The Myth of the Sunken Townsites

Have you ever seen the TV show Mythbusters? The premise of the program is to test the accuracy of urban legends. I’m more interested in Ozark legends, especially those that concern the lake.

Take, for example, the commonly held assumption that nearly two dozen towns were flooded out of existence when the lake waters filled the valley in 1931. Indeed, the museum at Willmore Lodge — a very fine museum that chronicles the lake’s construction era — lists twenty-two inundated townsites.

That number has always seemed a bit exaggerated. Oh, true, the lake flooded 55,000 acres, and when you add up the length of the main channel plus the tributaries and long coves, you get a body of water that stretches some 180 linear miles. That’s a big lake with plenty of room for twenty-two towns. But this was a remote region in those days. The population was sparse and the only land worth cultivating was in the bottoms along the rivers and large creeks. Were there really over two score towns down there as well?

The only certain way to find out would be to consult the maps of the period. The U.S. Geological Survey has published contour maps since the late 1800s. One such map of the region, from1893, shows very few towns around, and when the contour outlines are compared with modern aerial maps, it becomes obvious that the old map lacks any real accuracy.

The very best maps of the area were drawn during the time that Bagnell Dam was under construction. Before the dam closed off the waters of the Osage River and its tributaries, thereby creating the lake, developer Union Electric had to purchase or obtain easements to every foot of property that would go under. This, of course, required accurate surveys, which were undertaken in 1929-1930. The resulting mapsheets show every road, building site, cemetery, and fence line in the floodplain. And that included all townsites in the affected area.

By consulting those maps, in conjunction with other primary sources, it is possible to locate the twenty-two towns and verify whether or not they were inundated, or merely abandoned for other reasons. The term “town” is used here out of convenience; it is not the best description of these places — most were nothing more than a collection of buildings.

Here, then, is the result of historical myth busting — these are the twenty-two towns (plus one more) said to have gone under, along with a description of their actual fate.

ARNHOLDT’S MILL — No question about it, this late nineteenth century grist mill located on the Big Niangua two miles upstream from today’s Niangua bridge definitely went under the waves, as did a dozen other adjacent houses and outbuildings. The mill itself was on the south bank of the Big Niangua River, which here at mile marker 4.5 crosses from the south bluffs to the north bluffs. All that’s left of the settlement is Arnholdt’s Mill road — present Lake Road 5-78.

BANNISTER — Sometimes spelled with only one “n,” Bannister is at the end of present N Road, north of Mack’s Creek. It was never more than a church and a house or two. Bannister is on a hillside five miles from the lake proper, and was never in any threat of being inundated.

CAPE GALENA — Located on Horseshoe Bend at the mouth of Buck Creek cove, it would appear that Cape Galena (also known as Corcyra) qualifies as a true sunken townsite. But this clearing on the road between Linn Creek and Versailles never consisted of more than one or two structures, and that was in the late nineteenth century. By the time the surveyors came in 1930, Cape Galena was gone — completely abandoned and given over to nature.

COELLEDA — This speck on the map (sometimes spelled Coellada) was a post office from 1888-1929. It was said to have been inundated by the lake, but the facts are otherwise. According to research done in the 1940s, Coelleda was located on Husson Hollow, at Poe Spring. Using present-day references, that puts it three-quarters of a mile east of J Road and about one mile south of the Little Niangua creek— more than a mile from the closest waters of the lake’s Little Niangua arm. The post office probably closed on the supposition that the lake would flood Husson Hollow. It never did.

CRITTENDON — There were two Crittendons. Old Crittenden, located at the mouth of Rainey Creek cove, mile marker 60, consisted of a store and a house. New Crittendon, which boasted a post office and three other buildings in 1930, was farther south, on high ground near present Z Road. The survey mapsheet suggests that Old Crittenden may have been abandoned before the lake filled Rainey Creek cove. It was situated almost exactly at elevation 660, which would be the shoreline of the future lake. Lacking any other information, we will be charitable and credit Old Crittenden as an authentic inundated townsite.

DUROC — This was a townsite platted way back in 1847. The plat appears on the 1930 mapsheets as a neat square, perhaps 700 feet to a side, further divided into twenty rectangular blocks. It is located on the south shore at present mile marker 76.5. Two brothers named Bybee once kept a store there and operated a ferry over the Osage River. It was common for land speculators to plat townsites in the nineteenth century. It was also common for many of those townsites to come to nothing. That was the case with Duroc. Although it once had a post office, by 1930 only one building was standing — a very small house located above the projected shoreline. Since more than half of the platted area was on higher ground, Duroc was definitely not flooded by the lake. Incidentally, the small cove adjacent to it is today known as Duroc Bay.

ERIE — Originally called Oregon, Erie was the county seat of Camden County beginning in 1841. Situated along the south bluffs of the Osage River at present mile marker 29.5, the Erie townsite was subject to frequent flooding from the capricious Osage. In 1855, the good citizens of Camden County, apparently tired of rescuing their legal documents from soggy file cabinets, moved the seat of county government to Linn Creek. This left Erie without a purpose, and by 1930 only a few farm buildings stood on the site. There was no town left to inundate.

HASTAIN — Situated up Deer Creek fully two miles south of the nearest arm of the lake, Hastain was never in danger of being abandoned to the rising waters. Case closed.

