THE LAKE ON TRIAL

In 1929 most of the people whose lives and homes would be uprooted by the creation of Lake of the Ozarks were too poor to oppose the inevitable. The new lake would flood their farms and homes; they would have to move. So they took what money they were offered, and left. But there was one family who had the resources and the connections to fight Union Electric, developer of the massive hydroelectric project, and this family meant to win. They were the Snyders, of Kansas City, owners of the 1,500 acre estate known as Ha Ha Tonka.

Over twenty-five years the Snyder family had spent half a million dollars to complete the Ha Ha Tonka mansion and its infrastructure. At the base of the mansion's great cliff was the two-acre Ha Ha Tonka Lake. Its waters cascaded over a low mill dam and tumbled into the Niangua River, a quarter mile downstream.

In 1930 Union Electric informed the Snyders that waters of the planned Lake of the Ozarks would overtop Ha Ha Tonka Lake and flood an additional four tracts owned by the family. The company would pay $143,000 for the easements. But the Snyders maintained that this was not enough. They brought suit against the power company, asking for $1.3 million in damages.

The trial began in federal district court in Jefferson City on November 30, 1931. Lake of the Ozarks had been in existence for only six months. The Snyders contended that the scenic beauty of their estate had been marred by the new lake. Furthermore, they charged that what had been their private lake was now routinely invaded by boaters and fishermen as a cove of Lake of the Ozarks.

Both sides assembled an impressive staff of lawyers. The Snyders retained former U.S. Senator James A. Reed as chief counsel, assisted by former Congressman Sidney Roach, of Camden County, and John Wilson. Walter Walne, of Houston, Texas, represented Union Electric, together with Edgar Shook, of Kansas City, and Carl Crocker, of Camdenton. Crocker had been the chief negotiator for Union Electric during the land purchasing phase of the lake project.

Over the course of the week-long trial numerous witnesses testified as to the value of the estate. The Snyder attorneys attempted a novel approach by seeking to place monetary value on intrinsic and esthetic beauty. To illustrate the harm that Lake of the Ozarks would cause to this scenic tract, they maintained that a fifteen-foot annual drawdown of the lake would leave an unsightly mud flat where the Snyder’s private lake once had been. A star witness on thier behalf was none other than Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mount Rushmore. Borglum testified that Ha Ha Tonka was one of the most beautiful places he had seen. He placed the value of the property at $1.5 million.

One of the power company’s star witnesses, William Willett, Jr., testified that Ha Ha Tonka actually had increased in value because of the new lake. Willett’s credentials as a real estate expert and former congressman seemed impecible until cross-examined by Mr. Reed. To the surprise of everyone involved, Willett admitted that he had served a prison term in New York on an unspecified charge. Another witness for Union Electric, John Woodruff, of Springfield, also made the assertion that the lake had increased the value of the Snyder estate. But the Snyder’s assistant counsel, John Wilson, discredited Woodruff’s testimony by revealing that Union Electric had paid Woodruff $500 for his opinion.

Final arguments for both sides consumed a day and a half. Attorney Sid Roach succumbed to a heart attack hours after his presentation. James Reed, enfeebled by the flu, rose from his sick bed on the following day to continue the closing arguments for the Snyder family. The power company’s counsel, Walter Walne, argued that the original amount paid by Union Electric represented fair market value, and that the inflated claims of the Snyders were nothing more than “sales talk” brought on by a family who had been trying to realize a profit from their land for more than two decades.

After an evening and morning of deliberation, the jury found in favor of the Snyders to the amount of $350,000 in damages. It was far less than the Snyders had asked, and left the family “not exactly pleased.” For nearly six years the case underwent several costly appeals. In the end the award was reduced to $200,000--all of that and more went toward legal costs. Those expenses, coupled with the financial reverses of the Great Depression and the fire that destroyed the Ha Ha Tonka mansion, effectively reduced the once great Snyder fortune. Their Ha Ha Tonka land is now a state park.



© 2005 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.