Mar 202015

Many thanks to Larry Lewis of Osceola for arranging our presentation to the St. Clair County Historical Society last week. With Larry’s recommendation and the support of Angie Jones, Director of the St. Clair County Library, we were invited to discuss Damming the Osage with the members of the Historical Society.  The town of Osceola and much of St. Clair County were deeply affected by the changes brought on by the construction of Truman Dam and Reservoir. Leland was a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the Environmental Defense Fund (1972) to stop or reduce the size and impact of the dam. It was a position that put him (then) at odds with many people in at least three, maybe four counties. Feelings were strong during the lawsuit. People took sides with strong opinions. We were curious to see what the reaction was to our description of events.

Osceola Book Signing

The gathering was cordial and the audience knowledgeable about the events and issues. Indeed, we learned a lot from them. Personal stories of life on the Osage River pre-dam, paddlefish season,  the Civil War and its aftermath, outlaws and their final resting places, and meteors (that’s another post!) were lively, informative and added an intimate perspective on the costs and consequences of such huge and intrusive projects.

We showed our book video and one titled Osceola’s Lament evoking the after-dam realization that reality doesn’t begin to meet the optimistic promises of the dam-builders and promoters. Sadly, many of the negative consequences predicted by that lawsuit seem to have come to pass. Today, many residents are unenthusiastic about the monstrous and shallow reservoir that destroyed so much of the history and natural resources of the area.

Many thanks to Jim Arnett of Leawood, Kansas for taking the photographs.  (click on any photo to enlarge and start slide show)

May 282014

Consequences (intended or not) and pernicious effects of Truman Dam and Reservoir for residents of the upper Osage River.

We received a fat envelope in the mail a few weeks ago that included an “open letter to the Corps of Engineers” which was published in the St. Clair County Courier in 1997. Written by Lawrence B. Lewis, a retired Episcopal priest, it’s an extended appraisal of the effect of Truman Dam and Reservoir on the residents of St. Clair County. Mr. Lewis’s family immigrated to the upper Osage River in the 1830s.

Mr. Lewis was kind enough to supply this photograph, which shows his father, Bernard Reynolds Lewis (second from right), dangling his feet over the bow of a barge being pushed by a small steamboat called Rambler.  B. R. Lewis served in the U.S. Navy in both World Wars I and II.

osage-navyPhoto by Becraft, “Osage Navy, 1906, Flag Ship Rambler”

We’re assuming that this was an excursion about to get under way from Osceola to Monegaw Springs as we have a photograph (page 68, Damming the Osage) of an almost identical barge pushed by steamboat, captioned “Excursion – Osceola to Monegaw, June 20, ’09”. Becraft was an excellent photographer in Osceola in the early 1900s. We have a number of his sharp focus, technically excellent photographs in the book.

We always assumed that there were people suspicious of the benefits of Truman Dam in Osceola, but during the lawsuit promoters of the project drowned out their objections. Today, the situation is reversed and it’s hard to find a supporter. Truman Dam is widely recognized to have been a disaster for the town.

With his permission, we republish Mr. Lewis’s letter in its entirety below:

An open letter to the Operations Project Manager,
U. S. Army Corps of Engineers,
Rt. 2, Box 29A,
Warsaw MO 65355.

Dear Diane Parks:

In the September 11, 1997, issue of the St. Clair County Courier, you were quoted as inviting public comment about Truman Dam, after visiting here with our Mayor about the “delta” forming from silt accumulating in Truman Lake at Osceola, and attempting to put the best face on the situation that you could. As someone who has recently moved back home to Osceola because it’s where my wife and I want to live out the years of my retirement, Truman Lake mud flats and all, I’m writing to offer background and also proposals for action concerning the dam and lake.

As Catherine D. Johnson stated in her letter in the September 25 Courier, plans for a new flood control dam date from the 1930s. Then shortly after the close of World War II a proposal was made to construct a flood control dam just upstream from Osceola. Eventually, after it was seen that much of the reservoir would be very shallow, a location was determined on at Kaysinger Bluff near Warsaw.

