Volume 8, Number 8 - Summer 1984

Powersite Dam
Program of June 10, 1984 Meeting
by Kathleen VanBuskirk

When Powersite Dam, Missouri’s first hydroelectric impoundment, went into service in 1913, it produced a light which pulsed visibly 25 times a minute, Tom Snyder, the dam’s present director of operations told members of the White River Valley Historical Society attending the June meeting at the School of the Ozarks.

Snyder, who went to work at the dam 11 years ago, at the age of 20, has been its manager for the last seven years. It was evident from his remarks concerning the dam’s construction that its builders were men with a vision, who were not afraid to take financial risks. Today, on the other hand, the men who keep the dam operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, leave nothing to chance: assuring that the machinery is kept free of debris and in good working condition, inspecting and repairing the aging concrete abutments before serious problems can arise.

Work on Powersite Dam began, Snyder said, in 1910, when the Ozark Power and Water Company received authorization for the project from Congress. With the financial backing of the St. Louis Consortium, agents began buying the land which would be inundated by the backed-up water. That undertaking, Snyder noted, became more and more expensive as many landholders insisted on selling their whole acreage rather than just the needed bottomland. In 1911, engineers dug test pits to check the soil and foundation rock, and building was begun at the river bend below the present Forsyth lookout near Y highway. Too late the builders realized that, as the local people had tried to tell them, the best site was two miles downstream, just above the mouth of Swan Creek.

Before construction was begun again at the new site, the projected cost of the dam had grown to the point that the Consortium threatened to remove its financial backing, Snyder reported. Niles Ambursen, owner of the Ambursen Hydraulic Construction Company, had designed the concrete structure. It was to be the largest such dam Ambursen had built up to that point. Anxious to proceed with the project, he offered to go on with the building, if some a power company would assume responsibility for running the facility and paying off the costs.

New York banker Henry Doherty, who already had purchased some 20 small power companies in Southwest Missouri and was consolidating them into what would become the Empire Electric Company, agreed to finance construction of Powersite Dam, which would then be built and run as the Ozark Power and Water Company. The finished dam operated as a separate company until it merged with Empire Electric in 1927, Snyder said.

Building of the dam brought 1000 to 1100 jobs to Taney County for the years from 1911 to 1913. Much of the 2.3 million dollars spent during the building went directly into the local economy. Even taking into consideration the change in the value of the dollar, that cost would be much higher today due environmental factors, Snyder pointed out.

While the work was in progress, Ozark Beach, on the south shore of the river just upstream from the damsite, grew into a company town which rivaled in size every community in the county. It boasted a school, a postoffice and many other civic amenities. The "town" disappeared overnight when the construction was completed.


On May 10, 1913, the dam was closed. The men who would be operating its five 25-cycle generators anticipated that it would be weeks or even months before the lake would reach its natural" depth, Snyder laughed. Thirty hours later, hours marked by repeated area-wide downpours, water was rushing over the top of the dam.

The dam was a boon to those living in the area, Snyder observed, bringing new jobs along with electric service which more outlying areas would not benefit from for another 39 years. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Those who had grown up in the area were well aware of the miracle that Powersite’s electricity seemed to those who lived at a distance from Lake Taneycomo. It was not until the 1940s that the rural electrification program began extending electric service into the nearby hills.

Snyder then provided a fascinating review of the events which have marked the life of the dam thus far. In 1917, the flooding White River washed a mud seam from under the dam, creating a permanent eight-inch curve in the concrete above. The seam was quickly refilled with cement, but nothing could be done about the changed face of the dam.

Four of the nine generator bays built inside the dam stood empty until 1930. That year those empty bays were equipped with 69-cycle generators, each producing four megawatts of electricity. (The plant’s present 16-megawatt capacity would just about meet the electrical requirements of Branson, Hollister and perhaps Forsyth, Snyder pointed out.) When the five aging generators were shut down that year, local residents welcomed the new, steady light, though perhaps some missed the game of counting those 25 flickers per minute.

In 1940, the dam was strengthened with more concrete, and in 1979, its crest and some of the understructure were again reinforced.

Some day, Snyder said, the old 25-cycle bays will get new generators, but the amount of electricity gained from the added capacity will be governed primarily by the water flow from Table Rock Dam and the depth of the water backed up behind Bull Shoals Dam. Water flows through Powersite Dam continually, but if those generators were shut down, today’s Empire Electric customers would probably not even be aware of it. The facility is now interconnected regionally with the Southwest Power Pool, and when one unit goes out, the demand on it is immediately switched to other producers, the speaker concluded.

Membership Roll Additions May 1 thru July 31

Wanda Ehlers, Overland Park, KS
Pamela C. Webb, Kirkwood, MO
Maxine S. Springer, Chandler, TX
Suzanne Crawford, Springfield, MO
Ash Grove High School, Ash Grove, MO
Dr. Stephen Jennings, Point Lookout, MO
Marietta Haight, Magalia, CA
Lois Keithley, Kansas City, MO
Willa M. Schuster, Mitchellville, MD
Wm. M. Penny, Branson, MO
Freda Sturgell, Carroilton, TX
Jody Blythe Berg, Thousand Oaks, CA
Paul Johns, Nixa, MO
Mrs. William Gudish, Playa Del Rey, CA
Effie G. Wilson, Marrowbone, KY
Mrs. Mary Inmon, Springfield, MO
Roy Donahue, Forsyth, MO


This volume: Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues

Other Volumes | Keyword Search | White River Valley Quarterly Home | Local History Home

Copyright © White River Valley Historical Quarterly

 Springfield-Greene County Library