How Missouri made the Lake of the Ozarks: Crimes, sunken homes and dreams of a Midwest oasis
With more shoreline than the coast of California, the Lake of the Ozarks in mid-central Missouri is a popular tourist destination for land-locked Midwesterners. For decades, it's provided financial opportunities for locals and outside interests alike — but at what cost? The story of how this man-made body of water came to be involves corruption, jail time, communities torn apart, and displaced families.
The Lake of the Ozarks stretches across multiple counties within the Ozark Mountains, resembling a serpent with tentacles and stretching 92 miles from end to end.
Its nearly 1,150 miles of shoreline attract millions of tourists each year.
“It’s the closest you can get to being on the ocean in the Midwest, in my opinion,” said visitor Jen Spray.
For some, it’s a natural oasis, offering water activities like fishing, swimming and parasailing. For others, it’s a party destination and bustling entertainment hub, filled with nightclubs and a new multi-million family-resort and entertainment district set to open next year.
The lake has seen a lot of transformations in its not-quite 100-year history.
The Lake of the Ozarks didn’t become what it is today naturally. Like the Missouri River — redirected from its natural flow for flood control and navigation — or the many man-made lakes that irrigate, generate power and supply water to surrounding communities, the Lake of the Ozarks was built by design.
Unlike the other, mostly federally-funded projects, though, the Lake of the Ozarks is rooted in private interests. It was the brainchild of two Kansas City businessmen — one of whom ended up in prison for taking advantage of unsuspecting people.
The making of the lake
Before the lake was created, the landscape of Benton, Camden, Morgan, and Miller counties looked like rolling hills and river bottoms. It was home to mostly people of German, Scotch-Irish and Indigenous descent— homesteaders and squatters who made a living hunting and farming in the area for generations.
The communities in the early 1900s were small, and functioned on their own economies. They were isolated from the bigger changes happening elsewhere in the state.
Those early days of the Ozarks are recounted in the book "A People's History of the Lake of the Ozarks" by Kent Van Landuyt and Dan William Peek. Both men are "true locals," a term for people whose family roots in the area predate the lake.
Peek passed away in 2019, but he and Van Landuyt spoke with KCUR’s Central Standard a year earlier.
In that interview, Peek explained that Kansas City real estate developer and lawyer Ralph Street had been dreaming of this particular lake concept as early as 1912, and spent a lot of time in the area surveying the land.
“He had had this idea of building a dam on the Osage River and creating this lake,” said Peek.
Street connected with Walter P. Cravens, the president of the Kansas City Joint Stock Land Bank, who controlled foreclosed properties in Kansas and Missouri.
“The plan was to trade,” said Peek. “‘We’ll go down to the Ozarks. We’ll tell these people in the Ozarks that we’ll give them land in Kansas or Missouri that’s actually farmable, and that way they won’t mind giving us the property they have.’”
Street and Cravens created the Missouri Hydro-Electric Power Company and a cover corporation called the Farmers Fund Inc. to deal with the transfer of bonds and mortgages.
But Peek said their plan had some miscalculations — for one, it wasn’t exactly legal.
Some people did take them up on the offers to relocate. Many were confused by the deal and didn’t want to go, or didn’t like what was on offer.
The “75th Anniversary of the Lake of the Ozarks Bagnell Dam Documentary”captured the confusion and trauma of some former residents of Old Linn Creek, one of the larger displaced towns. A popular folktale claims you can still sometimes hear the submerged town’s old church bell ring.
“Life kind of fell apart for us,” a former resident recalled.
Misappropriation of funds related to the lake project landed Walter P. Cravens in prison for fraud in 1933. But the lake plans were already in motion. Ralph Street started working with Union Electric Company out of St. Louis, and by 1929, they were ready to begin construction on the dam.
“They picked the perfect spot to do it because it was the right place on the river, and the local population was not organized,” said Peek. “There was no political or civic organization that would enable to them to rise up and say, ‘Hey don’t, we’re not going to allow this to happen.’”
To transform the landscape into a lake bed with turbines, Union Electric had to remove and clear structures. They burnt down homes, cut down trees and moved cemeteries.
The construction of Bagnell Dam ushered in an era of change, as towns including Old Linn Creek, Irontown, and Gladstone were cleared and submerged, and the new towns of Linn Creek and Camdenton were created.
No dam depression
Construction of the dam started in 1929, carried out by many of the people it displaced. New structures and accommodations sprung up for the many people coming in to work. The area was already near crucial railroad lines, but a new line was added to move the dam materials.
What was once a rural, isolated, small population started to shift and become more urban.
While the rest of the country struggled after the 1929 stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, Union Electric employed 4,000 people on any given day — more than 20,000 people over the course of the project.
People worked around the clock to build the dam, completing it in just two years.
