Rockaway Beach: From Booming Resort to Sleepy Fishing Town

Sep 5, 2012

Tourism has long been a primary driver of the economy in southwest Missouri. For our series, Sense of Place, we look at the development of that economy from a historical perspective. Today, KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story of a small Ozarks town that was once a booming resort village. 

On the so-called “swimming island” in Rockaway Beach, Missouri, a few trout fishermen cast their lines into Lake Taneycomo. The cold water of the lake is perfect for the trout that come from the fish hatchery near Table Rock Dam, 22 miles upstream.

These were not always friendly waters for trout.

Before the construction of Table Rock Dam in 1958, this was a warm water lake. Bass fishing, boating, and swimming attracted people from all over Missouri to this resort town that was born from the construction of the Powersite Dam near Forsyth in 1913. When that dam was built, it sparked the interest of an entrepreneur from Kansas City:  Willard Merriam.

“He found out about them building the dam and he bought all this land around here.”

That’s Van Hanner, the director of the Rockaway Beach Library and Museum. That’s where we met on a recent Wednesday to talk about the evolution of this small lakeshore town.

“Then he brought a bunch of merchants down here from Kansas City. And they built stores and other stuff like that. At first, the town had no roads to it, just trails, and the mail used to come in by boat from Branson.”

Merriam founded a resort community on the banks of the newly formed Lake Taneycomo. He and his wife built and operated the first cottages for rent, a model that was repeated by other resort owners.

Today, the hillside is speckled with clusters of little cottages from a community of resorts. Most of the small buildings are equipped with a miniature kitchen, designed for long term family vacations. Merriam also worked to build a large dance pavilion on the water’s edge. It wasn’t long before he had to build a second, larger pavilion to accommodate the influx of people.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, tourists would take the train to Branson and hop aboard the Sammy Lane, a boat that ferried vacationers along the White River and Taneycomo. The Sammy Lane was equipped with her own dance floor and would dock on the outer edge of the dance pavilion. Hanner says you could dance all the way to Branson and back.

“It was quite a place. I’ve seen where you’d come around the corner up here…it was just like being in the French quarter in New Orleans during Marti Gras. You could hardly drive down the street there was so many people here—kids from college and high school kids. It was a going place, really.”

Hanner himself first came to Rockaway in 1939, when he was a kid. It was a popular destination during the prohibition era.  It’s a local popular legend that Al Capone had a house across the river from Rockaway that he used as one of his many isolated hideouts. The town roared beyond the twenties and thrived for years. Water-skiing, boating, fishing, sunning and swimming drew folks to the warm waters of Lake Taneycomo. Hanner says there was once an abundance of restaurants, attractions (like bumper cars and skee ball), and places to stay.

“In fact, where you’re sitting was a place called Captain Bill’s. Bill Roberts. And it was a hotel. This was part of the restaurant and the post office over here was another part of the restaurant.”

By a dam it lived and by a dam it died.

“When they built Table Rock Dam they started running the water off the bottom of Table Rock Dam which cooled the water down here and you couldn’t get out there and swim—you fall off your skis you come up blue.”

The construction of the new dam kick-started development in Branson while marking the decline of the popular resort community Rockaway Beach.

Today, Rockaway Beach could be described as sleepy.

Several clusters of once-rented cabins sit empty, for sale, or have been turned into private residences. Numerous people have tried to revitalize Rockaway Beach, and it saw a recent failed proposal to build a casino on the lake.

Hanner says it’s been hard for the town to find a new and unique identity that would draw people in from the live entertainment and activity of Branson.

“We’ve had local shows here at times, and good entertainment but it’s just hard to get people to come in here. They want the big names and all that”

The glamor of its heyday is faded but the look and feel of Rockaway Beach is distinctive. It will never return to the days of tourists gaily dancing their way from Branson to Rockaway on the bow of Sammy Lane, but there is continual motivation to rejuvenate the resort village. Hanner is cautiously optimistic about the future of the town he loves.

“It’s really difficult. I don’t know what the answer is but someday somebody going to come in and buy everything up and re-do it.”

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.