Lake of the Ozarks—the name uttered by untold millions of happy residents and eager vacationers every year—began its existence with an identity crisis. Drama permeated the process of naming this new lake in central Missouri, and Lake of the Ozarks only narrowly escaped being named after (*shudder*) a politician.

This body of water, the long-awaited manifestation of a dream by the Union Electric Light and Power Company (now Ameren), was called—or nearly called—by at least four different names before popular opinion landed on “Ozarks.” Here’s how it all went down.

Osage River Basin - Aerial - Old Photo - 1921 - Before Bagnell Dam

Osage River Basin, 1921, by McNatt, James, The Missouri Collection (C3982). C3982-f524-p18-1. The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection

#1. The Osage Reservoir

Construction on Bagnell Dam, owned at the time by Union Electric, began at the start of the Great Depression in 1929 and was completed in 1931. Named after William Bagnell who moved from St. Louis County to set up a railroad tie business along the Osage River, the dam was built of earth and concrete, and the construction cost was about $30 million – a huge chunk of change, especially at that time.

Construction of Bagnell Dam

Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

When the 2,543-foot-long, 100-foot-high dam closed its locks, it impounded the Osage River and created the “Osage Reservoir,” which became the largest body of water in Missouri and the largest man-made lake in the world at the time; it held that honor for five years.

#2. Lake Osage

Union Electric hired the Massachusetts firm of Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation (who built the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. in 1861 as well as many of the nation’s nuclear plants) to design the dam. Stone & Webster referred to the lake as the Osage Reservoir. But at some point, “Lake Osage” became a variation of the name.

Flying Over Lake Of The Ozarks - black and white photo

Courtesy of the Missouri State Archives

#3. Lake Benton

In 1929, Missouri State Rep. James Logan, of Benton County, introduced a bill into the Missouri legislature. Logan wanted to name the new lake “Lake Benton,” in honor of Missouri’s second United States Senator, Thomas Hart Benton.

Benton served in the War of 1812, became editor of the St. Louis Enquirer between 1818 and 1820, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate in August 1820. Senator Benton was nicknamed “Old Bullion” because of his stand for “sound banking and hard money.” He quickly established himself as a powerful and eloquent speaker and earned the respect of many fellow senators, but his steadfast antislavery position eventually cost him his Senate seat in 1851.

Senator Thomas Benton

Senator Thomas Benton By Painter: Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle (1820 – 1906); Photographer: Billy Hathorn – Own work, Public Domain

The General Assembly passed Logan’s bill. However, Governor Henry Caulfield vetoed it, stating, “I have no objection to the avowed purpose of this bill, that is the designation as Lake Benton, although I personally prefer postponing the naming of the Lake until it shall be constructed, and then perhaps giving it a Sylvan name or an Indian name, or perhaps, the name of the engineer who will build the Dam…”

“I do object to that portion of the bill which unnecessarily designates Thomas H. Benton as ‘Missouri’s greatest U.S. Senator,’” Caulfield continued. “I would not object if he were designated as Missouri’s great Senator or one of Missouri’s greatest Senators. I do not question Thomas H. Benton’s greatness, neither do I assert he is not Missouri’s greatest Senator. I do not, however, believe it proper for the legislature to unnecessarily and without any hearing select one of our former Senators and proclaim him the greatest. Such a course invites controversy and unnecessarily wounds the feelings and arouses the prejudices of those of our citizens who revere and love Missouri’s other great Senators.”

Ultimately, Caulfield’s preference for a “Sylvan name” would prove prescient: Lake of the Ozarks would be named for the geographical region in which it is located. However, his idea to give homage to Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation, which designed the dam, was best ignored. A bribery scandal bankrupted the company in 2000.

But with the lake’s name in limbo, another legislator had an idea.

#4. Lake McClurg

Around 1930, Rep. J.W. Vincent of Camden County introduced a bill to dub the new lake “Lake McClurg.” Journalist Bob Priddy explains, “Governor Joseph McClurg (1869-1871) who had a ‘Big Store on the Osage’ in old Linn Creek, which disappeared under the waters as the Osage River backed up behind the dam.” McClurg held strong Unionist views which didn’t sit well with many state legislators who had Confederate ancestors. In fact, some residents in old Linn Creek burned McClurg’s business twice in retaliation for his views. Consideration of Vincent’s bill was postponed indefinitely.

Joseph McClurg

Joseph McClurg

by Mathew Brady – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. Public Domain

At the time, “Linn Creek was the principal trading post for southwest Missouri, southeast Kansas, and northeast Oklahoma – then Indian territory,” states a Feb. 11, 1931 article in the Maryville Daily Forum.

Both Representatives Vincent and Logan believed they “should have something to say about the lake’s name, for both of the counties that they represent will sacrifice some of their best land,” The Maryville Daily Forum article added.

“And so, the legislators dropped the whole matter,” writes the late Michael Gillespie, a Lake historian.

#5. Lake Of The Ozarks

“By 1932,” Gillespie wrote, “court records, newspaper accounts, and advertisements all referred to the big lake by its present name. Apparently, Union Electric and others, in their efforts to promote the area for real estate development, much preferred the name ‘Lake of the Ozarks’ because it described a place, and not a long-dead politician.”


Marguerite - Old boat on Lake of the Ozarks - black and white photo

Courtesy of Missouri State Archives

For years after the Lake’s completion, its recreational potential lay untapped. A few fishing camps developed, and little cabins slowly began to dot the Lake’s shoreline. But it was only in the latter half of the 1940s and the 1950s that the party really started: as post-war America turned to happier times, Lake of the Ozarks resorts sprang up, and The Strip began coming into its own.

Today, the Lake of the Ozarks is home to some of the most popular events in the Midwest, including the Shootout, AquaPalooza, and Lake Race. Fishermen flock from afar to fish the lake’s plentiful crappie, bass, and catfish. Its uniqueness and beauty attract visitors from across the country and keep them coming back for more. Millions of people every year arrive to enjoy this incredible lake: the Lake of the Ozarks.

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