By Diane Euston
We’ve reached that pivotal time of year where thousands of people leave the big city and travel to “The Lake.” It doesn’t take its formal title to know what “The Lake” is or where it’s located. If you don’t personally have a house or condo there, you certainly know a handful of people who do.
Before there was a Lake of the Ozarks, the area was the northern portion of the hilly Ozarks with old trails, few roads, no electricity and a sprinkling of small towns. The stunning caves, bluffs and clear streams were a draw for nature-lovers, and Ha Ha Tonka Lake, fed by a natural spring that dumped 31 million cubic feet of water per day, was said to be a fisherman’s paradise.
It was these things that drew a Kansas City businessman to buy 2,700 acres of Ozarks land, including Ha Ha Tonka Lake, and build a home unlike anything the locals had ever seen. Only the skeleton of this stone mansion stands today in Ha Ha Tonka State Park, and the story behind the house reveals a rich history.
Robert McClure Snyder
Born in Columbus, Ind. in 1852, Robert McClure Snyder was raised in Louisville, Ky. and educated there. His family moved to Lafayette Co., Mo. by 1870 where his father was a successful miller.
In 1875, Robert married Fannie Hord, and a year later, his son, Robert, Jr. was born. Unfortunately, his first wife passed away just two years after they married. In 1879, he married Molly Dawson. They went onto have three sons who lived to adulthood: After his first wife passed away, he married Molly Dawson and had three children that lived to adulthood: Carey (b. 1881), LeRoy (b. 1886) and Kenneth (b. 1891).
He got his start working as a bookkeeper in a wholesale grocery store, and in 1880, he moved with his family to Kansas City. He partnered with Frank Perrin to open a wholesale grocery and produce business in the West Bottoms that focused on “fancy” products.
An entrepreneur at heart, Robert sold his interests in the grocery business in 1884 and focused on selling real estate. Within a short amount of time, he had earned a significant amount of money. In 1891, he reorganized the old Mechanics Bank at 518 Delaware and acted as president until 1900.
In 1895, he expanded his business interests into the natural gas business. Just one year later, he was furnishing gas to every part of Kansas City. He even offered Kansas Citians free gas stoves, unknown at the time, in order to build his business. “He had made a fortune,” the Kansas City Star wrote, “but had given Kansas City cheap gas and taught the advantage of using gas for fuel.”
When his company merged with a competitor, it became known as the Kansas City Missouri Gas Company. Robert made $600,000 on the deal. He expanded his gas business in Kansas and Oklahoma, making even more money and solidifying his position as one of the city’s millionaires.
He dabbled in other industries, and in 1898, he went to St. Louis to promote Central Traction Company. In St. Louis, it was allegedly a custom to pay lawmakers for franchise rights on a “sliding scale.” When a new district attorney in St. Louis looked into these bribes, a council member admitted that Robert Snyder had paid him $50,000 for his vote.
In October 1902, Robert was sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed the verdict all the way to the supreme court and won.
Building at Ha Ha Tonka
In 1904, Robert Snyder acquired 2,700 acres in the Ozarks in a foreclosure sale. A 70-acre lake named Ha Ha Tonka (Osage meaning “laughing waters”) was part of the massive property. The lake was fed by Ha Ha Tonka Spring and flowed 31 million cubic feet of water per day. The water was crystal clear and hovered around 42 degrees year-round, making for an excellent fishing hole.
Robert had visited the Ozarks many times and was looking for the perfect property to build a large vacation home. He told the newspapers, “Here I will spend my leisure, secure from the worries of business and the excitement of city life. I will fish and loaf and explore the caves in these hills, with no fear of intrusion.”
But Robert Snyder didn’t want to build some small fishing cabin with rustic furnishings. He wanted a castle. The newspaper reported, “On the top most crest of this island Mr. Snyder set about the erection of a summer home of such proportions as to astound the residents of that remote district.”
To be clear, the area surrounding his property was isolated; people bartered for business and didn’t operate in cash. There was no electricity.
After purchasing the property, Robert hired 100 Scottish masons to begin construction of a 60-room mansion. The house included a center atrium three and a half stories tall that included a skylight. He also planned a water tower, greenhouses and stables. The “castle” had native stone walls quarried on site and transported by mule-drawn wagons.
It took over a year and a half to build the exterior structure. It sat on top of a hill known as “Deer’s Leap,” so Snyder decided that would be the name of his impressive home.
