Netflix series, Ozark, has a simple plot with big challenges for a deceptively mild-mannered accountant. “With wife Wendy and their two kids in tow, Marty (Byrne) is on the move after a money-laundering scheme goes wrong, forcing him to pay off a substantial debt to a Mexican drug lord in order to keep his family safe.” Marty’s new money-laundering theater of operations is Missouri’s vacation destination, Lake of the Ozarks.
As is often pointed out in the script, this dragon-shaped reservoir has “more shoreline than the state of California.” The floodgates of Bagnell Dam closed on the Osage River in 1931, creating the lake, as detailed in our book Damming the Osage. Its real-life creation does indeed have something in common with the Netflix show.
As our subtitle, The Conflicted Story of Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Dam, indicates, often there are nefarious and hidden motives for building dams. The dam and the lake that piled up behind it were the products of two schemes that could be considered money laundering. The motive for building Lake of the Ozarks had to do with the benefits of financial manipulations—not the production of hydroelectric power. Researching the origins of Lake of the Ozarks, we found subterfuge was integral to the whole scheme to dam the Osage.
A tale of Mexican drug cartels invading the lake’s shores is perhaps not too far-fetched. There is a long tradition of the Ozarks as a homeland of crime and refuge for outlaws. In the nineteenth century, it was known for the brutal irregulars of the Civil War, the James Gang, Younger Brothers, Alf Landon, bushwhackers and later Bald Knobbers. Meth dealers and dopers portrayed in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone updated the Ozarks’ outlaw reputation to the twenty-first century.
Lake of the Ozarks, on the other hand, didn’t come from backwoods outlaws. It was the brainchild of the president of a Kansas City Land Bank, Walter Cravens, and his partner, Ralph Street. Catastrophic loss of value of farm property and product began soon after World War 1. Long before 1929, farm price values were punctured. Cravens faced bankruptcy having financed hundreds of Kansas farms that were now in foreclosure. Kansas City lawyer Ralph Street had an obsession with building a dam on the Osage. Together they cooked up a scheme to ”launder” the bank’s “underwater” Kansas farms, for Osage River farms that would literally go under water if the dam were built. When Guy Huston, his principal financier went under (bankrupt) Cravens turned to Dillon Read, a New York financial institution, which then hooked into Union Electric.
Union Electric (UE) had no need for hydropower, but—as later revealed in federal charges—UE was running an extensive kickback operation to fund lobbying. This was proven long after the lake was built. We suspect UE went ahead with the lake project to rake off slush funds and probably enrich the management. It was a complicated scheme that we covered in Damming the Osage. Louis Egan, Union Electric’s “moose-tall aristocratic president,” regarded the Lake of the Ozarks as his own private pond where he wined and dined politicians, family, and friends at his twenty-nine room Adirondacks-style log lodge—now called Willmore Lodge, a venue for group or corporate events and home to the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Undoubtedly, it was the site of bribes and kickbacks that would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Both Cravens and Egan did time in federal prison: Cravens for his Lake of the Ozarks land-laundering scheme; Egan for his subsequent slush fund conviction.
Walter Cravens appealed his 1928 conviction on 88 counts, but the appeal was denied and in 1933 he began serving a six-year sentence in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth Kansas. “He paid his $25,000 fine in installments. No. 43517 was discharged on February 7, 1937, having served three years and nine months of his six year sentence.” (page 126, Damming the Osage)
“Egan was convicted of violation of the Corrupt Practices Section of the Holding Company Act of 1935. UE paid an $80,000 file. Egan paid $10,000 and was sentenced to two years. His appeals failed and on December 31, 1943, the $68,000—year former executive entered the federal penitentiary at St. Petersburg, Florida.” (p. 127)
We didn’t have this photo when Damming the Osage went to press or we would have used it.
Lake of the Ozarks has always been rumored to be a vacation destination for the St. Louis underworld (mob). We’ve written extensively about tourism in the Ozarks. It would be an exaggeration to call the Lake Sodom and Gomorrah. Branson, founded on Harold Bell Wright’s moralistic, bucolic novel (Shepherd of the Hills), is a stark contrast to Lake of the Ozarks and its Party Cove and cigarette boat races. And now Netflix’s series tags it with Chicago money laundering and drug cartels from Mexico. In Ozark, the ultra violent local criminals are apparently trying to avenge the loss of their land to the lake Cravens started and Egan completed.
We don’t detect much realism in the series but there is a certain poetic resonance. The image of crime in the Ozarks has now entered the twenty-first century. No longer is it just the subject of yellowing newspaper articles, fading sepia photos or local legend. Now, it is the homeland of a mass media mythology.
NOTE – We now have a special running. You can buy Damming the Osage and our new book, James Fork of the White: Transformation of an Ozark River for $52.50, postage paid (a $17.50 savings for the two books).