Located near the southern border of Missouri, Table Rock Lake was created in 1958 when the eponymous dam was constructed across the White River to control flooding and generate hydroelectric power. Designed and built by the US Army Corps of Engineers over a four year period starting in 1954, Table Rock Dam–so named for an overhanging rock formation one mile downstream–created a 43,100-acre lake with a shoreline that stretches roughly 800 miles through the surrounding Ozark hills. Long before the White River’s waters filled the shores of Table Rock Lake, however, it cut a defined path through the Ozarks–beginning in the Boston Mountains of Arkansas and snaking into Missouri before flowing southeast into the Arkansas River and eventually the Mississippi. Before any stagecoaches, trains, or roads appeared in the Ozark Hills, the White River served as the region’s only means of transportation. The region’s first settlers made their way through the region’s hills and valleys on flat-bottomed boats. These early settlers cut out homesteads for themselves along the White River where it breathed life into the first American settlements in the Ozarks.
As the 19th century progressed, these small homesteads grew into settlements along the river. Barges and flat-bottomed boats moved goods and people up and down the river, supporting several modest settlements that would grow into cities. Eventually, these boats were replaced by smaller steamboats, which further increased the region’s ability to support a growing population as the flow of trade and passengers moved up and down the White River. Several of these towns and cities further enhanced this transportation system by dredging the river to support even more steamboat traffic. Eventually, the flow of goods and people was shifted to growing railroad networks, and, at the start of the 20th century, the importance of the White River as a source of transportation activity had been greatly reduced.
Table Rock Dam, White River-Branson, Mo
By the turn of the century, the once-small towns and settlements that had been carved out along the river’s plains had grown into thriving economic centers for the region. And, whereas the river once carried the promise of economic prosperity, its flow had come to threaten these growing towns with devastating seasonal floods. Construction of the dam was authorized by Congress in the Flood Control Act of 1941, but the project’s start was delayed by both World War II and the Korean War as well as the construction of nearby Bull Shoals Dam. Work eventually began on Table Rock Dam in 1954 when the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers arrived in October. The plan was to create a combination concrete gravity dam and earthen embankment. The concrete section of the dam would be a little over 1,600-feet long, requiring 1.23 million cubic yards of concrete. Still more, the earthen portion of the dam would be over 4,800-feet long and contain 3.32 million cubic yards of fill. Table Rock Dam would also feature a 531-foot long spillway with ten crest gates for the control of overflow water.
Completed at a total cost of around $65 million, Table Rock Dam formed one of dozens of man-made lakes that began to dot the Ozarks. Whereas the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks had once been a region devoid of large lakes, the construction of dams like Table Rock over the course of the 20th century transformed the region physically and economically. By the latter half of the 20th century, Table Rock Lake was but one of several large bodies of water that leapt into existence in the region. The result was a massive boost to the resort and tourism industries as the region suddenly had thousands of acres of lakeshore that previously didn’t exist. On Table Rock Lake, the US Army Corps of Engineers built 14 campgrounds and opened it up to the building of commercial marinas. The massive influx of tourism supported the growth of the town of Branson, which now hosts upwards of 5 million visitors per year.
In the relatively short period of time that American towns and cities have existed in the Ozark region, there has been a tremendous shift in the relationship between these communities and the rivers that cut the first paths through it. As society’s needs shifted, so too did this relationship. What didn’t change, however, is the ability for these rivers to provide a means and reason for people to enter the region. Where once this function operated as a result of transportation, it has now shifted to being the destination–opening the Ozarks to another generation of awestruck explorers.
Luke Carothers is the Editor for Civil + Structural Engineer Media. If you want us to cover your project or want to feature your own article, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.