|Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994|
by Robert Flanders
Branson's history is of course more than the history of tourism and the entertainment industry. First, and still foremost, it is a history of transportation--of being able to get there.
In that regard Branson is like other Ozarks towns virtually created by railroads. The railroad was built to the banks of White River at Branson, 1904-1906. The event was the present Branson's real beginning.
Before 1906, the principal towns of isolated Taney County, Missouri, were in the center of the county, where the best lands, best farms, most of the people, and most of the commerce were-Forsyth (the county seat), Taneyville, and Kirbyville. The principal wagon road ran there from Springfield at the north, to Harrison, Arkansas and beyond at the south. Hollister was a village across White River from the future site of Branson. Hollister was far enough up Turkey Creek to avoid the frequent floods, and was on the same side of the river as the Forsyth-Harrison, Arkansas road. So Hollister was the trade center for the western part of the county. No good freighting ford existed over the river to connect the road from Forsyth to where Branson would someday be--a serious difficulty.
The railroad instantly reversed the situation, leaving Forsyth the more isolated place. The first bridge over the upper White was constructed between Hollister and Branson, making them service towns on opposite sides of the river for their respective neighborhoods, as well as for rail traffic along the line between Missouri and Arkansas. Hollister was redesigned by the railroad to serve a high-class railroad tourist clientele. The bridge connected Hollister with such clientele in Springfield, Kansas City, St. Louis, and beyond.
Branson was railhead for construction of Powersite Dam (built 1911-1913) downstream at Forsyth. Supplies for constructing the dam were off-loaded at Branson, then floated to the dam site by boat.
The railroad introduced tobacco to locals as a major cash crop. Before, rural dwellers typically raised only small patches for their own consumption. What growers in western Taney County did market was usually floated down the river to Forsyth Landing. The railroad also promoted the commercial orchard industry, as it had done elsewhere in the Ozarks.
Tourists began to come. At first, most were bound for White River itself--for Jim Owens's float fishing safaris, for example. However, two events following in quick succession added new dimensions to tourism: the publication in 1907 of Harold Bell Wright's The Shepherd of the Hills, set just west of Branson; and the filling of Lake Taneycomo in 1913, the first artificial reservoir in the central part of the United States. Tourists came by rail to fish and swim in Taneycomo's warm waters and to visit Shepherd of the Hills sites. Branson had entered its first tourist era. One could now get there, quickly, comfortably, inexpensively.
But not by auto--at least, not easily. The roads were terrible, impossible, urban motorists might say. The auto routes from Springfield were a patchwork of roads, typical of inter-county routes in the Ozarks. They proceeded south, one through Ozark, another through Nixa, thence on to Highlandville, plunging off the Springfield Plain into the steep and rugged jumble of ridges and hollows that characterize the White River Hills. The road clung to the high ground and the winding ridges as much as possible. The farther south one proceeded, the tighter the curves became.
"That road [from Springfield to Branson] would make a preacher swear !" exclaimed Smith Brookhart III, recalling his journey over the route in the 1950s and '60s. Brookhart, president of Branson's Ozark Mountain Bank, said in a recent interview, "I believe it was 63 miles on the old road. You could pass on exactly 400 yards in the whole stretch. If you got behind an ox-cart or truck you settled in for the trip." Even allowing for a native Iowegian banker's penchant for straight roads and getting things done quickly--traits not traditionally associated with the culture of Taney County--one can get his point. A motoring public could not reach Branson readily, or in significant numbers. An entirely new kind of highway would have to be built to accomplish such a thing.
That highway is present U.S. 65, opened from Springfield to Branson in 1966. It was at the time the most expensive stretch of road mile for mile yet built in Missouri. It cut down the high hills and filled the deep hollows. Its Bear Mountain Cut was the deepest yet made in the state. It was, and remains, a high speed, high volume, semi-limited access highway, and now carries some five million visitors a year to Branson.
But Branson is planning (and hoping) for seven million visitors a year, according to the Ozark Marketing Council and the Branson Chamber of Commerce. U.S. 65 may be able to increase its volume so much (though anyone who has negotiated the route recently may well wonder how); but clearly Branson itself, with its present road system and access routes, cannot. The present five million have great difficulty; and remember, U.S. 65 is more than just a Spring-field-Branson funnel. It is the main highway--indeed the only direct highway from Kansas City and points north, to Little Rock and points south. Traffic on 1-44 from either east or west bound for Little Rock has no other choice of direct routes than U.S. 65. Traffic in Branson and traffic through Branson may soon reach emergency proportions.
Hoped-for assistance is coming via the Ozark Mountain Highroad, a state-of-the-art, grade-separated, multi-lane highway designed to go around Branson to the west. It will leave Highway 65 five miles north of the city and rejoin it an equal distance to the south, crossing Lake Taneycomo a little less than half a mile below Table Rock Dam. It will intersect all of the major east-west roadways both north and south of the White River valley. An additional "connector" highway is to be constructed. So through traffic can thus be totally diverted, and access more readily provided to Branson attractions.
The Highroad is extraordinary, even beyond the fierce controversy it has aroused. First is its quick planning. The engineering plans, public hearings, environmental surveys, and negotiations with all involved agencies of government for a project of this magnitude ordinarily take years. The Highroad timetable: seven months, no more. Willis Graven, District Engineer of the Missouri Highway Department in Springfield. the person directly responsible for the Highroad. emphasizes that such a brief time frame is unprecedented. (Smith Brookhart gives Graven credit for getting the Highroad on a fast track).
Second, the sheer physical difficulty and high cost of building such a road is daunting. The terrain is as rugged as any in the Missouri Ozarks. The cost will be some $150 million for the entire eighteen-mile project, almost double the average cost for rural highways of similar design in Missouri. Reasons, in addition to the difficult, hard-rock terrain, are the many expensive grade-separated interchanges and the big bridge over Lake Taneycomo. The bridge alone will cost about $22 million.
Finally, there is the precious scenery. How, for example, can a bridge be built over Lake Taneycomo and the old White River valley below Table Rock Dam without destroying the famous, prized view? Indeed, how can a highway of Interstate proportions be constructed there without severely intruding upon whatever beauty remains?
Time will tell, as they say. This issue of OzarksWatch publishes for the first time an artist-modified aerial photo designed to show a portion of the Highroad as it will appear when finished, including the valley bridge and road interchanges south of the bridge.
Don't expect to drive out on the Ozark Mountain Highroad soon. Plans call for 1999 or 2000 completion of the northern section only, between U.S. 65 and Missouri 76 just west of Shepherd of the Hills Farm.
The history of Branson, as of many towns great and small in the Ozarks, revolves around transportation-getting there. However, Branson is the first Ozarks small town--and probably the last-- expecting an annual seven million visitors.
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