BAGNELL DAM – THE ELECTRIC DREAM©
In 1912, Kansas City attorney Ralph W. Street conceived a plan for building a hydro-electric dam on the Osage River near the village of Bagnell in Miller County, Missouri, but it wasn’t until 1924 that the project began. Street teamed up with Walter Cravens, president of the Kansas City Joint Stock Land Bank, to form the Missouri Hydro-Electric Power Company (MHEPC). Their goal was to generate cheap electricity for Kansas City and create a recreational playground where hunting, fishing and boating opportunities would attract tourists.
After nearly five years of work and millions of dollars in expenditures, which produced the infrastructure needed to build the dam but did not produce the actual dam itself, the MHEPC was deeply in debt and the project came to a halt. Debt and the inability to raise more funds forced MHEPC to sell the project. Union Electric Light & Power Company of St. Louis bought the project and with the help of Stone & Webster Engineering began dam construction in August of 1929. Bagnell Dam’s superstructure was complete by the spring of 1931. By October of 1931 its hydro-electric generators were on line producing electricity.
Completion of the Dam created Lake of the Ozarks. At the time of its creation, the reservoir was the largest artificial lake in North America and was ready to fulfill its purposes – to provide additional electrical power for Union Electric’s vast distribution system, power the mining industry in southeast Missouri, and create a recreational playground in the northern Ozarks. Union Electric Light and Power Company, like its Kansas City predecessor, wanted to stimulate tourism for the northern Ozarks as well as generate power.
To accomplish its tourism goals, it created a subsidiary known as the Union Electric Land and Development Company. This entity proceeded to convert a building on top of the bluff overlooking the dam into a luxury hotel called Holiday House. They next created a nice eating establishment at the west end of the Dam known as the Lakeside Casino Restaurant. Adjacent to the restaurant and Dam they installed the Union Electric Bathing Pavilion and Excursion Boat Dock where fast, powerful, mahogany-trimmed boats gave early visitors a thrilling way to see the Lake. All of this was accomplished within about three years.
The first people to enjoy the electricity produced by Bagnell Dam were the people of St. Louis and southeast Missouri, not the little town of Lake Ozark that sprang up adjacent to the incorporated area around the Dam known as Lakeside and owned by Union Electric. While the Lakeside Casino Restaurant had electricity to light its facility and run its appliances, the cafes, gift shops, service stations, hotels and lodges less than half-a-mile away from the Dam were still using small private generators to produce electricity for their individual businesses a year later. It would be several more years before Union Electric would have lines delivering electricity beyond the west end of the Grand Glaize Bridge in Osage Beach.
In 1936 while touting its success at building the Dam and creating Lake of the Ozarks, the Union Electric Magazine said: “Small wonder that this land developed so rapidly into a popular vacation country. A multitude of resorts have sprung into being – hotels, cabins and cottages, to provide pleasant accommodations for the increasing throngs who have found here in Missouri a vacation land of sport and beauty second to none. But that is not all. Having sprung almost fully grown into existence, the Lake of the Ozarks resorts have been able to take advantage of all new and modern developments in providing guests with the last word in convenience and comfort. . .it is natural that these resorts should have utilized electrical conveniences . . . hot and cold running water, modern electric ranges and hot plates . . . In the hotels and lodges, electric cookery provides appetizing food . . . Go to Lake of the Ozarks where electricity has created an electrical wonderland.”
Well, not quite. It depended on how far you were from the Dam and if you happened to be close to U. S. Highway 54. In the article the company printed six photos depicting resorts that had electricity. One of those was Holiday House in Lakeside. The others -- Pla-Port Resort, Jack Frost’s Cabin Camp, Malibu Beach Resort, Osage Beach Tavern and Golden’s Resort were along or near the highway and not far away. Most were in Osage Beach near the Grand Glaize Bridge. Many other resorts, especially those a greater distance away from Highways 54 and 5 down lengthy winding lake roads would wait several decades before electricity from the Dam reached them. In fact, many of them had to finance the building of their own lake roads from the main highway. It wasn’t until the 1950s following the Great Depression and then World War II rationing that the sprawling tourist industry of Lake of the Ozarks began to truly mature, modernize itself, and attract vacationers and tourists in vast numbers.
The electric dreams of Ralph Street and Walter Cravens finally came true but unfortunately they did not live to see it become the recreational playground that it is today.
For more information about the history of Lake of the Ozarks, see the author’s books on Lake history available at: lakeoftheozarksbooks.com
(Illustrations: Bagnell Dam nearing completion, photographer unknown, circa summer 1931. Note dredging equipment in water below powerhouse and lack of development along distant Lake shoreline; Union Electric Bathing Pavilion and Excursion Boat Dock, photographer unknown, circa 1932; Early street scene along the Bagnell Dam Strip, photography by L. L. Cook, Milwaukee, circa 1930s. )