My father, Bernard R. Lewis, who was born in Osceola in 1896 and died here in 1968, had both historical perspective and a keen interest in the Kaysinger Bluff dam proposal. B. R. Lewis had grown up on the Osage River. When in his teens, along with his brother Lawrence, he ran a passenger boat service between Osceola and the popular rustic summer resort of Monegaw Springs.

B. R. Lewis told me that although the Osage had always flooded, really destructive floods began to occur only after water projects upstream in Bates and Vernon count1es turned meandering streams into straight ditches, and wetlands into crop land, shortly before World War I. The channelization enriched farmers there, but sent floodwater slamming down into St. Clair County and locations farther downstream in amounts not experienced before.

My father’s take on it was that if it had not been for the upstream water projects, then runoff due to poor soil conservation practices especially during the Great Depression, Congress and the Corps of Engineers might not have thought about a large flood control dam in our region.

There was considerable enthusiasm in Osceola for the Kaysinger Dam project in the 1960s. People will tell you now that it was because the Corps of Engineers deceived our civic leaders about the kind of lake the dam would make. I don’t buy that. My father, who was himself an Osceola civic leader, knew the elevation above sea level of the dam at Warsaw, looked at a contour map of Osceola, and figured out that, obviously, we would have mud flats. My guess is that if he said that to other civic leaders, they didn’t want to hear it. In their minds they saw a lake like the one at Warsaw now, because that’s what they wanted to see. Visions of tourism dollars danced in their heads, clouding their vision; but I really don’t think the Corps thrust “delta” predictions in front of their faces to bring them back to reality.

Bernard Lewis was not the only one who did not catch the lake fever. A farmer downstream on the Osage filed suit with assistance from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to stop the Corps from obtaining two farms which had been in the family for generations. The EDF was in 1ts early days, still headquartered in a little town on the north shore of Long Island. They wished to stop construction of Kaysinger Dam 1n order to preserve what was left of the free-flowing Osage River downstream from the old Osceola Dam and above the headwaters of the Lake of the Ozarks. The cover of one their newsletters featured a black and white photo of the Osage from a bluff top.

The farmer and other family members were denounced in the pages of the county paper for bringing in “outsiders” to interfere with a worthwhile project, getting in the way of “progress.” My response was to join the Environmental Defense Fund. Now a quarter of a century later I still send yearly dues to thank them for defending a river that was important in the lives of my father, grandfather and the great-grandfather (Dr. Lawrence Lewis) who moved to Osceola in 1839.

EDF, the farmer and his family and other litigants from the region lost in court. I’m not sure if their suit was related to the requirement that the Corps make a study of the cost-benefit ratio of the project. The hydro-electric power generators may have been added to the project to bring the benefits over the costs. Electricity would be sold to power companies in the heartland of America and the project would pay its way.

The generators were added at great expense and soon proved to be partially unusable because of the massive fish kills caused by their pump-back feature. When he learned of this, I recall that Senator John Danforth termed Truman Dam “an environmental “disaster.” I was glad to hear a respected public servant to say what I’d been thinking.

Why was Kaysinger/Truman Dam built? I turn to another honest, bright government official who spoke his conscience. President Dwight Eisenhower warned citizens about the power of the “military-industrial complex” in a speech he gave in the late 1950s. Army Corps of Engineers dams were the source of juicy contracts for the construction industry. I think of Truman Dam as almost a classic “pork barrel” project. I think of those expensive, fish-killing generators getting added onto the project. Oink

But there is more to it. In the 1960s my father wrote to at least one U.S. Senator to tell him (prophetically, I believe) that the purpose of Kaysinger Dam was to create “a settling basin for the Lake of the Ozarks” – at the expense of the loss to St. Clair County of its best bottomland.

