by James E. Price, Park HistorianApproximately 80,000 acres of rugged Ozark land along the Jacks Fork and Current Rivers today form Ozark National Scenic Riverways, a riparian corridor through Shannon, Carter, Dent, and Texas Counties in the southeastern Missouri Ozark Highland. This scenic park is visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who enjoy the solitude and natural beauty of the forested hills, soaring bluffs, caves, springs, plants, animals, and historic buildings that create a memorable experience for all who view them. Only in the last forty years has there been a National Park that manages and protects these natural and cultural resources. Once the land along these rivers was the home for Ozark people who farmed the valleys and extracted vast quantities of lumber products from its forests. The land sustained many families from the time of initial settlement in the early nineteenth century to the mid-1960s when it became a National Park. Although a traditional Ozark Scotch-Irish lifeway continues in the region, it is fast being swept away by societal and technological changes.
The southeastern Ozarks were long isolated from outside influence due to the rugged nature of the environment and the lack of improved transportation routes into the region. Scotch-Irish settlers began to filter in shortly after The Louisiana Purchase in 1804 and by the 1850s most lands in the river valleys were occupied by subsistence farmers. The Civil War brought devastation to the region and economic recovery was slow to come. It was not until the 1880s that major change began to occur with the coming of railroads and large lumber companies. Railroads provided economical transportation for goods into and out of the southeastern Ozarks. The lumber companies established large mills and millions of board feet of native pine lumber were sawn and shipped out, mostly to rapidly growing towns on the Great Plains. Timber was rapidly stripped from the Ozark hills and wildfires consumed most of the rest, reducing the Ozark to a barren wasteland hardly capable of supporting the people who stayed behind when the lumber companies left. Rains washed topsoil into the rivers and gorged them with gravel. The region became poverty-stricken and only the sheer determination of the Ozark people kept them on their farmsteads to eke out a meager living.Amid this misery a conservation ethic was generated, not by the Ozark residents but people from far beyond the hills. The Current and Jacks Fork Rivers had been recognized by outsiders for their scenic beauty and abundant wildlife as early as the 1870s and with the railroads came urban sportsmen bent on hunting and fishing experiences in this remote area. Urban businessmen formed several hunting and fishing clubs filled with members from Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield, and beyond. Following the lumber era, such individuals were concerned that game fish and animal populations had been decimated.
In urban areas automobiles started to grow in numbers following 1910 and by the 1920s such motorized vehicles were abundant and there followed a demand for better roads leading into the Current River country to bring tourists for sightseeing and sporting. In 1909 Missouri Governor Hadley took a float trip on the Current River which drew national attention. Roads were improved and more outsiders came and vacationed in the southeastern Ozarks. In 1919 the Missouri State Fish and Game Commission was established. Between 1920 and 1935 several conservation writers such as Aldo Leopold and Leonard Hall drew attention to the need for better management of the resources of the Current River Country. And, there was a movement to acquire lands in the region for construction of state parks. In 1924 state parks were established at Round Spring, Alley Spring, and Big Spring. Ambitious development of these new parks was quickly dampened by The Great Depression that struck in 1929. Fortunately, as part of The New Deal put in place by President Franklin Roosevelt, the Department of the Army, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of the Interior, Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established for conservation objectives. Some of their labor was expended at the these three state parks, the most ambitious being the development of Big Spring State Park near Van Buren where numerous stone and wood buildings were constructed which remain today. It was during this time that a concept was developed for a linear park encompassing a large section of the Jacks Fork River. This idea remained only an idea at the time but resurfaced decades later as part of Ozark National Scenic Riverways.In 1933 large tracts of land were purchased in the region for the Clark National Forest which today is part of Mark Twain National Forest. In 1936 the Missouri Department of Conservation was established and game laws became more rigidly enforced in the region. It was also during the 1930s that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began studies in earnest for the damming of the Current River for hydroelectric plants. In 1941 plans were moving ahead and had it not been for WWII, it is likely that at least one dam would have been built. Following the war, plans to dam the river once again resurfaced but in the early 1950s an anti-dam movement by conservationists became so strong that it finally squelched any further plans to harness that magnificent free-flowing stream. Conservationists had other intentions for the Jacks Fork and Current River and created for them a lasting destiny in the form of Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
In 1956 The National Park Service conducted a study and issued a report calling for establishment of a corridor park along the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers and in 1960 momentum grew when Congress appropriated funds for a feasibility study for the establishment of an "Ozark Rivers National Monument" which would include the Eleven Point River. There was stiff resistance to the formation of such a park from many local residents, particularly landowners who did not want to lose their family farms and county officials who did not want to lose a large portion of the tax base. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy endorsed the formation of Ozark National Scenic Riverways. Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and other officials visited the region and floated the Current River. Following his strong endorsement, a bill was submitted and passed by Congress for the formation of the park. President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law and Ozark National Scenic Riverways became a reality. A formal dedication ceremony was held at Big Spring in 1972 presided over by Patricia Nixon Cox who cut the ribbon. This act officially opened the park to millions of visitors, like you, who have come in subsequent years to enjoy all that it offers.