The story of three boys lost in Hannibal cave remains a mystery

Posted on 11 July 2018 at 12:36pm
Story image: The story of three boys lost in Hannibal cave remains a mystery

BOONE COUNTY - The story of the three lost boys of Hannibal remains a mystery after a cave search ended empty-handed five decades ago.

Three adventurous boys, Joel Hoag, 13, his brother Billy, 11, and their friend Craig Dowell, 14, were out exploring Murphy's Cave, which was exposed by highway construction from state highway 79, which connects Hannibal to the St. Louis area. 

A school teacher last saw the boys at the roadcut location on May 10, 1967. No one ever saw them again. Crews searched through the cave for about a month. 

John Wingate wrote a book about the massive search called "Lost Boys of Hannibal: Inside America's Largest Cave Search." He was 13 years old when the boys disappeared. 

"I wrote this book to ensure the lost boys and the heroic efforts by hundreds of participants are not forgotten," Wingate said. 

He was friends with the Hoag brothers. 

"These boys, two of them, the Hoag boys, came from a large family. Just about everyone in town knew the Hoags," Wingate said. "They ran a popular restaurant so it was a stressful time and there was a lot of fear and anxiety in the air.”

Don Nicholson, 80, from Columbia, remembers the day well. He was one of the cavers looking for the boys. He was 29 years old at the time. Dozens of cavers risked their lives to save the three boys, he said.

Nicholson, who spent 26 years as a land surveyor for the city of Columbia, was born and raised in Hannibal and grew up less than a half mile from where the boys disappeared. He was working in Quincy, Illinois when it all happened.

"I was working up there at the time and we heard on the radio that three boys have gone missing down around Murphy Cave area on the southside of Hannibal so, being familiar with that area, I took my helper back to the office and went down to help to get involved," Nicholson said. 

He said some of the roadcut collapsed and believes the boys got trapped underneath. 

"But we just kept looking," he said. 

Nicholson said searchers checked every place they could get to. 

“I don’t think there’s anything anybody could have done," he said. "I think the boys were lost underneath the road and they couldn’t get to them. There was no hope." 

The boys were never found. 

"They had just exhausted all of the passages that they could find," Nicholson said. 

The situation in Thailand, where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a flooded cave, brought back memories for the two of them. 

Wingate said, unlike the cave in Thailand, the one in Hannibal was dry. Not only that, but the three boys didn't have food or water. 

"It's very unfortunate and it was avoidable," Nicholson said. 

Missouri is known as the "Cave State" with more than 7,300 caves, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. Missouri has the second most caves in the United States, with Tennessee being first.