invited to come along. He and Billy were close friends.
“Went to school, seen Billy, and he said, ‘We’re going caving tonight’,” Henderson said. “I went home and planned on going. I walked outside and the girls were jumping rope. There were seven girls on my street and I was the only guy. I’m doing that and I get ready to go and I don’t even get 50 feet from the house. Grandma hollered supper’s ready.”
The anticipated cave exploration would have to wait for another time. Henderson, along with Billy and other neighborhood boys, had Royal Ambassadors meetings at the local church Wednesday nights and there wasn’t enough time to do both.
Meanwhile at the Hoag House on Fulton Avenue, DeDe was waiting to find out if she had to work.
“Mom and Dad left to go over to Buehlers Market to get some meat. Tim (DeDe’s younger brother by one year) was getting off the bus. Before Mom left, she hollered at Tim. She said keep an eye on the boys (Billy and Joey) because of what they had done the night before,” DeDe said. “Joey and Billy came home from school, they were there in the house, and Joey went through the hallway. He had on a T-shirt and jeans.”
DeDe and Billy crossed paths in the house.
“Where are you going,” DeDe asked Billy.
“Just outside,” Billy replied.
“Don’t leave the yard,” she told him.
Being restricted to the yard was the boys’ punishment. When their parents returned home and asked where they were, DeDe had no idea. She also didn’t know where Tim was. He eventually showed and couldn’t account for his younger brothers, so Helen sent him and DeDe out in the neighborhood to find them.
“Tim took off one way, I took off another way,” DeDe said. “We hollered, we yelled.”
Billy and Joey were nowhere to be found. Tim came back after doing a quick cave search of his own. Perhaps his brothers were wandering in the unknown areas underground.
“Tim went in there to a certain degree, and once he got in there, there were so many mazes,” DeDe said.
Tim told his mother to call the Mark Twain Emergency Squad and she did.
Over at the church the Royal Ambassadors were meeting. Henderson found it odd that Billy wasn’t there.
“We had a little bit of a meeting and went outside for some odd reason and that’s when we found out,” Henderson said.
Page 3 of 5 - The Hoag brothers were missing.
As it turned out another neighborhood boy was missing too. Craig Dowell lived over on Union Street.
“Craig Dowell, he was an acquaintance,” Henderson said. “I don’t think he was really good friends with Joey, but he wasn’t no big friend of Billy and I. I can tell you that. What I don’t even get is why he was even with them. I never could understand that.”
Anyone’s guess is as good as the next as to why Dowell tagged along, but no one really knows why. Everyone knew everyone on the south side of Hannibal and when the Hoag brothers decided go caving Dowell probably just happened to be near by and joined them. Nonetheless, this tight-knit community came together to find the lost boys. But what quickly began as a neighborhood search expanded to a nation-wide effort.
“All of these cavers came in from Washington, D.C., from California, Virginia, Mississippi. People came pouring in to look for them,” DeDe said. “Every restaurant in town made food for my family and the cavers. Our house was so full of cave men coming in from out of town. People took off work and some of them still got paid. They found out the south side is nothing but a maze of caves clear to Park Avenue, Valley Street; the caves all connect one way or another.”
One of the popular south side caves at the time, Murphy’s Cave, was one of the first places rescuers tried to look. The opening was between the ending southbound lanes off the nearby viaduct (the start of Birch Street) and Walnut Street.
Henderson was 11 at the time and was even questioned by authorities in a room of lawyers.
“They just kept asking, ‘Where do you think they are? Where do you think they are?’,” Henderson, now 56, said. “I don’t know if it was the first day or the second day, but I was having dreams and everything; about Billy and Joey. They were just saying help, help, help. I’ve been living with that all my life.”
The young cave dweller told search leaders where they should be looking.
“They wouldn’t believe me until somebody stepped forward and sort of said, ‘He’s right, because I saw them.’ Bill Dexheimer (who did not wish to comment), he said that he had seen — I don’t know if he saw Craig — but he saw Billy and Joey. I can’t speak for him, but he saw them walking up toward the highway,” Henderson said. “They finally moved from Murphy’s Cave down where Billy and I had been in. We had a ladder, homemade ladder we made. It dropped down and we got in there, that’s the way you got in.”
Page 4 of 5 - At the Hoag House there were a variety of emotions.
“They were always home by 9 o’clock,” DeDe said.
When that time hit the first night is when she really started to come unglued.
“Then at 10 o’clock I was an absolute wreck because it was on TV on the news.”
DeDe, who was 16 in 1967, began losing sleep and barely ate as the search for her brothers went on.
“I thought, they’re not eating, I’m not eating,” she said. “They’re not sleeping, I’m not sleeping till they get home. That’s all there is to it.”
The weeks and weeks of searching turned up absolutely nothing. The Hoag Family was hoping and hoping for a sign of something positive in search efforts, but nothing ever came to light.
Henderson believes there were some questionable things going on behind the scenes.
“I know guys who went looking for them, and guys would go in far enough and sit down and wait for a while,” he said. “I don’t think they felt like doing it.”
Henderson also remembers a few theories as well. He said the mayor at the time was aware the machines used in the search for the three boys could go as deep as 39 feet, but instead the mayor told searchers to not go more than 37 feet.
“I can’t tell you for a fact why they did it. I was 11-years-old and I heard this was happening,” Henderson said. “I don’t think he wanted to find them. If they had, what would have happened? What would have been the ramifications? I don’t think a lot of that was made public.”
Henderson added there more than likely would have been lawsuits against the construction company building the roadway, the City of Hannibal and the State of Missouri.
After a long search, the conclusion was reached — however no one is for certain — that the boys were exploring and the walls of the cave collapsed and trapped them.
Gone, but not forgotten
The unknown status of her two boys changed Helen Hoag forever.
“She stayed up every night waiting for my brothers to come home. Every. Night,” DeDe said. “When she found out she was going to pass — it was just a matter of time — she said I sure wish I would find out something before I died. And I said, ‘Mom, maybe you’ll just have to find out on the other side if they’re there.’”
DeDe herself still struggles with her brothers’ disappearance despite 45 years passing by.
“You really don’t ever get over it. Or I haven’t, totally. I really have a hard time dealing with it. Time’s just go on and on and on, and you pray, you try to get an answer. I’ve been to psychiatrists, neurologists, counselors. I’m having a big time still struggling with it. My kids can’t understand it and I can’t understand it, other than we all think and feel different,” DeDe said. “I’ve got to have closure — we haven’t found a thing. We don’t know where they’re at. More than likely they were buried. It’s possible, but it’s not probable.”
Page 5 of 5 - A memorial atop Lovers Leap has since been placed to honor the memory of the boys and the search crews.
With today’s technology, Henderson believes a new search could be conducted, but the chances of that happening are non-existent. He’s very certain the boys are buried beneath the southbound lanes of Route 79 just before the Lovers Leap tourist sign.
“They got forensic and all that stuff, they could probably get it solved. Will they ever? You think they’re going to close down that highway to build on a speculation? No. You’re going to have to have proof, beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Henderson said. “It would be quite interesting if you could go down and dig in that hole. My own opinion is you’re going to find Billy and Joey. Where you’re going to find Craig, I don’t know. I think something bad happened to him.”
DeDe is hopeful one day her brothers’ remains will be found. She believes it will be out of circumstance they’ll be discovered.
“I don’t know if I’ll be alive, but I’m sure somebody’s going to find them sometime,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”