Yes, our flood control reservoir does protect the water level of the Lake of the Ozarks and its bi1lions of dollars of lakeshore investment; and we catch the silt. For those reasons I believe that Truman Dam will never be decomissioned, though I enjoy imagining it.

In all fairness, I believe the Corps has changed since the 1960s. Someone pointed out to me that Truman Dam was one of the last they built. From what 1ittle I’ve heard, it sounds as if the Corps is beginning to have more respect for natura1 processes in the management of waters, more willingness to cooperate with nature rather than fight it. Also, I think they realize how upland conservation has begun to help prevent floods.

You can, though, still   expect to find an image problem among people in and around Osceola on the subject of Truman Lake. I respectfully offer two suggestions of things the Corps might do to help. Both of them have several sub-parts.

  1. The Corps needs publicly and officially to offer a sincere apology to the people of Osceola and St. Clair County, and to do it from the national, not the local or regional level. If you think I mean apologizing for building Truman Dam, that’s too simple. Here is my   list of what the Corps should humbly ask pardon for doing:

–Flooding good bottom land on which farmers grew food to feed a hungry world. Tourist dollars at Warsaw mask the loss of America’s real wealth which was the land.

— Forcing people from their homes and farms. I refer you to the works of Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and author, on the value of place; and again to Catherine Johnson’s letter in which she cites the pressure and sometimes deceptive methods by which citizens were displaced. Also, one sometimes hears comments on arbitrary and irregular “take” lines.

–Flooding riparian forest that moderated our climate and served as habitat for an incredible community of biologically diverse animals and plants. Just go to the Sac-Osage roadside park on Highway 82 and look out over miles of country that used to be green and alive. The devastation pierces the heart.

–Using the flood plain here to protect downstream investments after we had already been used by upstream farmers to receive the excess water they caused by destroying the wetlands which had stored water, then released it slowly.

— Flooding springs.

— Disrupting the life cycles of fish and other aquat1c creatures of the rivers and creeks of the many watersheds involved.

— Destroying, in the town of Osceola, whole neighborhoods with tree-shaded streets and interesting late 19th century houses, many businesses and at least one church.

Reducing Osceola’s populat1on by more than a third by destroying those neighborhoods.

–Destroying Osceola’s unique stone train depot that could have been a worthy nomination to the National Register of Historic Places

–Taking away the rai1road the depot served, thereby necessitating a few more pavement-destroying, life-threatening giant transport trucks on Highway 13. We don’t even have a rails-to-trails project to compensate for the loss of the railroad.

–Using explosives violently to obliterate Osceola Dam, the key symbol in the identity of the Best Town by a Damsite.”

Those are some of the things the Corps needs to apologize for.

Others could doubtless add to the list. A good spokesperson would be Vice President Al Gore. As the author of Earth in the Balance, he would need only minimal coaching as to why an apology is needed. Let the Corps bring him to Osceola to deliver its apology on behalf of the United States of America. Be sure to put the apology in writing as well, and see that it is published widely. For that matter, Mr. Gore’s boss has proved himself teachable, and the office of President of the United States deserves respect, whether or not one likes the person currently holding it. There are two or three Cabinet members who could speak knowledgeably. If you can’t get anyone of Cabinet rank or above, bring whatever Army general heads the Corps of Engineers. Persons of lower rank won’t cut it.   (End of Suggestion # 1)

2) Help us do the best with what we have left. That’s what you   were trying to do when you explained to Mayor Booker about the “delta” (or “fen” as Vincent Foley proposes in his letter in the   0ctober 2 Courier. However, I agree with Jim Dill in his September 25 letter when he says weeds are what will grow there. Developing real bio-diversity takes a long time. It could be a lifetime before Osceola’s “delta” would be comparable to the Schell-Osage Wildlife Area, which is already well established.

