Bagnell Dam History

Picture of Bagnell Dam
With such an enormous amount of water in the state of Missouri, it wasn't long before people began looking for ways to harness some of that potential energy for human use. The first to study the concept of damming the Osage River was a man named Ralph W. Street of Kansas City, in 1912, several years before the enactment of the Federal Water Power Act of 1920.

In the fall of 1924, Walter Cravens (who had joined Ralph Street and whose role was to establish financing for the project) was issued a preliminary permit. During the same month, November, the Missouri Hydro-Electric Power Company was incorporated in Missouri. Construction began immediately, and many facilities were created in 1924 and the following year, including an enormous mess hall, an administrative building, a large warehouse, and a power house. A road was built from the site of the dam to Bagnell, and the railroad from Bagnell to the dam site was mostly finished. Unfortunately, the project encountered problems with funding in 1926 and construction was halted temporarily.

Ralph Street proved to be a most determined man - in 1927 he acquired an Option Contract with Stone and Webster, Inc, out of Boston, one of the largest engineering firms in the entire United States. Stone and Webster, Inc. redesigned the project according to the specifications laid out by the Union Electric Light and Power Company of St. Louis. The largest power contract to that date was negotiated, involving the sale of more than 150 million kilowatt hours to the St. Joseph Lead Company in the southeastern portion of Missouri.

An application was filed with the Missouri Public Service Commission, for approval of the sale of properties owned by the Missouri Hydro-Electric Power Company to Union Electric. The hearing was lengthy and well-discussed but ultimately the sale was approved in late July of 1929. The announcement was greeted with happiness in most of the surrounding counties, although the residents of Linn Creek were less than pleased since the entire town would need to be razed due to its location. But, as Spock noted, the needs of the good outweigh the needs of the few, and the residents of Linn Creek were unable to stop the continuing evolution of the Bagnell Dam project.

Even with so much work toward the project completed, skeptics abounded, saying that the project simply seemed flat-out impossible. The sheer scale of the dam itself was, after all, huge even by today's standards. Nevertheless, the local residents observed, gripped by excitement, as Union Electric began its initial clearing on August 6, 1929.

Many thousands came seeking employment during this time, but the country was still in the grips of the Great Depression and, while Bagnell Dam did provide more than 20,500 people with jobs, it was still necessary to turn many away. Work, generally 9 to 12 hours per day for each person, went on around the clock. The pay scale in those days seems puny compared to that of today: from 35 cents per hour to a little over a dollar per hour. With jobs so scarce, the workers were glad to have this pay scale, or any job at all for that matter.

The project experienced its share of tragedies as well. Two young children were burned to death when their tent, soaked in oil to prevent rain from leaking in, caught fire. Their parents were also badly burned, but survived. Numerous job-related injuries also occurred, normal with a task of this scale.

With so many workers with families, another problem soon surfaced: providing education to all the children of the workers, and there were thousands of them. The local communities simply weren't able to satisfy the educational needs of such a population. Nevertheless, the communities opened their doors, but the conditions weren't good, with sometimes 35 to 40 students per class. The state offered some minimal funding to offset this problem, but mainly it was simply a matter of the local communities enduring this hardship until the dam was completed.

Bagnell Dam was completed in 1931. Electric service began on Christmas Eve of that year. In the end, the creation of Bagnell Dam touched tens of thousands of lives in ways occasionally bad but mostly good. Its touch hasn't decreased either: every year hundreds of thousands visit the lake area for recreation or to tour the Dam. The ultimate legacy of Bagnell Dam is not the water it holds back, but the current beauty of the area, due mostly to the creation of the dam.