In February 1931, the lake began to fill, and continued until it officially opened for traffic on May 30, 1931.
According to a Kansas City Star article, visitors flocked to the nearby town of Eldon to see the dam when it opened — taking residents by surprise. Hotels filled up in surrounding towns, and articles bragged of hundreds of miles of newly formed shoreline filled with scenic beauty and islands to be discovered, ideal for summer homes. They also cautioned that the upper end was still very dangerous to navigate by boat and warned of floating logs.
For many who had been there all along, it was shocking to see the area transform so dramatically so quickly.
In the lake’s early years, the Depression and World War II delayed extensive shoreline development. Union Electric, who owned the properties, found few buyers.
But there were some notable early occupants, like the mob-run Ozark Pistol Club, a private club of booze, music, and wild parties. Jazz saxophonist and bandleader Charlie Parker was said to entertain white crowds at Musser’s Ozark Tavern jazz club in Eldon, Missouri, another early local business, even though Eldon was a sundown town where it was illegal for African Americans to be out at night.
Another infamous spot was Egan Lodge, still standing today as the Willmore Lodge. It was a massive clubhouse owned by Louis E. Egan, an executive at the company that built the dam, Union Electric. Egan provided private airplanes to shuttle executives and politicians back and forth.
He also later ended up in jail for having a fund to bribe politicians.
The founding lake elites’ extravagant behavior added to a sense of class division and tension in those early years.
Eventually, though, even some of the true locals who didn’t get the best deal at first started to see a growing opportunity in this new body of water.
Champions of the lake to the present
The 1930s and 1940s brought new regulations to the United States, with the passage of the New Deal. It became illegal for public utility companies to engage in outside business,so most of the lake shoreline, which had been owned by Union Electric, was sold to a St. Louis real estate developer in 1945.
But it was two true locals, Lee Mace and his wife Joyce Mace, who created Lee Mace’s Ozark Opryin 1953 that brought on one of the biggest changes. The Opry was a hillbilly music show that became a cultural icon. It influenced other entrepreneurs as far out as Branson, Missouri, and outside perceptions of the region for decades.
“They were the first ones locally to recognize that the lake could be a commercial fulcrum, you know, that they could actually profit from figuring out what people wanted to do,” said Peek.
The Maces are credited with starting thefirst live nightly show in America.
As more and more businesses and resorts popped up, so did other forms of entertainment — and it all brought in more and more outsiders.
“That’s when you start to see the growth start,” said Van Landuyt. “They were down there for a week, so they start looking for restaurants, and maybe a grocery store, and maybe a place to buy souvenirs. And then all of a sudden, you know, they were down there and they got a scratch on their arm and they needed stitches or something, well they need medical care.”
The construction of new roadways made it easier to get to the lake, but also created more traffic. In the years since it was constructed, resorts have opened and closed, and old cabins have been renovated and torn down.
The lake today
Lee Mace’s Ozark Opry isn’t around anymore. Lee Mace, who loved to fly, died in a plane crash in 1985.
His wife Joyce continued the Opry tradition for decades after his death, but eventually it had to close its doors. The old auditorium sat empty until it caught fire in 2013.
Even the newer crop of lake-goers have been shocked by how much the lake changes over time. Belinda Bell, who grew up in the area but spent some time away as a missionary, said coming home after 10 years felt shocking.
“The area had changed so dramatically there are places that are completely gone,” she said. “It’s just not recognizable.”
For vacation partiers like Nate Lucas, the changes comes with promise of even more possibilities.
“The reality is that a lot of rich people have come down here and they’ve enjoyed the Ozarks. But to me, that’s capitalism, right? I think that that’s a good thing,” said Lucas. “Because, guess what? A rising tide lifts all ships.”
Joy Peek — wife of the late Dan William Peek — says her family has been living in the area for generations. To her, all of the recent changes feel more complicated.
“It just truly has become urban from what used to be rural hillbilly area,” she said. “I like the quiet…Of course I guess you also look at it, if you’re a local that owns a business, you look forward to those people coming. You want them to come.”
It’s hard to say what the lake and surrounding areas will look like in another 100 years. New developments likeOasis at Lakeport, a multi-million dollar resort set to open in 2024, are stirring up some of the same tensions prevalent during the lake’s origin.
True locals, long-time lake-goers with vacation properties, and weekend warriors hitting the clubs — they all have different ideas of who the lake belongs to, and what it’s for.
“When they were building the Lake of the Ozarks they wouldn’t have had a clue that they were causing this change,” says Van Landuyt. “Not that it’s good or bad, but it’s gonna change.”
This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported, produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan with help from interns Noah Zahn and Gabriella Lacey and editing by Madeline Fox and Mackenzie Martin.