The Union Electric Company knew going in that when it dammed the Osage River, it would flood 86 square miles in four counties, and wipe out five towns. So, the company bought the land the towns were on and moved the towns to higher ground — houses, stores, churches, cemeteries, everything. It also cleared 30,000 acres of trees to make way for what was to be the Lake of the Ozarks — at the time, the largest man-made lake in the world. That was during the early years of the Great Depression — 1929 and ’30. The dam took 18 months to build, and was the major construction project in our country at that time. It brought some 20,500 eager workers from all over the country to central Missouri. Pay was as low as 35 cents an hour, but in those days, $5 worth of groceries would fill your car — if you had one.
It was a mammoth project. One million cubic yards of dirt and rock were moved, most by hand. There was enough concrete poured to build a two-lane highway from St. Louis to Topeka — a distance of 300 miles. Bagnell Dam is the largest — and the last — major dam in the United States to be built with private money. It is a half-mile long, rising 148 feet from bedrock. That’s comparable to a building 12 stories high and seven blocks long. The dam builders may have figured — remember this was 1930 — that they were creating a lake that would be rural and remote and, for the most part, would stay that way. After all, Kansas City is 150 miles away and St. Louis is even farther, traveling then in cars and on roads that were vintage 1920s. But with 1,150 miles of buildable shoreline (more miles than the coastline of California), this 54,000-acre lake was not to stay remote for long.
So much for history: Let’s jump to now, and my first visit to Lake of the Ozarks. Approaching from the south on U.S. Highway 54, I pulled off to visit Ha Ha Tonka State Park. I suppose most people come here to see the ruins of an early-1900s castle and estate — the shattered remnants of one man’s dream. But what I found fascinating were the remnants of a colossal cavern system — sinkholes, caves, large springs and natural bridges. Geologists call it “karst” topography — an area of irregular limestone where erosion has taken place. Missouri has 5,400 mapped caves. One of the oldest, called Bridal Cave, is 10 miles west of Ha Ha Tonka. Some 46 million years old, it is said to be the site of an Indian wedding ceremony.
Of course, private enterprise and young love have picked up on that — more than 1,900 couples have been married in its stalactite-adorned chapel. Two wedding packages are offered at Bridal Cave; both include a free bottle of sparkling cider and a lifetime pass to the cave. I continued north up U.S. 54, through Camdenton, across the Grand Glaize Bridge, into Osage Beach. Now an arm of the lake, Grand Glaize was once a river that fed into the Osage. Why was I surprised to see along here a 61-acre outlet mall, an enormous HyVee grocery store, a new Home Depot and, not one, but three, Super Wal-Marts? I don’t know what I was expecting, but Lake of the Ozarks is not just for tourists; it’s home to some 80,000 people. Still, the business here is definitely tourism.
With 17 golf courses, a spectacular lake surrounded by 250 lodging facilities and 100 marinas, it is a premier vacation and meeting destination for all of mid-America. I was told that the Wal-Mart in Osage Beach sells more beer than any other Wal-Mart Superstore, of which there are 1,713 in the United States. Boats, beer and fun seem to go together, and people do come here to have fun. The epitome of this, perhaps, is “party cove,” a place where the hardcore party-boaters head for on weekends. There they throw out anchors, tie their boats together and don’t untie them until late Sunday. Clothes are optional and anything goes. It is not a place or an activity you will find in travel brochures. I pulled into the resort at Port Arrowhead, as I was to meet a family here.
They travel in a motorhome and tow a boat. Every summer they come here, move into a room at the resort, dogs and all. After a few of days of boating, they go off for a couple weeks of motorhoming, leaving the boat here. They never seem to run out of shows to see in Branson, which is 125 miles south. The next day I took a lake tour onboard a 750-foot boat from Tropic Island Cruises. Jerry Boak is the skipper, and his wife, Deborah, runs the drink bar on board. They do this in the summer, a couple hours every day. Their winters are spent in Florida in their Dolphin motorhome.
They describe themselves as corporate dropouts. “I had a good career as an engineer with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis,” Jerry said. “But we got hooked on the RV lifestyle.” Standing at the helm, steering a course keeping us about 150 feet off shore, Jerry explained that Lake of the Ozarks is a private lake, not operated by the Corps of Engineers, as is the case with other lakes in the state. “We can do things here like build docks, seawalls and marinas and develop waterfront property without the restrictions you have elsewhere,” Jerry said. “People take pride in their property and in keeping the lake as unspoiled as possible. I don’t know of any place like it.”
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]