The Lake of the Ozarks: Then and now

A past, present and future of Missouri's destination for fun and sun

Summer is here, and when you hear people talk about getting out of town and spending the weekend at “the lake,” almost any Missouri resident will immediately know exactly where they’re talking about. Lake of the Ozarks is the destination that hosted many family excursions as well as college debaucheries, and I too have many fond memories from the lake over the years. To this day, I have continued the tradition of making at least one trip out to the Lake every summer just to get out of town for a little rest and relaxation on the lakeside.

I’m sure many others have their own memories of summers past, or perhaps you’re young enough to forge new ones in the hot days ahead. While our mind is on water sports and suntans, it’s easy to forget that Lake Ozarks has a pretty damned interesting history and the most fascinating part isn’t what lies above the water…but below.

The story of Old Linn Creek

If you’ve read about my travels across the country, I came across the site of the former city of Jacksonville in California that was flooded out during the 70s to make way for a new dam. Oddly enough, this mirrors the story of how the Lake of the Ozarks came to be in the decades prior.

A number of attempts to harness the potential of the Osage River were explored since the 1800s, but the river was notoriously hard to traverse and ideas such as lock-and-dams were just not financially feasible.

As early as 1912, a radical idea was batted around in the mind of a Kansas City lawyer to install a hydroelectric plant on the Osage River. Partnering with a fellow Kansas City angel banker on the venture, they acquired the permits necessary to proceed with the project but it was for naught as banking and financial controversies plagued the principal players and the project ran out of steam. Just as well, since the very notion of a lawyer and banker flooding out an entire valley seemed completely ridiculous.

The threat became real when Union Electric (now Ameren) entered the picture. Through a series of deals and circumstances, UE ultimately acquired the project and construction of Bagnell Dam would begin in the summer of 1929. Despite the Great Depression happening shortly thereafter, it was the largest ongoing construction project in the country that had employed as many as 20,000 workers at a time.

In the valley lied little settlements here and there, but one area of significance was the town of Old Linn Creek, which was the county seat of Camden County at the time. Not the same Linn Creek of today located off Highway 54, Old Linn Creek was it’s predecessor that existed further down in the valley prior to the Bagnell Dam construction. Unfortunately for them, the town’s location would put them underwater once the valley was flooded.

Old Linn Creek Memorial Cemetery

As you’d imagine, the lake plan was highly controversial (“slimey, sprawling all-devouring octopus,” wrote publisher J.W. Vincent of the Linn Creek Reveille) and residents fought to legally halt the project. But Union Electric was ultimately granted eminent domain and on New Years Day of 1931, UE took full possession of all property in the town and dismantled the last buildings to make way for progress.

Settlements were paid to the citizens of Old Linn Creek and entire houses were moved up the valley into the area known as (New) Linn Creek today, with others relocating to what would become the city of Camdenton. Only one remnant of Old Linn Creek remains intact above the lake level to this day, and that is Old Linn Creek Cemetery where many former residents are now interred.

Though most of the original Linn Creek residents have long passed, their accounts live on through a documentary called Whispering Waters: Tales of Old Linn Creekand there is a wealth of information on the former town located in the Camden County Museum.

Lake Ozarks becomes a destination area

With the lands underwater and jobs disappearing due to the dam’s completion, locals who had not fled had to put their faith in a new trade: tourism. The Depression and World War II would hinder this concept in the following decades, but the leisure industry surged in the post-war 1950s where jobs were plentiful, gas was cheap and every family had 2.5 kids. Obviously this was the ideal scenario for the Lake Ozarks area.

Over the following decades, Lake Ozarks became what you know it as today. I recall the area along Highway 54 filled with various roadside attractions, souvenir shops and amusement park rides. It was hard to miss the large sign advertising Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry on the way in, and no trip to the Lake was complete without visiting Bagnell Dam Strip. The Strip is a mile-long stretch that was full of quirky novelty shops and amusement attractions like Dogpatch, Rebel Arcade, Two-Bit Town, the Sky Ferry and others. It was common to see large groups of people hanging out and cruising up and down the Strip most weekends, and it was fun to goof off with friends, walk around or simply girl-watch.

Slides: Bagnell Dam Strip (circa 2002)

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For those looking for a little debauchery on the water, there is the infamous Party Cove that locates itself south of the Grand Glaize Bridge in Anderson Hollow Cove, essentially Missouri’s version of spring break during holiday weekends. Needless to say, Party Cove has had it’s share of controversies over the years.

Although I’ve heard accounts that the Lake’s heyday was declining after the 1970s and wasn’t what it once was, I’d say that things still seemed bustling to me up through the 90s. But as the millennium turned over, so too would the Lake area.

Decline during the 2000s

Progress and the changing times haves simultaneously taken away many staples of our lives while adding new ones. Whether the Lake went through a period of growth or decline during the 2000s depends on your point of view.

Even before the 2000s, chain stores were moving into the area and replacing what had previously been a quiet back area. The big boxes made their move; in the last fifteen years alone all the typical staples invaded the area like Target, Kohls, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dierbergs, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Lowes, Home Depot and Menards (the home centers all within a mere a two and a half miles from one another) and others. Arguably none of those businesses would have bothered if there wasn’t growth potential at the Lake.

But many of the attractions that originally defined the Lake area was disappearing or underwent a state of decline, with a number of amusements seen along Highway 54 and the Strip disappearing or in serious dilapidation. Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry ceased operation in 2005 and while the vacated building and iconic sign remained frozen in place for a number of years, sadly an extension cord fire burned down the inside of the building a few years ago.

