[The following originally appeared as the March, 2007, installment of "Lake Stories with Michael Gillespie" in the Lake of the Ozarks Business Journal.]
The next time you boat near the mouth of the Niangua, take a look up Linn Creek Cove at mile marker 31. It's a long cove - about two-and-a-half miles long - and relatively deep all the way. There is a marina at the mouth and the usual smattering of homes and cottages along both shores. Pretty ordinary stuff. But there is nothing ordinary about Linn Creek Cove, for that narrow sheet of water covers the site of the original seat of Camden County and the only complete town to be inundated by the lake.
Oh, sure, you've heard of other town sites that went under when the lake filled back in 1931. Folks often mention Zebra - the original Osage Beach. But Zebra was situated mostly on a ridge above the valley, and only a few of its buildings down along the river were affected by the rising lake waters. Gladstone, up on the Gravois Arm, went to the fishes, and so did Iron Town at mile marker 44. But neither was much more than a small cluster of cabins and farmhouses, with a general store thrown in for respectability. Some people tell of Cape Galena, on Horseshoe Bend. But that hamlet died of natural causes before the twentieth century, and there was nothing left of it when the lake builders claimed the valley.
In fact, of the several settlements that had to be abandoned for the lake - there were less than a dozen of them - the only one that truly could be deemed a town was Linn Creek.
The original settlement was known as Oregon and dates to 1841; the name was changed to Erie a few years later. But Oregon/Erie was located right where Linn Creek emptied into the Osage River and it was prone to flooding. So in 1855 the town uprooted itself and moved half-a-mile up the creek to slightly higher ground. The new town adopted the name of the creek, which in turn was named after the profusion of linden trees that grew along its shore.
The mid 1850s were the days of steamboating; there were scarcely any railroads in Missouri. Steamboats were certainly more comfortable to ride than stage coaches, and steamboats could carry a good deal more freight than a wagon, hence people and goods moved by boat as far as the river would permit. Only then would the journey continue over land. Depending on the depth of the river, Linn Creek and Warsaw generally were considered the head of navigation on the Osage. Both towns became major transshipment points for much of southwestern Missouri.
Considering its relative isolation, Linn Creek prospered. It attracted merchants, outfitters, and freight forwarders. One of the town's more notable citizens was Ohioan Joseph McClurg, a merchant and steamboat owner who would become governor of Missouri shortly after the War Between the States. During the war itself, a hot little skirmish was fought in the very streets of Linn Creek.
By the early 1900s, steamboat traffic had all but ended on the Osage. Fortunately, the automobile kept the town alive, especially when the state highway system was established in the 1920s and Linn Creek's main road became part of state route 5. In Linn Creek it intersected the road to Eldon, which carried the high-toned name of U.S. Highway 54. They were both gravel roads.
In the 1920s there were some twenty-two commercial buildings in Linn Creek, with at least twice that many homes spread out over a mile up the valley. The town featured three churches, a hotel, the county courthouse, a car repair shop, a filling station, a school, a cemetery, a power generating plant, and a flour mill. The population exceeded 200.
There had been some talk, as early as 1912, about the possibility of a hydroelectric project that would turn the Osage valley into a huge lake, but it seemed too preposterous to believe. And yet it did happen. In 1929, surveyors for the power company - Union Electric - confirmed the worst: Linn Creek would be under the waters.
It would be an understatement to say that most residents of Linn Creek did not want to abandon their homes and businesses. In fact, they fought tooth and nail through the courts to stop the project. But the legislature had given the power company the right of eminent domain, and the town was doomed. During the winter of 1930-31 all the buildings were either knocked down or burnt.
Union Electric helped build two new towns to replace the dying Linn Creek. One was New Linn Creek, located some two miles up the creek valley and out of harm's way. It is the Linn Creek that we all know today. The other new town became Camdenton - the replacement county seat.
Linn Creek's cemetery was not affected by the lake waters; it remains today as a melancholy sentinel, perched on a hilltop overlooking the drowned valley. And while the original Highway 5 is covered by the lake for several miles, old Highway 54 is still in use and comes to within a few hundred feet of the former town. It is today's Lake Road Y-30, otherwise known as Grandview Lane.