A Tale of Two Boats

From the very beginning, in 1931, Lake of the Ozarks has featured excursion boat rides at the dam. Initially, the boat rides were operated by Union Electric, developers of the lake.

In the early years there were two boats: Tuscumbia and Grand Glaize. Both were built by the Robinson Marine Construction Company of Benton Harbor, Michigan. They were impressive vessels. Each wooden hulled craft was powered by twin inboard 225 horsepower Kermath Sea Wolf engines. Tuscumbia was 45 feet long with a capacity of 36 passengers; Grand Glaize measured 38 feet in length with seating for 28 passengers.

Grand Glaize pictured above, Tuscumbia pictured below. The boats were nearly identical except for length. In latter years their hulls would be painted white. Lettering on the transom reads "U E L & P CO. (Union Electric Light & Power Company).

They were similar in appearance with a relatively narrow beam of perhaps eight feet. Passengers could sit on a row of leather cushions in the forward cabin, or sit aft, under a canvas canopy. There was no public address system, and any attempt by the pilot to describe points of interest was drowned out by the roar of those 678-cubic inch engines. You see, these weren't dinner and dance cruises, but rather wide open, full-bore, hang-onto-your-hat-Nellie sprints at 25 miles per hour—an almost distressing speed for that day. The object was to make big waves, get close to things—such as docks, shoreline, and Bagnell Dam—and in general scare the dickens out of passengers and observers alike.

Tuscumbia having just taken a run at the dam. The T-shaped Union Electric excursion boat dock consists of two steel barges planked over with wooden decks and gunwales.

By the late 1940s both Robinson boats had been sold to Loc-Wood, a concessionaire who operated at the same location near the dam. Loc-Wood was now competing with the nearby Casino Pier, and in 1948 Casino Pier introduced the brand new excursion vessel, Larry Don. The Larry Don was a smooth riding barge-like boat, long and wide, meant for slow cruising. But the thrills weren't over yet. Both Loc-Wood and Casino Pier began featuring speedboat rides that were just that—fast runs in 18- to 24-foot inboards with no pretext at sightseeing whatsoever. It was fun to watch, even from shore. As soon as the boat cleared the dock, the pilot would gun the throttle and the boat practically would jump out of the water and head for the open channel in a plume of spray. A series of tight turns and figure-eights and crisscrossing it's own wake followed—all part of the show. And then, from perhaps a half-mile away, the pilot would steady her up and drive straight for the dam at full throttle. And when it seemed to those onboard that there was no way to avoid a collision with that unyielding mass, the pilot would turn hard to the right and the speeding boat would come about crisply, sending its wake rolling into the concrete wall. Then, with the boat's siren blaring (legal at the time), the pilot would run for the dock with equal dispatch, cut a sharp U-turn, reverse the engine, and the boat would nudge into its slip as gently as grandma on a Sunday drive. I can still hear the squeels of delight from the startled passengers.

With siren blaring and throttle wide open, a Higgins speedboat barrels in for a landing at the Loc-Wood dock. Don't try this today; the Water Patrol would not approve!

The record is unclear as to what became of the Higgins and Hacker Craft speedboats that made those runs, but the demise of Tuscumbia and Grand Glaize are well documented. On a Friday afternoon, May 28, 1954, Grand Glaize was motoring up the lake on a regular excursion run with 15 passengers aboard. A heavy thunderstorm was brewing. About a mile west of Duckhead Point—two and a half miles above the dam—a strong gust of wind hit the vessel. The narrow-beamed, top heavy boat rolled onto its side and capsized. The lake there was half a mile wide and one hundred feet deep. Eight passengers drowned. It was the deadliest single-boat accident on record for Lake of the Ozarks. Grand Glaize was recovered and placed back in operation for a few more years before eventually going into storage in near the dam. Tuscumbia continued to operate until 1965. By that time it was owned by Casino Pier. The company had introduced the sleek Commander in 1962 to compliment its already popular Larry Don. And Loc-Wood was now operating its own large cruising vessel, Tom Sawyer. So the 34-year old Tuscumbia went into storage alongside the ill-fated Grand Glaize. There they both languished until a fire destroyed them in 1970. One of Tuscumbia's engines rolled into the lake, where it still can be seen in low water.

Tuscumbia eases into her slip at the Loc-Wood dock, circa 1950. The white dock is one of the two steel barges that had been serving as a pier since the lake was built. It is today the landing pier for the excursion boat Tom Sawyer and has a second deck added as a restaurant.

© 2005 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.