Be both smart and gentle in dealings with the City of Osceola. For example, we’ve been stuck with “park” land so abundant we’ll never have the resources to maintain it. Maybe some administrators could tithe a day a month to come work on beautification, for example, mowing.

In spite of the loss of Osceola Dam, a fishing mecca, people still come here to fish. Use tax money to bankroll maintenance of Osceola Cove so both the RV Park put-in and the munic1pal boat ramp will remain usable. Do ongoing dredging to allow boats to get out into the channels of what in better times were the Osage River and its tributaries. The “delta” area will silt up but there will always be a channel.

Be responsible, be accountable, use common sense and kindness in dealing with institutions here which will, it seems, forever be under some measure of Corps supervision. Figure that local people may know more about what’s good for them than people in offices somewhere else, though local support for building the dam shows that we’re capable of error.

Bankroll a civic consultation with Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute and a public school consult with down-to­-earth-teach’em-how-it-works David W. Orr, to decrease the likelihood that we locals will again be suckered by Corps experts. Make the non-fiction prose works of Wendell Berry required reading in the Corps, to decrease the temptation to sucker locals in the first place. (End of Suggestion #2)

You don’t have to wait for Suggestion #1 to be accomplished before putting Suggestion #2 into action, though “Cooperative Community Discussion and Planning Meetings” will be better received after the Corps has brought someone from Washington to say it’s sorry for doing violence here, taking away so many things that can never be restored. By the way, if you bring water remediation expert John Todd to instruct me, I’ll be first in line to get in, before or after the apology.

I trust I have provided background for understanding, food for thought and goals for action on the part of the Corps.


Lawrence B. (“Larry”) Lewis

Priest of the Episcopal Church, Diocese of West Missouri,
Osceola, Missouri, October 4, 1997 (St. Francis Day)

Monument to Osceola Dam on Osage River


Nov 052013

For our presentations this month for the Greenway Network at River Soundings and for the Big Muddy Speaker Series in St. Charles, we created this chronology of development on the Osage River.

A Chronology of Development on the Osage River and Tributaries

• 1813 – The Osages and Chouteaus reluctantly agreed to locate the trading post on the Missouri River instead of on the Osage, near their home, acknowledging that the Osage was too shallow for year round transportation.
• 1821 – Harmony Mission attempted a water mill on the Marais des Cygnes (then called the Osage River) but it washed out.
• 19th century – numerous pioneer mills on tributaries throughout the 1800s
• Circa 1840s – Caplinger Mills – successful grist mill on the Sac River. In 1917 this became the first hydroelectric project on the Osage system
• 1895 – Lock & Dam No. 1 construction started because of agitation for river improvement for steamboats. Designed by Hiram Chittenden, built by Army Corps of Engineers.
• 1906 Bates County Ditch, an ill-conceived channelization of the Marais des Cygnes
• Late 1920s – run-of-the-river hydroelectric dam at Osceola built by Ozark Utility Company
• 1931 Bagnell Dam closed. Financed by Union Electric of St. Louis, but started by Walter Cravens and Ralph Street of Kansas City.
• 1932 – Corps of Engineers delivers 308 Report on “Osage River, Mo. And Kans.”

Corps of Engineers Dams completed 1961-1982

• 1961 – POMME DE TERRE, on the Pomme de Terre River – multipurpose pool of 7,820 acres
• 1963 – POMONA, KANSAS, on Dragoon and One Hundred Ten Mile creeks – 4,060 acres
• 1969 – STOCKTON DAM, MISSOURI, on Sac River – 24,900 acres. Stockton is larger than the first two projects and is the only one, besides Truman, to have hydropower generation
• 1975 – MELVERN LAKE, KANSAS, on the Marais des Cygnes – 6,930 acres
• 1979 – TRUMAN DAM, WARSAW MISSOURI on the Osage River – 55,600 acre power pool
• 1982 – HILLSDALE, KANSAS, on Big Bull Creek – 4,580 acres