LIVELY — This townsite can best be described as up a creek, but not abandoned. It was, and still is, a bend in the road — DD Road — along Knobby Creek in Benton County. It was close, but not threatened by the lake.

NONSUCH — The name says it all. This bump in the road was once a turn-of-the-century post office located on Mineral Hollow along present Lake Road J-120. Flooding from local streams probably brought about its closure. Nonsuch was never inundated by the lake; in fact, nothing was there in 1931 for the lake waters to inundate. A reincarnation of Nonsuch has arisen from the mudflats and exists today as a collection of cottages on the north shore of the Little Niangua at mile marker 8, which is just a few hundred yards east of the original Nonsuch.

OLD GRAVOIS MILLS — The implication here is that the town we now call Gravois Mills is the newer version of a flooded antecedent. But in fact there was no “old” Gravois Mills. The only structures that fell to the lake were a farmhouse, a barn, and a couple of sheds. The rest of Gravois Mills, which in 1930 consisted of two stores, a post office, a school, and some houses, stood high and dry and became the genesis of the town that sits there today.

OLD LINN CREEK — Not to be confused with the present town of Linn Creek, old Linn Creek was very much a real town. In its day it was the county seat of Camden County — Camdenton didn’t exist back then. Old Linn Creek had both business and residential districts, a county courthouse and jail, two car dealerships, cafes, a barber shop, gas stations, and churches — over 100 buildings in all with a population of approximately 400. And it was clearly in the floodplain of the new lake. Every building had to be knocked down, burnt, or moved. The old townsite, now under forty feet of water in Linn Creek cove, stretches for about a mile along the east side of the cove. In gravel road days, it was at the junction of the original alignment of highways 5 and 54.

OSAGE IRON WORKS — Also known as Irontown, this originally was a company town situated along Bollinger Creek at present mile marker 44. An iron smelter was built along the east bluff of the valley and operated for about two years beginning in 1873. As many as 150 people were said to have lived at Irontown in its early days. Though the business failed, a general store operated along the road that ran up the east side of the creek. The 1930 survey indicates some two dozen buildings still standing in the creek valley, making Osage Iron Works one of the true inundated towns. All the buildings were razed, save for the smelter, which still can be seen protruding above the water.

PROCTOR — Though there is today a place known as Proctor on J Road, the original townsite is under water near the north end of Proctor Creek cove, mile marker 55. The old town consisted of about a dozen structures located at the intersection of two roads. Mark this one as a victim of the lake.

PURCELL — This village was said to have been located along the Osage River, three miles below Linn Creek, which would put it along Linn Creek Bend. The 1930 survey indicates nothing but a few scattered farmsteads in that general locale, none of which could be considered a town. It is quite possible that Purcell was wiped out by the flooding Osage long before the lake ever came to be.

PURVIS — A post office, a school, and a smattering of houses and outbuildings made up the village of Purvis, located at present mile marker 39. Several buildings were on high ground, but the schoolhouse was not. Therefore we will mark Purvis as an inundated townsite.

RIVERVIEW — Located on a hilltop at present mile marker 70, Riverview was never threatened by the lake, though its bridge was.

SAGRADA — This one is hard to figure because Sagrada, located on FF Road in Camden County, is fully two miles from the lake. It was the site of a post office in the early 1900s. It may well be that Segrada is confused with the Sagrada suspension bridge, which crossed the Osage River near Riverview. The bridge was dismantled to make way for the lake.

SHAWNEE BEND — This one is a true mystery, for there is no record of any town, village, or hamlet by that name in the lake area. To be sure, the big curve in the lake between Lake Ozark and Osage Beach is called Shawnee Bend, and it was known by that name back in the nineteenth century, but it was not a settlement. If ever there were a populated place once called Shawnee Bend, it was long gone before 1930.

SPRING VALLEY — Located along Spring Valley creek along Lake Road FF-5 about one-and-a-half miles southeast of Knobby, this was the site of a post office from 1888 to 1915. No town ever existed there, and nothing is left to mark it today. It was well off the lake and never inundated.

THORNSBERRY — Situated near the junction of once well-traveled roads, Thornsberry consisted of about a dozen houses and farm buildings at the mouth of present Pearson Bay. Although a few of the buildings were on higher ground and survived the rising lake waters, the road system that led to the town was completely submerged and resulted in the demise of the place. Curiously, Thornsberry did not make the “official” list of inundated towns. All that remains to mark its place is Thornsberry Point, at mile marker 50.

ZEBRA — Generally considered to be the forerunner of Osage Beach, Zebra was both a settlement and a steamboat landing on the Osage River just below the mouth of the Grand Glaize. Although the lake did get a couple of nondescript buildings at the river landing, the inhabited portion of Zebra was well above the projected shoreline on present Lake Road 54-27. This was definitely not an inundated town.

ZORA — Approximately ten buildings, mostly barns and sheds, comprised the compact village of Zora. The settlement was located on the west side of Big Buffalo creek at today’s mile marker 70. The only commercial property listed at Zora in 1930 was a combination post office and country store. The lake waters got about half the buildings, as well as the road leading to them, so Zora can be counted as a place that was eliminated, if not totally inundated, by Lake of the Ozarks.

In summary, only eight townsites were truly inundated when the lake filled in 1931. Four sites were no longer in existence when the waters came, and eleven were at a high enough elevation so as not to be drowned by the lake. So there it is, the myth has been busted.

© 2008 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.