By 1906, Robert Snyder had paid over $300,000 for the home, still under construction, and had acquired a total of 5400 acres.
The nearest railroad station was 30 miles away, and the roads leading to the property were more like trails that took over one and a half hours from the nearest station to reach the property; there were few improvements to the remote Ozarks region, but the beauty drew men like Robert Snyder to find a way to enjoy the incredible nature the area had to offer.
As his home, Deer’s Leap, was being built at Ha Ha Tonka Lake, Robert Snyder continued his business ventures in Kansas City while living at 2806 Independence Ave.
Robert Snyder owned two automobiles in 1906 when one out of 1,000 Americans had one car. His automobile of choice was the Royal Tourist built in Cleveland, Ohio. The “family vehicle” was a red, seven-passenger Royal Tourist with Robert Snyder’s monogram in brass on the front. In the summer of 1906, he purchased a second Royal Tourist. This was a five-passenger, four-cylinder, 40 horsepower dark green car.
When he purchased the second Royal Tourist, he hired “an expert from Cleveland, Ohio” named Frank Schroeder to operate “the machine” he bought.
On Oct. 27, 1906, Robert Snyder left his office and climbed into the back seat behind his chauffeur just before six in the evening and said, “Rather late tonight, Frank. Let’s get along lively.”
The chauffeur increased his speed as he headed down Admiral Blvd. and then to Grand Ave. At the junction of Park Ave. and Independence Ave. in front of the Bonaventure Hotel, a 14-year-old boy named Arthur Rodell with a “small coasting wagon” started across Independence Ave. heading north.
Traveling at a high rate of speed, Frank Schroeder saw the child and shut the power off to the green Royal Tourist and slammed on the brakes. The street was freshly oiled, so his efforts were unsuccessful. Frank then turned the wheels toward the curb to slow the vehicle down.
Regardless of the efforts, the car struck the boy and the wagon, throwing the child twelve feet into the air. The impact also threw Robert Snyder far over the right side of the vehicle, and his head struck an iron trolley pole.
The Royal Tourist continued down the road an additional 75 feet after impact.
The boy, Arthur Rodell, was carried into a nearby store, unconscious and bleeding from his ears. He died later that evening. Robert McClure Snyder was taken to a hospital where the impact of the pole to his head had crushed his skull. He was pronounced dead. He was 54 years old.
Witnesses later said that they estimated that the car was going about 45 miles per hour, far above the speed limit on boulevards at the time. The maximum speed allowed on boulevards was 12 miles per hour, and within the city limits (Missouri River south to 18th St. and State Line to Troost) all other streets had a speed limit of eight miles per hour.
Following this unfortunate accident, which was one of the first automobile fatalities in Kansas City, city leaders thought of adding “stone crossings,” or modern-day speed bumps, on all boulevards. Another man suggested adding “automatic speed alarms” to vehicles that would sound a loud warning when automobiles were above the allowed speed limit.
In the end, more patrolmen were stationed along the boulevards to help monitor speed limits.
The Bagnell Dam Project
Robert Snyder’s three surviving sons, Robert, Jr., LeRoy and Kenneth were to inherit the property and business interests of their father. Robert, Jr., the oldest, was treasurer of the Kansas Natural Gas Co. in Independence, Kan. before he moved back to Kansas City.
The house at Ha Ha Tonka Lake, Deer’s Leap, sat unfinished for a period of time. Because of the natural beauty of the area, there was always a push by legislators to make the land a state park even before the large home was completed. In 1911, the state legislature passed a bill allocating $165,000 to purchase Ha Ha Tonka, but the bill didn’t pass the house.
In 1920, another attempt was made to come to an agreement with the Snyder estate to purchase just over 3,000 acres of the land for $60,000, and if the state wanted the additional 2,000 acres and the house, it would cost $240,000. Again, the deal did not pass.
After these several failed attempts, the Snyder children made the decision to finish the house and use it as their own vacation spot. The caves, bluffs and springs were a stunning contrast to city life, and the incredible Ha Ha Tonka Lake with its clear waters and fishing were a draw.
The family created a small resort on Ha Ha Tonka Lake called “Lakeside” where a cluster of small cabins, a dining hall and access to boating and fishing was possible. It became a destination for city dwellers looking for fishing excursions.
In 1929, Union Electric Light & Power Company reached an agreement to build Bagnell Dam, thus backing the waters of the Osage River and its tributary, the Niangua “to form a slender lake more than 125 miles in length and having probably 1500 miles of shoreline, because of the myriad fingers of the body of water that will clutch out of the Ozark Hills.”
