Lake of the Ozarks
The Ozarks' Biggest Playground
Missouri’s abundance of year-round free flowing water began attracting the attention of energy entrepreneurs early in the 20th Century. The Ozarks’ first hydroelectric installation, Power Site Dam, impounded a short stretch of the White River to form Lake Taneycomo in 1913. Nearly 20 years would pass before the Osage, Grand Glaize, and Niangua Rivers were harnessed to create the largest of our Ozarks’ lakes: Lake of the Ozarks.
When the concept for a huge lake and dam, known as the Great Osage River Project, was introduced in the early ‘20s, detractors lobbied against it. According to their argument, the project was bound to fail because the area was too remote, the few dirt roads that existed were inadequate, there was no indigenous work force, and the nearest railroad was 15 miles away.
Despite the naysayers, the Missouri Hydro-Electric Company, incorporated in 1924, began acquiring the land needed to contain the lake reservoir. That same year, construction of an enormous mess hall, administrative buildings, power house, and a spur railroad got underway. The tiny town of Bagnell, five miles below the dam site, became the off-loading point for incoming building materials and also gave the dam its name.
Funding difficulties halted construction in 1926, resulting in the sale of all project holdings to Union Electric. Political controversy over the sale was heated and lengthy, but it was eventually approved in July of 1929 and construction of the dam and lake bed began immediately.
As news of the need for laborers spread, thousands of jobless workers poured into the region, coming on foot, on horseback, by boat, and by the truckload. The Bagnell Dam project created nearly 10,000 jobs at a time when depression was ravaging the country. Almost 5,000 workers would be on the job at any given time, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Work included a mammoth excavation to prepare the dam site, the building of the dam, and the preparation of the water reservoir. The latter included surveying and mapping nearly 100 square miles, establishing the future shoreline, and clearing trees that covered 30,000 acres.
Bagnell Dam was completed in just two years, opening to use in May of 1931. The price tag was $30 million for the last major dam to be built in the United States entirely with private capital. At the time it opened, Lake of the Ozarks was the largest man-made lake in the world. Measuring 92 miles from end to end, the 617 billion gallon lake has 55,000 surface acres and more shoreline (1,373 miles) than the sea coast of California.
The new dam backed water up the winding Osage River and its tributaries, including Grand Glaize Creek, one of the more scenic streams in the region. This area had already been identified as a potential park site by planners working for Union Electric, who could foresee enthralling lake vistas, swimming beaches, facilities for boating, fishing, camping, and miles of trails for nature lovers and seekers of solitude. This vision came to fruition when Lake of the Ozarks State Park was established in the mid 1930s.
Encompassing 17,000 acres, Missouri’s largest and most varied state park is a treasure trove of the area’s social and architectural history. Group camps built of logs and native stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s were restored in the 1980s and are actively used today by Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, 4-H clubs and a variety of other organizations. The park and its main road, Highway 134, have been designated a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of the prime examples of CCC-era hewn-log construction, the beautiful rustic bridges, and the extensive network of CCC-built stone ditch-dams that provide erosion control and add to the charm of the beautifully designed road.
Another popular feature at Lake of the Ozarks is Ha Ha Tonka State Park. This geologically unique park centers on the exotic ruins of an early 1900s castle and estate. Conceived and funded by wealthy Kansas City businessman Robert M. Snyder, the enormous mansion was built by Scottish stone masons from a design patterned after European castles. Due to Snyder’s untimely death in 1906, it was never completed, and what had been accomplished was destroyed by fire in 1942. The resulting ruins—floorless cut stone walls that tower above the Ozark landscape—leave visitors with a sense of awe and wonder for the grandeur of the past.
Ha Ha Tonka also abounds with geologic karst-type formations, remnants of an ancient cave system. One formation, the remaining roof of a collapsed cave called The Natural Bridge, measures 70 feet wide, 60 feet long and 100 feet high. Until 1979, it was the only road access to the castle ruins. Other unique features include sinkholes, caves, underground streams, a natural amphitheater, and Ha Ha Tonka Spring, one of Missouri’s largest. According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, no other location in the state has so many remarkable geologic features in such close proximity.
From its beginnings as a scenic getaway for St. Louis and Kansas City outdoorsmen, Lake of the Ozarks has become one of the most intensely developed playgrounds in the nation. And because it’s privately developed, it is the only major public lake in Missouri which allows shoreline development of resorts, docks, restaurants, and other traveler services. Visitors can go directly from their lakeside rooms onto their water craft and travel over open water to the destination of choice. The Lake of the Ozarks Community Bridge, opened in 1998, has improved inter-lake travel by replacing the previous 30-50 mile route around the lake with a quick 10 mile drive.
On and off the lake, recreational choices are virtually limitless. Lake of the Ozarks is named as one of the best year-round fisheries in the nation by many professional anglers, annually hosting the prestigious Bass Masters fishing tournament. Sport fishermen are drawn to the thriving populations of bass, crappie, stripers, catfish and other popular species. Fresh water giants also lurk in the lake’s depths. The state record paddlefish, a pre-historic looking monster measuring six feet ten inches long and weighing over 139 pounds, was caught at Lake of the Ozarks in 2002. Numerous marinas and outfitters provide everything needed to enjoy all popular water-related activities.
The lake area has also become a golf Mecca for the midwest with more than a dozen championship courses offering 225 holes of challenging golf set amidst the area’s natural beauty. The Tan-Tar-A Resort and Lodge of Four Seasons courses were ranked among the top 50 golf resorts in the world in a 1996 Conde Nast Traveler poll.
Skiing and scenic sunsets are plentiful at the Lake of the Ozarks. (Photos courtesy of Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitors Bureau)
With scenic vistas offering peace and solitude, plus an abundance of on-shore amusement and entertainment options, over 100 restaurants along its shores, tremendous shopping opportunities, and all forms of water fun readily available, Lake of the Ozarks is a vacation destination that truly does have something for everyone. Whether it’s being alone with nature’s beauty or joining the active throngs on and around the water, Lake of the Ozarks is a great getaway choice.
Want more on Lake of the Ozarks? Be sure to visit these sites
Lake of the Ozarks Convention and Visitors Bureau
Central Missouri's Official Lake of the Ozarks Site
For a copy of the Lake of the Ozarks Vacation and Service Guide, published by the Lake of the Ozarks CVB, call 1-800-451-4117.