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  • April 10th, 2013

River of No Return

By Joel M. Vance

It rests today, a rusting hulk moored adjacent to the dam that created its reason for being.  The Larry Don, one time equipment barge that hauled the materials that built Bagnell Dam which, in turn, backed up the Osage River and made Lake of the Ozarks, a place for the Larry Don to float.

Begun in 1929, finished in 1931, the 55,000-acre mid-Missouri lake is the creation of an electric company, today AmerenUE.  After the dam closed and waves began to lap the 1,150 mile shoreline of what had been Missouri’s third largest river (after the Missouri and Mississppi), the Larry Don assumed a clever disguise.  Instead of a squat and ugly old clunker of a watercraft, it transformed into the Lake’s most famous moonlight cruise ship, home to countless romantic trysts and frequent proposals of marriage, including mine—one that resulted in a union nearing 60 years now.  We opted to marry in a Presbyterian church, but many couples linked on the Larry Don.

Heyday of the Larry Don, the 1950s


The Larry Don (named for the son and brother of the original owner) was fairly new as a cruise ship in 1956 when Marty and I, moony-eyed (and I hope not listening to Fats Domino sing “Ain’t That A Shame”) pledged our troth.  The Larry Don began as a love boat in 1948 after a checkered past.  It began life as a landing craft in World War Two, ferrying invasion troops to destinations that didn’t include matrimony.  Over the years it has undergone cosmetic rehabilitation, including addition of superstructure which increased passenger capacity to 200.

The venerable boat is a symbol of what happened to the Osage River, the subject of a new, fascinating and wonderfully-done book by Leland and Crystal Payton of Springfield.  Titled “Damming the Osage,” it is a first-class recital of the river’s history and the story of the two dams that swallowed most of it.

The 304-page book (Lens and Pen Press, 4067 So. Franklin, Springfield 65807 $35) is the ultimate story of the state’s third largest river after the Mississippi and Missouri and is a must for anyone who ever has visited or fished on the Osage, including Lake of the Ozarks, Truman, Stockton and Pomme de Terre lakes, all once part of the Osage or its tributaries.  Web site is http://www.dammingtheosage.com.  Crystal Payton says, “We sell the book for $30 with postage paid. That’s $5 off retail. It’s also available, on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble.”

A rusting hulk today

Today the Osage River for much of its lower length is the creation of dams, hosting both the first and the last of the big dams on Missouri streams.  The  Lake of the Ozarks depends to some extent on how much water comes downstream from Truman Dam and the Osage from Bagnell Dam to its junction with the Missouri is entirely dependent on how much water Bagnell lets it have.  Those releases also have been responsible for some of the largest fish kills in Missouri history, not to mention downstream flooding (a strange anomaly for a flood control dam).

In 2002, just one of a number of fish kills below the two dams, some 43,000 fish died below Bagnell, costing an estimated $3.2 million.  Many of the fish were trophy sized paddlefish, killed by turbulence from the huge power-generating turbines.  More than 4,000 large paddlefish died, essentially battered to death by the dam’s release.

In 1978, released water from Truman Dam created a “supersaturation” problem of nitrogen in the water below the spillway.  Nitrogen bubbles in a fish (or human) create a lethal situation which, in that case, killed a half-million fish, the largest fish kill in Missouri history.

Below Bagnell--fishing and fish kills

In addition to fish kills, the river below the dams has suffered erosion and flooding from heavy releases, and the stretch that now is Truman Lake once was hosted the only known spawning areas for paddlefish.  Subsequently, the Conservation Department developed a method of artificially spawning paddlefish and that has helped mitigate the loss of natural spawning, but it still is no substitute for the real thing.

The Osage once was 500 miles long from its source in Kansas as the combined Marais des Cygnes, Marmaton and Little Osage rivers, but the two lakes have truncated “river” to the roughly 60 miles above Truman Lake and 80 miles below Bagnell Dam.  The stretch from Truman Dam to the headwaters of Lake Ozark is technically river, but really a slow-moving lake.

I worked at the Conservation Department through the controversy surrounding the damming of the Osage beginning in 1964 after years of controversy and it was not a pleasant time.  The Department and the Conservation Commission had to listen to the concerns of those opposed to dams, scenic rivers, rivers in general, lakes as well as from those who stood to profit from dams, scenic rivers and lakes—including Harry Mills, an insurance man from Clinton who also happened to be a Conservation Commissioner.  When the Missouri Chapter of the American Fisheries Society came out in opposition to the dam because it threatened the state’s unique paddlefishery, Mills threatened to fire employees who belonged to the AFS (and who were potential witnesses in suits against the dam).

That included paddlefish biologists Tom Russell and Kim Graham who pioneered research into the Osage paddlefish, the largest population in the country and second only to China’s Yangtze River in the world.  Paddlefish became the centerpiece of the fight.   It wouldn’t be the last time the odd-looking trophy fish would bring attention to the Osage—problems both with Truman and Bagnell dams would kill large numbers of paddlefish in succeeding years, another black mark against the idea of dams.

The root of the problem--the paddlefish

My boss Jim Keefe said that when the occasional Conservation Commissioner came onto the Commission with an agenda (and Mills certainly had one), the other three Commissioners would educate him or her in the tradition of Missouri’s non-partisan and independent agency and the agenda would fade.  It happened with Mills, who also heard from director Carl Noren about the probable consequences of trying to fire Department employees without cause.  He backed off.

The Paytons cover the years of controversy surrounding Truman Dam in great detail, but that sorry episode in the long history of the Osage is merely a facet of the river’s intriguing history, from the first Native American residents to today’s bass boat anglers.  Zebulon Pike traveled up the Osage en route West, as did many other early explorers.  German immigrants wrote home about the beauty of the watershed and encouraged others to come, which they did.

There was an early dam on the Osage at Osceola which created a small lake, but the Truman project swallowed it.  Bagnell Dam, built in 1929, created Lake of the Ozarks, today’s darling for crappie and bass anglers.  The Lake has 1,300 miles of shoreline and 55,000 acres of surface water.  The AmerenUE power generating project couldn’t happen now and didn’t happen then without controversy.  It flooded Ha Ha Tonka lake, a trout fishing area at an historic resort, and spawned a lawsuit.  That was but one of many controversies surrounding the lake and the Paytons again cover that project in great detail.

I’ve fished on the lower Osage below Bagnell Dam and snagged an 80-pound paddlefish above the Lake.  My parents-in-law honeymooned at Ha Ha Tonka before Lake of the Ozarks, and I proposed on a cruise on the Lake.  I’ve duck hunted at the Department’s Schell-Osage area above Truman Lake and I canoed the Pomme de Terre River before a dam on that Osage tributary flooded 7,820 acres.  The Osage River and its alterations thread through my life.

I landed an 80-pounder

Major dam building in Missouri likely is ended.  Meramec Dam was shot down in mid-flight and Pattonville never got airborne.  The proposed Jacks Fork Dam raised such a howl of protest that it died in the political womb.  Even massive floods in 1993, 1995 and 2011 haven’t created the usual outcry for “flood control” projects which, over the years, have created more problems than they solved.

The Paytons’ Osage book is a triumph of research and reporting.  I don’t get gushy about books very often, but this one is a doozie.  It’s fascinating to the history buff, to the lake angler, to anyone who ever fished the remaining Osage, to paddlefish anglers and basically to anyone who enjoys reading and likes to be entertained and informed.



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