Southeast Faculty Member Pens Book on Life of Louis Houck


Photo of Dr. Joel Rhodes

Dr. Joel Rhodes is the author of a new book, A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., May 6, 2008 — A Southeast Missouri State University associate professor of history has recently penned a new book on Louis Houck, often called the “Father of Southeast Missouri.”

In this new book, A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck, Dr. Joel Rhodes shows how Houck’s story is relevant for both the state and the nation. Lawyer and journalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, Houck earned the distinction as the “Father of Southeast Missouri” because he opened this backwater area to industrialization and modernization, despite the fact his name is little known today outside Missouri.

In his new biography, Rhodes presents a more complete picture of Houck than has ever been available: reviewing his life from his German immigrant roots, considering his career from both social and political perspectives, and grounding the story in both state and national history. He especially tells how, from 1880 to the 1920s, this self-taught railroader constructed a network of 500 miles of track through the wilderness of wetlands known as “Swampeast Missouri” — and how these “Houck Roads” provided a boost for population, agriculture, lumbering and commerce that transformed Cape Girardeau and the surrounding area.

Rhodes discusses how Houck fits into the era of economic individualism — a time men with little formal training shaped modern industry — and also gives voice to Houck’s critics and shows that he was not always an easy man with whom to work. In telling the story of his railroading enterprise, Rhodes chronicles Houck’s battle with the Jay Gould railroad empire and offers key insight into the development of America’s railway system, from the cutthroat practices of ruthless entrepreneurs to the often-comic ineptness of start-up rail lines.

More than simply a biography of a business entrepreneur, the book tells how Houck not only developed the region economically but also followed the lead of Andrew Carnegie by making art, culture and formal education available to all social classes. Houck also served for 36 years as president of the Board of Regents of Southeast Missouri State Teachers College, and as a self-taught historian he wrote the first comprehensive accounts of Missouri’s territorial period.

A Missouri Railroad Pioneer chronicles a multifaceted career that transformed a region. Solidly researched, this lively narrative also offers an entertaining read for anyone interested in Missouri history.

Rhodes is also author of The Voice of Violence: Performative Violence as Protest in the Vietnam Era and coauthor of Historic Cape Girardeau: An Illustrated History.

A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: The Life of Louis Houck is available at local bookstores or directly from the University of Missouri Press.

For more information, contact Beth Chandler at or (573) 882-9672.