Ha Ha Tonka – One Man’s Dream

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The "Castle" at Ha Ha Tonka State Park

Ha Ha Tonka is an Osage Indian name for a region of rugged scenic beauty in the Missouri Ozarks and the site of a European-style mansion known as Ha Ha Tonka Castle.

In 1905, a self-made, prominent Kansas City businessman, Robert McClure Snyder, began construction of his dream home atop a 250-foot cliff overlooking Big Spring, a natural spring in the south-central Missouri Ozarks, just outside of Camdenton. This region is known as Ha Ha Tonka, or Hahatonka, and is most often translated as the “Land of the Laughing Water” because of the sound the water makes at the base of the cliff.

Natural Resources of Ha Ha Tonka

Robert Snyder first saw Hahatonka in 1903 when he was on a fishing trip in the Ozarks. He had stopped at a hotel in Lebanon, Missouri, where the owner told him about an area he co-owned that had good fishing and beautiful scenery. Snyder took up the suggestion and made the 25-mile journey via horse and buggy to Hahatonka.

He saw the same scenery and natural resources the American Indians had seen for centuries: the abundance of wild game and water fowl, fish swimming in the clear streams, and suitable sites for camping in the villages or caves along the Niangua and Osage Rivers. He saw the topography known as Karst which includes underground streams, springs, cliffs, sinkholes, caves, chasms, and natural rock formations that had been forming since prehistoric times; and he wanted to preserve all of it.

Castle on the Cliff

At the time of Robert Snyder’s first visit to the region, Hahatonka already had several buildings including a school, grist mill, and hotel. He made his first purchase of land at Ha Ha Tonka Park in 1904. He continued buying land until he had 60 adjoining tracts which equaled 5,400 acres. By March, 1905, he came with a corps of engineers and landscape architects to locate the grounds for his new home, to plan walkways and drives, and to use an already-existing dam and old mill site for electricity and elevating water to the top of the cliff.

The cost of construction of the stone mansion would be approximately $40,000. It was designed by Kansas City architect, Adrian Van Brunt and would be 3.5 stories high with 60 rooms. Cement was hauled from Lebanon, 25 miles away. Lumber was ordered from a nearby sawmill in Decaturville. The growing number of workmen created an increased demand for lodging and board. The hotel was used to house the labor force. A cottage was renovated and used as temporary residence for Snyder and his wife. A tool house and workshop were built on the cliff and excavation of the stone and rock was underway.

The Snyders spent most of the summer of 1905 in Europe. While they were away, a telephone system was installed in the park, heavy blasting was heard for miles, an 80-foot high water tower was built which would force water up to the mansion by gravity from the spring at the base of the cliff, and progress continued on building roads that did not detract from the natural scenery.

After the Snyders returned to the area, a new steam sawmill was being used for lumber, the first railroad was built at Hahatonka to carry stone from the quarries up the cliff to the mansion, and stone masons were added to the workforce. A boat was used as a ferry to transport lumber across the lake. By September,1906, the mansion had a roof and a large fountain was in front. The landscape architect was from England and an interior designer was brought in from New York. Workmen shifted their attention to building the greenhouses and stables.

Ha Ha Tonka’s Future Changed by Tragedy

Robert Snyder would not live to see the completion of the mansion. He was the owner of Snyder Gas Company in Kansas City and was one of the first in Kansas City to own a car. On October 27, 1906, his chauffeur was driving down Independence Avenue with Snyder in the back seat. A small boy ran out in front of the car. The chauffeur swerved but the boy was hit and died. Snyder was thrown out of the car and died instantly.

The completion and management of Hahatonka was passed on to his eldest son, Robert M. Snyder, Jr. The roof was finished quickly for protection, but completion of the interior would not begin until 1922. The story of Hahatonka under the son’s management would include lawsuits against the encroachment of the newly proposed Bagnell Dam reservoir at Lake of the Ozarks.

Sources:

  1. Moreland, Fern, editor, et al, Camden County Historian 1985-87: The History of Ha Ha Tonka, Camden County Historical Society
  2. Blair, Les, Ha Ha Tonka “Land of the Laughing Water,” Ozark Maid Candy Kitchen, 1999.
  3. Collins, Joseph P.Jr., Personal interview – former employee at Ha Ha Tonka, January 30, 2010
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