Even though Ha Ha Tonka Lake and Snyder’s castle, Deer’s Leap, were 25 miles away from Bagnell Dam, the project would still infringe on the property. The concern of the Snyders and nature preservationists was that Ha Ha Tonka Lake would no longer be preserved of its “clear and phenomenally cool water.”
The area had improved their roads, and sponsors of the dam project argued that the Snyder property would now be “accessible to all Missourians.”
The Snyders decided to sue because, they contended, there was a severe loss of beauty of their land. Because of the flooding, many of the caves on their property, 100 acres of level ground used as “a gravel bathing beach” and Ha Ha Tonka Lake would be underwater. In addition, their resort property called Lakeside and its central dining hall would “fall below the impounding waters.”
The creation of this yet-to-be-named lake would enable “a greater number of vacationists and tourists than ever before, creating a large, new vacation land,” the Kansas City Star reported in June 1930. “Ha Ha Tonka with its wealth of natural beauty will be accessible to these persons not only by roads but through the boats which will cruise the great new lake, corporation representatives believe.”
The corporation, Union Electric Light & Power Company, was right. The Bagnell Dam project at a cost of $35 million, would increase tourism, but the Snyders believed that the beauty and isolation of their land would be infringed upon.
In October 1930, 159 acres of the Snyder property was condemned to be taken by the dam project, and the Snyders decided to sue for one million dollars in damages. The Snyders hired former senator James A. Reed to represent them, and the power company had over 50 lawyers working their side of litigation.
Testimony included the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, who stated that the property was ruined with the flooding of Ha Ha Tonka Lake. James A. Reed spoke to the jury for over two hours, stating, “Men who have traveled from one corner of the earth to the other have spoken in glowing terms of [Ha Ha Tonka’s] beauty. . . I cannot tell you of its charm in my simple language. Only a Shakespeare could do that.”
The question was complicated: Does scenic beauty have a tangible value?
The trial was over eight weeks long, and in February 1932, the estate was awarded $350,000- well below their one-million-dollar estimate. And, litigation costs for the Snyders was estimated to have cost the family $150,000. The trial was the most expensive U.S. District Court case up to this point in history with 6,000 pages and 450 exhibits.
The power company appealed the ruling and won. In 1935, a second trial commenced and awarded the family $200,000 – $150,000 less than the prior ruling. In February 1935, the family filed for a new trial stating a juror had been approached by the defense before the trial began.
As the appeal was underway, Robert Snyder, Jr. died of a heart attack. The family dropped the lawsuit and opted to use their real estate company to lease out the large mansion to Josephine Ellis who operated it under the name “Ha Ha Tonka.”
The End of Deer’s Leap and Beginning of a State Park
The 37-room three-story mansion at Ha Ha Tonka remained a hotel for seven years. On Oct. 21, 1942, a fire started on top of the roof at 11:30 in the morning. High winds spread the blaze quickly; even the nearby water tower caught fire but was saved.
Low water pressure failed to fill the 40-year-old fire hoses. School children were let out just to try to assist in putting out the fire. The efforts of a bucket brigade were fruitless. Thankfully, twelve guests and four employees were able to escape uninjured. The damage was estimated at $150,000.
Deer’s Leap was unsalvageable and stood as a shell of its former glory.
In 1949, Robert Snyder, Jr.’s son, LeRoy and a real estate developer began advertising the Ha Ha Tonka Village Club and rallied to find 20,000 paying members. The plan was to build 4,000 lodges or cabins on the extensive acreage. It didn’t come to fruition. By 1958, tourists to Ha Ha Tonka could pay $1.50 to visit the ruins on the property, the quarried stone walls still standing the test of time.
The end of the Snyder estate’s ownership of Ha Ha Tonka occurred in 1978 when “a sizeable donation from property owners” as well as an $891,000 federal grant allowed the state to finally purchase 2,440 acres, including the ruins. Now known as Ha Ha Tonka State Park, the property includes over 17 miles of hiking trails, five caves, the 12th largest spring, the natural bridge and the impressive ruins of the Snyder mansion. Vandals burned the water tower in 1978, but the state stabilized and reroofed the structure in 1999.
When Robert McClure Snyder first set eyes on the natural wonders of this Ozarks property, he could see promise and possibilities. Today, the land and the ruins are open for us all to enjoy and reminds us of a simpler, less-crowded time when part of “the Lake” was simply Ha Ha Tonka.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com