While many Hannibalians are familiar with the name “Coontz,” some may not know the history of this remarkable family and their most celebrated member, Admiral Robert E. Coontz. Upon his retirement from the Navy in 1928, Admiral Coontz sat down to write his memoir, From the Mississippi to the Sea; in it, Coontz provides a wonderful snapshot of life in Hannibal during his childhood, when Hannibal was a prosperous town of lumber, steamboats and railways.
“My father [Benton Coontz] was born in Florida, Monroe County, Missouri, when the family lived next door to Mark Twain,” Coontz wrote in his memoir. “The Clemens family and the Coontz family, with others from Monroe County, moved to Hannibal about the same time.” Robert’s mother and father both attended school with young Mark Twain (who was then known, of course, as Sam Clemens).
On June 11, 1864, Robert E. Coontz was born to Mr. and Mrs. Benton Coontz in their home at 303 North Sixth Street in Hannibal, “…in the second story front room from which my mother could look out upon the Mississippi and see the passing steamboats,” Coontz wrote. While Robert was still quite young, the Coontz family moved one block north to a new home at the northwest corner of North Sixth and Hill streets. By all accounts, Robert had an idyllic childhood; he attended a school located on Broadway taught by Miss Jennie Walters, and spent his off hours exploring with childhood friends, stating that “…every hill within a radius of five miles from the center of Hannibal was thoroughly explored by the boys of the town.” Young Robert also explored the caves, carving his name inside McDowell’s cave (now known as the Mark Twain Cave) under the date “1874.”
In his memoir, Coontz recalled a special family trip taken on July 5, 1873, when he was nine years old. Climbing aboard the Clinton, the Coontz family made the eight day trip up the Mississippi River to St. Paul. “The Mississippi steamboats were then at their best,” Coontz recalled. “We spent every day of the trip on the saloon deck viewing the scenery. At night we always had an appetizing dinner, and after the table was cleared all of the employees, from the barber to the waiters, came in with their musical instruments and there was dancing until midnight.” Although he does not reveal whether he was allowed to stay up past the time the dancing ceased, Coontz then recalled that “…the Southerners turned to playing poker until two in the morning, when the bar closed…the sight of gambling shocked me, for, with the rest of the boys of my acquaintance, I had been reared very strictly.”
Benton Coontz was a prominent business and civic leader in Hannibal who, in 1880, assumed ownership of Hannibal’s muledrawn streetcar system. Fourteen-year-old Robert learned to drive the Missouri mules that powered his father’s streetcars by taking over during the regular drivers’ lunch hours and breaks; soon, he was promoted to conductor, and by the age of fifteen, he became superintendent of the railway.
While working for the streetcar service, Coontz also attended Hannibal College. During this period, William Henry Hatch, the eight-term U.S. congressman from Hannibal whose statue now resides in Central Park, was a friend of Benton Coontz and had occasion to visit the Coontz family while in Hannibal. Robert took the opportunity to ask Hatch for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Several other Hannibal boys had inquired, as well; so, to choose who would receive his support, Hatch gave the boys a “competitive examination.” Coontz was the victor.
Robert Coontz graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1885. For the next decade, Coontz served in the navy, stationed on vessels in Alaska and the Great Lakes. He was assigned to the Office of the Department of Navy in 1894 and was later reassigned to the cruiser USS Philadelphia. While aboard the USS Charleston, Coontz was sent to the Pacific and saw action in the Spanish-American War.
From December 17, 1907, to February 22, 1909, Coontz, now a lieutenant commander, participated in what came to be known as “The Great White Fleet.” President Theodore Roosevelt, nearing the end of his administration, ordered sixteen battleships and various escort ships to commence on a worldwide voyage in an effort to demonstrate American military power at sea. All ships had their hulls painted white, the navy’s peacetime color scheme. The Great White Fleet was greeted by cheering crowds in places such as Sydney, Australia; Yokohama, Japan; and Messina, Sicily. The fleet would set numerous world records, including one for the incredible number of ships simultaneously circumnavigating the earth. Coontz was named executive officer of the battleship USS Nebraska during the expedition.
After completion of the highly successful voyage of the Great White Fleet, Coontz was promoted to the rank of commander and assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as commandant of midshipmen. In 1912, he served as governor of Guam and commanding officer of the battleship USS Georgia. In 1918, he was commandant of the Puget Sound Navy Yard and the Thirteenth Naval District.
Promoted to the rank of rear admiral, Coontz assumed command of an entire battleship division in the Atlantic. In 1919, he had just been assigned to the Pacific Fleet when he was selected to succeed Admiral
William S. Benson as chief of naval operations (CNO). While dealing with the politics of this elevated position, Coontz established a unified United States Fleet and strengthened the position of CNO within the Navy Department.
In 1923, Admiral Coontz returned to the sea as commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet. He returned to the rank of rear admiral in 1925 to serve as commandant of the Fifth Naval District. After forty-seven years of service, Coontz retired from the navy in June 1928.
Admiral Coontz’s memoir of his naval career, From the Mississippi to the Sea, was published in 1930. Five years later, on January 26, 1935, he died at the Naval Hospital in Puget Sound, Washington, at the age of seventy-one. Upon his wishes, he was brought back to Hannibal for burial and a full military funeral was arranged. The cortege, which included a horse-drawn wagon carrying the admiral’s body, was observed by hundreds of onlookers as it made its way through the streets of Hannibal to Admiral Coontz’s final resting place in Mount Olivet Cemetery.
The United States Navy would later recognize Admiral Coontz’s service by naming two ships in his honor: the USS Coontz, a 4,150-ton Farragut class guided missile frigate, and the USS Admiral R.E. Coontz, a 9,676-ton Benson class transport ship.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration was assigned to construct an armory in Hannibal next to Clemens Field (another WPA project). The massive structure, which cost an estimated $175,000 at the time, was dedicated on November 5, 1939, and named in honor of Admiral Coontz. Performing at the ceremony that evening was the Harry James Band, one of the most popular musical groups of the time. The band had added a young singer to the group just five months earlier, and he was featured at the dedication of the Coontz Armory in Hannibal. The singer’s name was Frank Sinatra.
Ken and Lisa Marks are curators of the Hannibal History Museum, located at 217 N. Main in downtown Hannibal. Their books, Hannibal, Missouri: A Brief History and Haunted Hannibal: History and Mystery in America’s Hometown, are published by The History Press and are currently available at the Museum’s gift shop.