Slides: The decline

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While the Bagnell Dam Strip continued to remain viable, it had seemingly fell out of favor with crowds and visits during this period only had me spotting only small pockets of families and tourists here and there, reminding me much of the decline of shopping malls in recent times. Many of the attractions along the roadside like ski-ball and bumper cars were closed and torn down, leaving large and obvious gaps amongst the route.

Both Two-Bit Town and Rebel Arcade closed down a few years ago and remained frozen in place as a perpetual eyesore with vegetation taking over, though the brave and bold could disregard trespassing signs and easily wander the abandoned attractions and remnants. More recently, a goofy situation involving a surveying error caused the parking spaces in front of the property to be subsequently roped off, costing the area valuable parking space and frustrating visitors.

The worst state was nearest to the Dam around the Casino Pier area. The Sky Ferry shut down during the early 2000’s (unsurprising in an era of liabilities and lawsuits) and the lines was completely dismantled some years later. The Continental Motel – previously the Campbell Lake House – closed after the 1990s and fell into a major state of disrepair, adding another eyesore to the Strip and further highlighting the decline of the area. Boats like the Captain Larry Don and Tom Sawyer were sunk or benched, and an unauthorized climb up the rickety Tom Sawyer observation tower in it’s current state once was enough for me.

While the waters offered the same activities and fun as it always had, the area amusements and attractions were becoming relics of the past.

The resurrection of Lake Ozarks

The people and private business owners of Lake Ozarks are a determined bunch, and there have been major steps taken to rejuvenate the area, not only reviving the past but updating the lake for a whole new generation.

A new portion of Highway 54 was constructed that has dramatically reduced visitor congestion along Business 54 (a major problem in the past), and it’s now very simple to reach any place along the route in a matter of minutes. Though the first part of Business 54 (Osage Beach Parkway) seems as lively as ever, the area past the Grand Glaize Bridge (Old 54, heading toward Camdenton) seems less traveled these days and I wonder if it is headed towards a period of decline as a result.

The iconic Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry sign still remains, but Sears took over the old Lee Mace’s Opry location and renovated it into a retail store with a nice little museum dedicated to the Opry located in the back. There is now Main Street Music Hall located further down Old 54 that could be considered a spiritual successor to the former opry and has featured some of it’s past performers.

The Bagnell Dam Strip is undergoing a refresh as well. Going on for almost a decade now, an event called Hot Summer Nights is held once a month during the summer which primarily involves a car show parked down the center of the Strip along with live music and entertainment. The nice thing about these events is that the combination of crowds, tailgating and cars cruising about makes the Strip feel just like it did in the old days.

Slides: Rebuilding the Lake area

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Though things like the roadside Ski Ball and Rebel Arcade are gone, most of those classic pleasures can still be found in the Dogpatch Arcade as the owner had bought out much of Rebel Arcade’s inventory. The arcade can get busy during major weekends and events, and that’s a hell of a sight to see in 2017.

The owners of Summer USA have opened a number of stores along the Strip including an ice cream parlor and sandals store, and one of the interesting additions is Lake Ozarks Live, an outdoor dance party of sorts aimed towards kids and tweens.

Two-Bit Town remains an eyesore, however the property was finally purchased by Iguana and was even briefly reopened for a holiday event last Christmas with a long-term plan to revitalize the property (though details are scant at this time). Iguana also restored the classic indian muffler man sculpture which is now back at it’s former spot and also struck a deal with the city to finally reopen the parking spaces in front of the property.

The rickety old Tom Sawyer Boat that was washed on shore has been removed and a new Celebration II Cruise has replaced it. The Continental Motel was FINALLY renovated into what is now Easy Street Desert and Wine Bar: the outside retains some of the old look of the former hotel but the inside is a dramatic overhaul. The food and drinks are good and the place is a perfect alternative to the dives, pubs and clubs along the Strip.

The trendy restaurants and businesses coming in gives The Strip more of a SodoSopa vibe in stark contrast to the old-timey novelties and attractions that originally defined the area, but I think a balanced mix of the old and new is absolutely necessary to make the Strip viable again.

Suggestions

For midwesterners within driving distance seeking a little summer fun, obviously the biggest attraction is hitting the water and there is no shortage of lake activities from boating to wave runners.

Though it doesn’t appear to have the popularity it once did, wild and crazy people may want to seek out Party Cove that is still going to this day. (Aside from the changing times, issues like camera phones, drones, bad press from E. coli and a few deaths probably haven’t helped the cove’s popularity in recent years.) I wouldn’t expect anything from Party Cove other than the holiday weekends.

For you landlubbers, there are many landmark places to visit and photograph around the area like Bridal Cave and Ha Ha Tonka State Park where the remains of a stone mansion lies. As I said before, the Camden County Museum has a lot of information on the history of the Lake but unfortunately they are only open during the weekdays.

Bagnell Dam itself is impressive to behold when all the flood gates are opened, and there is an overlook further above that gives you a high view of the lake and dam. On the Bagnell Dam Strip, aside from everything I mentioned above there are numerous relics of the past to be found. If you can, I would try and time a visit to the Ozarks with the holidays or major events (like Hot Summer Nights) as that is when the Strip is at it’s liveliest.

The Lake isn’t lacking for food and drink places on the water, with one of my favorites being Captain Ron’s located off Sunrise Beach. For other events and information about what is going on at the Lake, you can check out LakeGetOut.com.

Patrick Shannon

About Patrick Shannon

A creative professional, photographer and design+technology advocate based in St. Louis, I have worked with a number of businesses, agencies and clients on design, production and marketing for everyday brands. In my spare time, I enjoy woodworking and am still attempting to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime out of wood.