[The following article originally appeared as the May, 2006, installment of "Lake Stories by Michael Gillespie" in the Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal.]
Imagine that Bagnell Dam were being built today. Do you think it would be named "Bagnell" Dam? Not likely. It would probably get a corporate name, or the name of some political / historical personage. But in 1931, when the dam was completed, our grandparents' generation had no problem with naming the impressive structure after the nearest town, the village of Bagnell.
The town was platted in 1883 by William Bagnell. He was expecting big things. The Jefferson City, Lebanon, and Southwestern railroad was a-building southward. The railroad was expected to bridge the Osage River at Bagnell's townsite and continue on through Lebanon and...glory. (Railroads of the day were always a bit vague about their final terminus.)
Bill Bagnell was ready for them. He owned the property where the line was staked. He granted the railroad its right-of-way, in exchange for a grading contract. In due time the railroad came - and stopped. There would be no bridge over the river, no connection with the great southwest, not even a line to Lebanon. The JCL&SW became a dead-end branch line of the Missouri Pacific - a long spur extending from Jefferson City, through Eldon, to Bagnell. But a spur with a purpose, nonetheless.
It must have occurred to the railroad officials in St. Louis that the town of Bagnell, situated on the banks of the Osage River, would serve the company well as a shipping point for railroad ties. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the forests along the Osage, Niangua, and Grand Glaze Rivers produced the wood for tens of thousands of railroad ties. These ties were formed into rafts and floated downriver to Osage City, near the mouth of the Osage. There, they were loaded onto rail cars and shipped throughout the region. But a river / rail terminus at Bagnell would shorten the journey for the tie rafts by 75 miles and spare the raftsmen as much as three weeks of backbreaking effort. Soon the landing at Bagnell became a hub of activity and the center of a thriving business. As many as 30,000 hardwood ties were stockpiled on the Bagnell wharf at any given time for transshipment by rail. For the next three decades, Bagnell, Missouri, was known as the "tie loading capital of the world."
And although the railroad never ventured beyond the river, a highway did. From the 1880s through the 1930s, Bagnell was the site of a busy ferryboat operation. The old wagon road, a precursor of Highway 54, followed today's V and D roads down through the Osage valley.
Then came the big lake project. Starting as early as 1912, and continuing in fits and spurts through the 1920s, the endeavor finally came to fruition in 1929-31. Although it would mean an end to tie rafting, the influx of dam workers sent the town's economy booming. Incorporating in 1926, Bagnell could boast of a bank, a post office, a telephone system, general stores, a drug store, cafes, a butcher shop, gas stations, and even a movie hall.
Then things changed. Highway 54 was routed over the dam, putting an end to the ferry operation. In 1931, the town virtually was destroyed by three separate fires. In 1934, the school board decided against replacing the high school at Bagnell, and instead built the new School of the Osage across the river in Lake Ozark. In 1943, a tremendous flood wiped out much of Bagnell's rebuilt business district. In 1954, the railroad line was abandoned. It seemed as though, in the midst of a burgeoning tourist industry, Bagnell was destined to fade away.
Today the village of Bagnell still exists, though quite literally off the beaten path. It's collection of a few modest homes runs up a steep hillside that once was a busy commercial district. Though the depot is gone, the old railroad bed can still be seen angling through a tangle of vines and scrub trees. The place is out of site for most tourists, and largely out of mind.
But three miles upstream, around Brockman Bend, the Lake of the Ozarks spreads its deep blue waters past mega-developments undreamed of a few decades ago. It all begins, figuratively and literally, at Bagnell Dam. That's "Bagnell" Dam, mind you. Named for a town that has never quite given up.
Copyright © 2006 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.