Ha Ha Tonka was built as a private estate in the Ozarks but, after legal disputes with Union Electric and the Bagnell Dam reservoir, the owners converted it to a hotel.
Ha Ha Tonka, a 60-room mansion in the Missouri Ozarks, was the dream of a wealthy businessman, Robert McClure Snyder, Sr. When he died unexpectedly in 1906, the mansion was not yet completed. It became the responsibility of his sons to finish it. They formed a corporation, the Snyder Estate Company, Inc., to hold the title. After some initial financial setbacks, the interior of the mansion was completed in 1926. The Snyder families had a summer and weekend home where their guests could enjoy boating and fishing in the clear blue lake, hiking trails, cave exploration, and relaxing on a private beach.
In 1929, Union Electric of St. Louis built a dam that would impound the Osage River. Bagnell Dam would make the Lake of the Ozarks the largest man-made lake in the United States at the time of construction. Family homes and entire communities were relocated, hundreds of trees were cut down, and the oldest grist mill in the area was burned down. As the reservoir began to fill, the water encroached on Hahatonka property. The Snyder Estate Company, Inc., led by Robert M. Snyder, Jr., and Union Electric went to court. There were two trials. The Snyders were awarded $200,000 for damages. Robert, Jr. was exhausted, his health had declined, and he died in 1937.
Ha Ha Tonka as a Hotel in the Ozarks
The trials had cost the Snyders a lot of money. They had a former senator and former congressman among their attorneys. Witnesses included Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of the Mt. Rushmore faces; Walter Williams, president of the University of Missouri; and Karl Krueger, director of the Kansas City Philharmonic. The Snyders had bills to pay and the $200,000 settlement helped.
After the death of Robert, Jr., the mansion was used as a hotel. Mrs. Josephine Ellis of Jefferson City, Missouri, became the manager. Tourism was increasing, in part, due to the Lake of the Ozarks. More and more people were discovering the scenic beauty of the area. Local high school students in Camdenton had jobs at Hahatonka after school and on weekends that ranged from cleaning the rooms to sweeping the porch and taking the 25-cent admission to tour “the Castle.”
The main attraction of the first floor was a large ballroom in the center. Its ceiling rose the entire 3.5 stories with huge skylights above the room. There was a large kitchen on one side of the ballroom and a servants’ dining room off the kitchen. The stairs from the servants’ dining room led to their bedrooms. A large formal dining room for guests was on the other side of a pantry. The furniture was heavy and dark Victorian-style. The sun porch also had Victorian-style furniture that was wicker.
Missouri Castle Destroyed by Fire
For a little more than 5 years, Hahatonka was a roomy resort with good homecooked meals and a lot of outdoor space for guests to explore. October 21, 1942, the very existence of the mansion would change forever.
The day was cold and very windy. The fires were lit in the fireplaces and a meal was being prepared in the kitchen. High winds bounced off the roof and caused an updraft in the chimneys. Burning embers were whisked up one of the chimneys and landed on the cedar shake roof. The roof quickly caught fire and was burning by the time guests realized what had happened.
People exited the mansion and the call went out for help. School was dismissed so students could help extinguish the fire. Many of the people who lived in Camdenton offered assistance. The wind was gusting and the fire jumped from the mansion to the stables, then jumped again to the 80-foot high water tower that was several hundred yards away.
The water tower was built so that if a fire ever started at Hahatonka, water would be available. There were large fire hoses on every floor of the mansion. The one time when there was an emergency, the water pressure wasn’t consistent. By the time the fire was out, the 60-room mansion known as the Castle was gutted.
Ha Ha Tonka After the Fire
The Snyders did not have any insurance. The mansion was left in ruins but out of those ruins came a new respect. It would be several years in the making but Robert McClure Snyder’s dream home would become a state park.
- Moreland, Fern, editor, et al, Camden County Historian 1985-87: The History of Ha Ha Tonka, Camden County Historical Society
- Blair, Les, Ha Ha Tonka “Land of the Laughing Water,” Ozark Maid Candy Kitchen, 1999
- Collins, Joseph P. Jr., Personal interview – former employee at Ha Ha Tonka