• ? – Removal of Lock & Dam No. 1. Originally unjustified and an environmental disaster today

More information is available in DAMMING THE OSAGE: The Conflicted Story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. Retail $35, it is available from our website for $25 postage paid.
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Dec 032011
We are interested in things, the common denominator of which is the Osage River – for 35 + years exploring prairies, small towns, the Ozark-prairie border, doing some snake hunting in the middle part. Leland has fished the lower Osage since he was a child.That the river and its denizens had literary potential was not initially obvious. Leland’s father was an engineer for the state of Missouri, inspecting the water systems of small towns. Some days, young Leland would join him on his visits. He’d let the boy out to explore while he made his rounds. At Osceola one day, Leland got a Coke at the café by the low dam on the Osage and wandered down to the river. He found the carcass of a huge catfish, 5 feet long, floating belly up at the base of the dam.  
The next year he read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea when Life magazine ran it as a series. In the end scene tourists look at the carcass of the great marlin and misunderstand the explanation of a local who says ‘sharks’ – meaning that’s what killed the marlin. They take his words to mean that the carcass is a shark. Flashback to the big, dead catfish. The Osage River became a literary river then – associated with words and stories. It was more literary than the clearer, scenic, Ozark rivers, which are art rivers, visual places, with smaller literary components. The Osage River is murky, with a more Shakespearian history, a more robust historical aspect. Clear rivers are rightly called scenic. Nature is more dominant there. Nothing like paddlefish or big blue catfish there. More artistic.We started on The Osage River: paddlefish, prairies, farms & villages, dams & reservoirs, imperial Indians, explorers, slickers, sportsmen, tourists & various violent, litigious & noteworthy events in the history of the Osage River Valley and at about the 500th page realized  it  had gone beyond affordable as we wanted an all color book to sell for less than $100.  It was our own form of cultural geography, an exploration of life along the river through generations, with a vaguely Carl Sandburg-1920’s-1930’s-Americana feel to it. We knew we didn’t want it to resemble William Least Heat Moon’s mooney stuff.We also realized that the real untold story is the machinations behind the building of Lake of the Ozarks and Bagnell Dam and Truman Dam and Reservoir. These are water resource crimes and misdemeanors on the order of Polanski’s Chinatown.  Lots of bitter court battles; two of three of the most important developers of Lake of the Ozarks went to federal prison; Environmental Defense Fund’s 1972 lawsuit against Truman Dam took years, was very contentious and has mysteriously disappeared from public record.

Mug shot of Walter Cravens, President of the Land Bank of Kansas City. Cravens was the prime mover behind the development of Bagnell Dam and Lake of the Ozarks in the mid-1920s. He served time in Leavenworth for financial shenanigans that included his efforts to swap Osage Valley farms for bankrupt, dusty Kansas farms (on which his bank held the paper).
No mug shot available for Louis Egan, high-flying president of Union Electric during the construction of Bagnell Dam, who would up in a federal facility in Florida.
We’ve left in a considerable amount on the imperial Osage Indians whose military power, some think, altered the development history of the central United States. And we’ve kept iconic crumbling small towns that pepper the prairie watershed of western Missouri and eastern Kansas.Previous to the dam-building era (the serious, high dams) of the 1920s, numerous efforts were made to improve steamboat travel by planning a series of locks and dams (only one of which was built).
Lock and Dam #1 about 20 miles up the Osage from its confluence with the Missouri River
More than 150 years of efforts to develop the river industrially that were unrealistic, sometimes criminally motivated, with lots of corruption and sloppy engineering have rarely produced the utopian benefits promised in whatever era.  Dammed as it is, resilient American culture on the lakes, tributaries, and watershed of the Osage is still interesting and Twainian in its vigor, variety.We’re ending up with 304 pages, 600 color illustrations (maps, old and new photographs).  Hope to send it to the printer in late spring; hope to send it to bookstores in fall, 2012; $35 retail – a huge bargain for such a book.