Table Rock Lake
A Banquet of Ozarks' Recreation
Table Rock Lake is one of five man-made lakes on the White River system. The first was Lake Taneycomo, created in 1913 by the construction of Powersite Dam, followed by Norfork Lake (early ‘40s, on the North Fork of the White). Coming after Bull Shoals (early ‘50s) and before Beaver (1960s), Table Rock Lake was the fourth to be built. Rising 252 feet above the original stream bed, Table Rock Dam is the highest dam in the state. The lake it creates has approximately 43,000 acres of surface water, 800 miles of shoreline, and is well-established as one of the premier fresh water fisheries in the nation.
Fishing was the area’s claim to fame long before the White River and its tributaries were ever impounded. Anglers came from across the nation to experience the unspoiled beauty of the White River Valley, carved out of the ancient Ozark hills over many thousands of years. Originating in northern Arkansas, the fabled river flows north into Missouri where it curves in sinuous arcs before turning south again, eventually joining the Mississippi in the lowlands of eastern Arkansas. While we celebrate the positive aspects of our Ozarks’ lakes today, we must note with some regret that, other than the headwaters of some of its tributaries, not a single mile of this once great river system still flows free in the state of Missouri.
Below, the waters of Table Rock Lake provide an abundance of water activities. Also above, an aerial view of the Table Rock Dam. Below left, the Kimberling Bridges, old and new, circa 1958.
With its combination of great fishing, clear water, scenic beauty, and proximity to Branson’s attractions, Table Rock is one of the most popular lakes in the greater midwest. But bringing a tourism boom to the Ozarks wasn’t the primary motive in building dams on the White River. It was, rather, the promise of cheap energy and the threat of cyclical flooding.
Due to its relatively narrow channel and the steep Ozarks terrain it flowed through, the White was prone to severe flooding. After heavy rains, early settlers and wild migrating animals alike sometimes had to wait for days for the water level to subside enough for the stream to be forded.
The Old Wilderness Road, which eventually became Highway 13, was an early passage that utilized existing game trails and Indian paths to provide a crude but continuous thoroughfare from northern Arkansas into southern Missouri. It crossed the river at a shallows near the present site of Kimberling City. The town takes its name from William Kimberling, who established a current-driven ferry there. At that time, it took about 10 days to make the 120 mile journey from Harrison to Springfield.
In 1922, following the first wave of tourism that came on the heels of Lake Taneycomo’s creation, a bridge was built across the White near Kimberling’s Ferry. Flooding washed this bridge out twice in the years before Table Rock Dam was built. Following WWII, with settlement and investment in the area increasing at a rapid rate, the need for both flood control and electric power intensified.
Although there was a bitter fight in Congress between those who wanted to preserve the White and those who wanted to utilize and harness it, the interests of those saw the potential of damming the river, led by the district’s longtime congressman Dewey Short, won out. Developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, construction of Table Rock Dam began in 1954 and was completed in 1958. Since the dam and its powerhouse were built, the average annual market value for electricity produced at Table Rock has been $10 million. Add this to the $40 million in prevented flood losses and Table Rock’s construction cost of $66 million is clearly a bargain for all concerned.
Visiting the massive dam and the Dewey Short Visitors Center located there are a must. Inside the center is a four-season exhibit of Ozarks life and landscape, and a modern theatre which offers programs illustrating the construction of the dam and other aspects of the region. The programs are free to the public from April through October. A four-loop nature trail, with one designed for handicap access, gives visitors an educational introduction to the flora of the Ozarks.
The Table Rock Resident’s Office, located at the visitors center, is a good place to get information about the lake. You can also learn the interesting story of the Kimberling City Bridges. While the dam was being built, construction of the new Kimberling Bridge was also ongoing. Upon completion, the new bridge towered high above the river bed in preparation for the eventual lake level, while far below, the old Highway 13 bridge spanning the river still stood. As the story goes, the old bridge was sold for salvage and was supposed to be removed, but the lake waters rose too fast, submerging it before salvage work could begin.
The old bridge remains today, many fathoms below the surface, and functions now as a favorite fishing spot for local fishermen.
The “new” Kimberling Bridge, 1,862 feet long with approaches measuring one and a half miles, is the longest bridge of its kind in the country. Water under the new bridge approaches 200 feet in depth. An interesting historic photo of the two bridges, side by side, before the lake filled (pictured above) is available through the Kimberling City Area Chamber of Commerce.
In addition to traditional lake activities such as fishing, skiing, scuba diving, swimming, boating, and camping, Table Rock’s close proximity to Branson means you can also enjoy great entertainment both on and off the water. Fun opportunities include dinner and a show on a paddlewheel cruise, parasailing over the water, signing on for a catamaran cruise, great restaurants and shopping, visiting Silver Dollar City, and all the music, comedy and variety shows along Branson’s famous 76 Country Boulevard.
Nestled in the midst of all the commercial activity lies the 350 acre Table Rock State Park. The park provides a full array of lake-oriented facilities, including camping and picnic areas, a boat launch, dive shop, and a full-service marina. Fifteen Corps of Engineers recreation areas spaced around the lake offer over 1,200 campsites with electricity, restrooms, showers, dump stations, boat launches, and swimming areas. Commercial docks on the lake offer boats, motors, supplies, and guides for hire.
Table Rock Lake offers excellent year round fresh water fishing for warm water species such as spotted bass, white bass, crappie, channel cat, bream, and other panfish. Nationally known as a largemouth bass haven, Table Rock has become a regular stop on the professional fishing tour with the annual Bassmaster Central Invitational Tournament held each spring.
Table Rock Lake offers the greatest combination of recreational opportunity likely to be found anywhere. From world class lakeside hotels to simple mom and pop resorts, from fun in the sun crowds to the quiet coves offering solitary peace and quiet, from counting stars in the night sky to counting stars on Branson’s famous strip, the attractions are abundant. And despite all the hype and development, you can find along the back roads and byways much that recalls what drew people to the Ozarks in the first place: beauty unspoiled and forever inviting.
(Photos courtesy of Kimberling City Area Chamber of Commerce)