It has been 60 years since the completion of Table Rock Dam changed the landscape of the Ozarks. The dam has helped control flooding and had a major influence on the tourism industry.
It was at 2:45 p.m. on June 14, 1959 when the switch was thrown on the dam’s power facility, according to an Army Corp of Engineers official in a 2009 Branson Tri-Lakes News story. That completed decades of planning and years of construction.
The construction of the dam began long before the first cement was poured; in fact, the plans for the dam, and many other dams in the White River Valley and other areas, became an interest for many as early as 1890 when flooding and hydroelectric power became an issue on everyone’s minds, according to information available at the Dewey Short Visitor Center. While other dams in the area were approved by congress as early as 1913, according to information at the visitor center, plans for Table Rock Dam and other local dams were not approved until many decades later.
In fact, information regarding the construction of the dam states that it was not until 1941 that plans for six more dams along the White River were approved by congress. However, the beginning of construction was postponed due to World War II.
Much of the initiative in getting approval for construction of Table Rock Dam is given to Dewey Short, who is credited with “bulldogging” the dam into construction, according to information at the visitor center. As a Missouri native, Short was no stranger to the devastation that major flooding had caused the Ozarks and the detrimental effects on families and businesses who found themselves in the flood’s path, the information states. Once elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, Short spent 20 years serving as a representative of Missouri’s 7th District, fighting for the construction of the Table Rock Dam, according to the visitor center.
“If I did not think it was a worthy project, I certainly would not have spent all the time and energy that I have on it for 20 years,” Short once said.
Once the plans for the dam were approved, the work of gaining local approval began. Though many people wanted the dam in place; many would be affected directly. From needing local entrepreneurs such as Jim Owen to vocalize their support for the dam to needing local residents to sell their land; workers had their work cut out for them.
According to Edd Akers, mayor of Branson, men like his father were set with the task of convincing residents who owned land in the path of what would be Table Rock Lake to sell their land.
Akers outlined that, while the people were in favor of the dam and knew it would be built no matter what, many locals were concerned with where they would go.
“There’s lots of heroes, in my mind, that helped get Table Rock Dam here” Akers said.
Akers remembered his time with his father riding around in an old Army jeep and speaking with landowners who needed to sell their properties. He recalled, “We got stuck one day [in a creek] and it took us about 6 hours to get out.”
“What we would do – what Dad would do – first of all he took all of his clothes off, he was buck naked, and got down in this very cold spring water. And if I remember correctly, this was early spring, so the water was pretty cold. And he would jack up the jeep enough where he could put rocks underneath the tires,” he said. “Then he would clean the water off the engine and the muffler and get it all cleaned out. And then he’d start it up and he would try to gun it as much as he could toward solid land.
“And that took six hours to get out of the creek because we were up to the hood, and so it was quite an adventure. All we had to eat was fig newtons, and to this day, I don’t like fig newtons.”
The prospect of the dam brought new interest to the Ozarks, including then-Senator Harry Truman. According to Akers, as one of the main backers of the dam, Truman had a vested interest in its planning and construction.
Toward the end of his days as senator, Truman would come visit the area to see its progress and build relationships with locals.
Three decades of waiting and a lot of planning later, Ozarkians welcomed the beginning of Table Rock Dam construction in 1951.
Akers spoke of the many labor workers and supervisors that came to the area; that moved their families to Branson and surrounding communities. Many of the children, Akers said, spent much of their youth in the Ozarks while their fathers worked on the dam. These youngsters, while considering themselves locals as the years went by, came to be known as “the dam kids.” Akers described his close friendship with one such kid and said that even after moving away in his junior year of high school considered himself an Ozarkian and ended up moving back to the area later in life.
The construction of the dam, while bringing in many laborers, also provided jobs for locals. For the nearly two decades that was the planning and construction of Table Rock Dam, the process created jobs at every stage that were filled by locals.
Akers spoke of how his father worked as a government appraiser long before the first rock was blasted. Akers also had two brothers who worked on the dam during the construction phase.
By 1954, the construction of the dam was in full swing. According to information provided by the visitor center, the base of the dam is built along two bluffs that were blasted into a stair step formation to all for the land to sustain the complex.
Once preparations for the structure were complete, the first concrete was poured on May 24, 1955 and the rest of the construction quickly followed. The dam was built in 30 monoliths to create one seamless structure, the information stated.
Opportunities to see the construction progress of the dam allowed school aged kids who, including Akers himself, were able to visit the dam during its construction.
“Our school classes,” Akers described, “once in a while, would go out and be able to look. There was an observation tower, down below the dam now, that you could look up. It sat above the fish hatchery, and you could look up and watch them pouring the dam.”
While that construction of Table Rock Dam meant adapting for those who sold their land to make way for the lake, it also meant adapting as a community.
For many years, entrepreneurs like Jim Owen made a living off the natural resources of the Ozarks. Owen ran a business of floating the White River, according to Akers.
People from all over the world hired Owen to guide them down the river.
“Jim Owen saying ‘I am for the dam’ was a big sacrifice because all these people, this business he had built up, all these people coming, no longer could he have the float trip because people don’t want to drop 300 feet, you know, over a dam.”
Another major change would be to Rockaway Beach, a community that thrived in the warmer months because of the White River, which offered a great place for visitors to participate in water activities.
Akers said that once the dam was completed, the warm waters that surrounded Rockaway Beach turned cold and became a much better place to catch trout than to take a swim.
Upon completion of the dam, Branson saw many of the same changes surrounding areas faced. No longer would people flock to the water, as it no longer promised warm temperatures perfect for water activities. Instead, many families, both old and new to the area, saw opportunities to expand on what Branson could offer.
Akers spoke of the Baldknobbers show which began shortly after the completion of the dam and of the Presley and Herschend families who all contributed to the economy of Branson in their own ways. Akers said, the Presley family began performing live music and the Herschend family opened Silver Dollar City shortly after the completion of the dam.
“Table Rock Dam was a special event in our country” Akers said.
In the 60 years since the completion of the dam, the economic and physical landscape has drastically changed.
According to the visitor center, the dam, which stands at 252 feet tall and 6,423 feet long, has prevented major flooding in Branson and surrounding communities. The hydroelectric power, according in visitor center information, provides electricity in six states.