Of the dozens of historical moments included in his new book, “Missouri: An Illustrated Timeline,” author John Brown, who you may know from his role as a new anchor and political correspondent on KTVI, Fox 2 in St. Louis, said the one that fascinates him the most is the Gasconade Bridge Train Disaster from Nov. 1, 1855.
He’d never heard of it before he began research for the book, but the more he learns about it, the more he thinks a movie should be made depicting it.
“To me, it’s the most fascinating piece of the book,” said Brown, who attended East Central College in 1990-’91 on a basketball scholarship and earned an associate’s degree in premedical studies.
“It’s the first train trip between St. Louis and Jeff City after they finished building the Capitol,” Brown said. “The train takes off from St. Louis. It’s full of VIPs, a bunch of mayors, Auguste Chouteau’s descendant was on board. They got to the bridge just outside of Hermann, and the rain had come through the night before, and the bridge collapsed.
“The engine of the train flipped backward, landing on the first car and killing all of these VIPs and dignitaries from St. Louis,” said Brown.
The train had gone through Washington, New Haven and other towns shortly before the crash. In Jefferson City, everyone was awaiting the train’s arrival, but it never came.
Of course, news didn’t travel then nearly as fast as it does today. As the story goes, a child ran from Gasconade to Hermann, a distance of some eight miles, to alert people to the crash.
“That story blew me away, because I had never heard it, never seen it anywhere, and now that’s my new passion, learning more about that train trip,” said Brown.
Even if you’re a fan of Missouri history or think you know much of it, “Missouri: An Illustrated Timeline” may hold some surprises for you, as it did for Brown.
He dedicated the book, in part, to his mother, Linda Roberts, “who is a bigger history buff than I am.”
“I remember my mom used to love to take road trips. We’d get in the car and go to different historical sites,” Brown told The Missourian. “When I got old enough and got my car, I would drive to historical sites all over the place too . . . I’ve got a wandering soul.”
He also credits his love for Missouri history to the fact that he has lived in as many as 20 different towns across the state, including both Union and St. Clair, when he was a student at ECC.
List of Famous Missourians Motivated Him
As Brown moved from small town to small town, somewhere along the way, he started keeping a list of famous people from those communities. He was inspired by them.
“I had these big dreams, but growing up in small towns I was never told that I could accomplish a lot of things,” said Brown. “So I started making this list of famous people, and it motivated me.
“That list ended up becoming my first book, ‘Missouri Legends, Famous People From the Show-Me State,’ and that’s the website I still run (www.missourilegends.com). I was so curious about all these people who had lived in small towns where I also lived.”
Today whenever Brown visits small towns for presentations on his work, he likes to point out to people that people from small towns have done great things — and they can too.
“Just follow their roadmap,” he tells them.
What’s Included in the Book
“Missouri: An Illustrated Timeline” begins with a prelude to statehood and the Bootheel Provision, explaining how Missouri’s border came to have this distinctive line in its southeast corner, and it ends in 2020 with the Kansas City Chiefs winning Super Bowl LIV.
In between are highlights from all across the state, which was both intentional and not hard to do, said Brown.
Points on the timeline include the beginning of the Sante Fe Trail in Franklin (1821), Missouri wine industry (1837), the Grasshopper plague (1875), Laura Ingalls Wilder (1894), Missouri’s nickname (1899), Annie Malone Opens Business (1902), International Shoe Company in St. Louis (1905), Meramec Caverns (1935) . . .
The book includes a good number of photos with fairly brief descriptions, ranging from just a paragraph or two to a full page in size.
“That was by design,” said Brown. “Being in the TV industry, I’m used to writing in digestible small sizes so people can get the story . . . So it’s not a deep dive into the Civil War, but it’s enough to show that (Missouri) had a huge impact on the war.”
In fact, that is what Brown hopes the book does for readers on all levels — educates them that Missouri has a lot to be proud of.
“Approaching the bicentennial, that people say, ‘Wow, we have a great history. I want to learn more about it.’ That was the whole goal with this book.”
Images Tell the Stories
Brown spent about a year working on the book. That included six or seven months and a few months more tracking down the photos that are included.
He began the process making a list of every historical date in Missouri’s history and then whittling that list down to events that were both interesting and had an impact on the state.
After he had written around 100 entries, Brown reached out to historians and experts in the fields to get their input and help him “refine” the list even more.
He asked what was good, what should be left out and what he might have missed.
“Then came the hard part,” said Brown. “That was finding images for some of these obscure events. We scoured every public source, every historical society library and libraries all over the state.
“That’s why I think the images really tell a lot of the stories, because a lot of these haven’t been seen many places.”
Writing the book in a timeline format adds an interesting layer to the information too because it allows readers to understand what events were happening in relation to other events.
“We all seem to compartmentalize history to say, during the Great Depression, nobody had any jobs, nobody did anything, but now you see that’s not true,” said Brown.
From Pre-Med to Broadcasting
Brown was born in St. Joe, but he lived in Wentzville, Pendleton (population 12, at the time) and Lake of the Ozarks, among other places, before graduating in 1989 from Belle High School, where he was a standout athlete, making All-State honors several times and setting the school record for the mile with a time of 4:29.
After leaving ECC, Brown continued his education at Central Methodist University in Fayette, where he earned a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry in 1994.
He was planning to enroll in medical school, but the future of medicine was uncertain with debate over the healthcare reform package proposed in 1993 during the Clinton administration.
People who worked in medicine were telling Brown to really be sure he wanted to work in the field before investing so much time and money into the education.
“So I ran off to Miami, and I got into radio,” said Brown. “That’s how I got into broadcasting.
“I went into a radio station and said, ‘I need a job. I’m hungry.’ ”
He later took classes at the Broadcast Center, where the broke him of his “Ozarkian accent,” as he called it.
And he learned about the radio industry hands-on and on the job.
He went on to work in TV first in Springfield, Mo., and then in Orlando, where he made headlines in 2015 for walking off the set of the morning talk show he co-hosted to protest a “non-story” about something the Kardashian family had done.
Brown said he walked off as a joke, but the video of his action went viral and was even mentioned by Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
Brown has won numerous awards for his broadcasting work over the years.
Book Signing Here in August
Brown is scheduled to be in Washington Thursday, Aug. 13, for a booksigning at Neighborhood Reads bookstore in Downtown Washington.
But copies of “Missouri: An Illustrated Timeline” are available at the store right now, just in time for Father’s Day and the Missouri Bicentennial in 2021.
“All this stuff I either did learn and forgot or never learned, but this has helped me get up to speed on our history, just as we are going to have these big celebrations coming up in 2021,” said Brown. “I hope that is what it does for everybody else too.
“We should all have a lot of pride in our state, because a lot of important things have happened here.”
Other books by John Brown include “Missouri Legends: Famous People From the Show Me State,” “The Ultimate Missouri Trivia Book,” “100 Things to Do in Orlando Before You Die” and “The Missouri Almanac, 2018-2019.”