How Railroad Ties Almost Built a Lake

One hundred years ago, the actions of a private company could have changed the face of our part of the Ozarks. Following large-scale timber harvesting made possible by the railroad's arrival in Howell County in 1882, additional rail lines were added to get to more trees. For another decade, the virgin timber was pulled out of the hinterlands by any means possible. Even our pristine rivers and streams were utilized to transport logs off hillsides and floated in rafts to processing centers or railheads via small rail trams. By the turn of the century, the bulk of the forests had been cut down. In the early 1900s, railroad ties cut from smaller trees were a source of cash for timber workers and farmers who wanted to make some money on the side. Companies specialized as local purchasers of these ties, usually hacked by hand. The ties, bought at ten cents each, were taken to the railroad and shipped at a substantial profit to markets all over the country.
One of those companies with a buying headquarters at Willow Springs was the Western Tie & Lumber Company of St. Louis. In addition to buying ties from local farms, the company held property along the Jack's Fork and Current Rivers from which it harvested ties. Once the property was cleared, the land became a liability and needed to be sold. In 1920 and 1921, enough ground was accumulated in Shannon County; the company came up with a scheme that could have substantially economically and environmentally impacted the region beyond what was already being done. 
The Mountain View Standard announced in their July 2, 1921 issue: "The Western Tie and Timber Company has obtained a federal permit to establish a dam on the Current River at Red Rock Landing, about eight miles below Eminence, the county seat of Shannon County, and a mile and a half below the "Junction," as the Current River and Jack's Fork is called."
Today the Junction is more commonly known as Two Rivers. Though Red Rock is no depicted on any of the Ozark National Scenic Riverways or Missouri Conservation Department maps, it is near Coot Chute and Coot Mountain. Western Tie and other companies used the area to float ties tied together as rafts for several years. 
The article continued, "The company plans a fifty-foot dam at Red Rock. This will form a lake of backwater which will reach within two miles of Eminence on the Jack's Fork, and will back up the Current River about the same distance, forming a lake in the shape of a half-moon, reaching from some five miles up each fork to the Junction itself and beyond, thus making a beautiful sheet of water ten miles in length and fifty feet deep in the deepest part."
The object of river impoundment proposed at least four decades later was often flood control with a secondary benefit of electrical power generation and recreation, but flood control was not mentioned here.
The Mountain View Standard stated, "Electric power and light from water power furnished by this dam will be sent to many surrounding towns, including Eminence, West Eminence, Winona, Summersville, Birch Tree, Houston, Montier, Mountain View, Centerville and probably Salem. It is also planned to establish and build an electric railroad. This road connecting with the Frisco at Cabool and the Iron Mountain at Ironton will be a highway of trade. Eminence then will no longer be an island town, but will be on a main line connecting two great systems. There will be passenger cars every two hours." 
"The lake formed by the dam will be stocked with fish. There will be summer camps and summer resorts, club houses, and everything that goes to make a pleasant outing. It is expected the lake and its surroundings will be one of the greatest summer resorts in the Ozarks."
Recreation had become the latest economic boom in this part of Missouri. It followed the timber boom, large-scale fruit orchards, and subsistence farming with free-range livestock that had done a pretty good job of stripping the topsoil and filling our rivers with gravel from erosion. Much of the land where these extraction practices had been done wasn't selling. Still, I find it amazing a project this size covering so much ground by a private company could have been entertained.
The Current Wave newspaper in Van Buren wrote in November 1921, "There is much surmising, and many questions are being asked regarding the hydro-electric power plant on Current River. This much is known, that the Western Tie & Timber Company of St. Louis has received the preliminary permit from the government. Under this permit, the company has two years to make plans, drillings, and other preliminary work. We know that much work in the way of surveying, etc., has already been done, and more preliminary work will no doubt be done as conditions permit."
"Information from a reliable source indicated that the dam will be constructed, however the date of commencement of construction is very indefinite. It is reported that competent engineers consider this the best water power site in the State of Missouri. We are sure that a great many people are anxious to see this work start for various reasons, and it will, no doubt, mean a lot to our people in the future, but we must bear in mind that enterprises of this magnitude cannot be accomplished in a day, even when conditions are normal, and in times of stress like the present, they must necessarily be slower of fruition."
The times of stress eluded to were likely a national economic downturn in 1920 and 1921. In those years, the federal budget was slashed by sixty-five percent, and unemployment rose to eleven percent. It was to date one of the worst years in the nation's history, soon to be replaced by the stock market crash of 1929 and the depression that followed. 
The Western Tie and Timber Company had its fingers in many pies, including the purchase of a short line railroad that ran between Ava and Mansfield. The line was also intended to take timber products from Arkansas and connect to the Frisco system with passenger service. That scheme failed the same time the company started building the dam, which engineers now determined would have to be sixty feet high and a quarter of a mile in length. Western Tie must have decided to pull in and concentrate on its core business. The newspapers went silent about the Current River project in 1922 and 1923, and it was soon forgotten.
The Western Tie and Timber Company did not go away, though. In May 1928, the Willow Springs Republican carried a story entitled, "Tie Hackers Stage a Big Event at Willow Springs." They wrote, "Members of the Collins family who reside in large numbers in the country along the western border of Howell and eastern part of Douglas counties won all the prizes in a tie hacking contest at Willow Springs a few days ago, and two of them, Charley Collins and Ben Stubbs got a free trip to the annual convention of the National Association of Tie Producers at Hot Springs, Arkansas, last week as a guest of the Western Tie and Timber Company."
In 1930 the Kansas City Star published an editorial, "Belated Power Protection." They wrote, "It seems a most peculiar situation that Missouri should have drifted along without legislation protecting its water power resources until the far great portion of those resources had passed into private hands, the state being powerless to make an effective protest, no matter what the conditions of the development with relation to public welfare. It is to remedy that situation, even at a late day, that Governor Caulfield now will recommend legislation giving the state the needed and desired authority. Proposed power development that might destroy much of the beauty and recreational value of the Current River in the Ozarks has given particular significance to the movement toward protection."
"Conceivably, in a great number of cases, use of the water power has been and will continue to be a valuable contributory asset to the state. No doubt, with the state laws in existence, permits for most of the power developments already made would have been granted. Yet, there would have been an assured degree of protection in the legislation and a legitimate exercise of state sovereignty in its application, wherever warranted. The federal water power act was not designed to take away such rights from the states. While now the legislation would have a limited reach, since it could not be retroactive, it might prove in various instances a means of preserving from better purposes a part of the resources that remain undeveloped."
Following World War II, the Army Corps of Engineers announced their intention to dam the Current River and create an even larger impoundment than proposed in 1921. This time, there was opposition even within the government at state and national levels to build the dam. In 1961 legislation was introduced to create an Ozark Rivers National Monument along the Current, Eleven Point, and Jack's Fork Rivers, resulting in establishing the Ozark National Scenic Riverways under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service in 1964.
Controversy remains, and my object isn't to stir that pot. I just wanted to note that the issue is a lot older than might be thought; it is one hundred years old this week.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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