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The Legend Of The Lake’s Phantom Steeple

From the 11 Spooky Stories From The Ozarks! series

What lies beneath these waters? Structures—or ghosts of them—from the Lake’s lore and shore.

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foggy steeple
Photo by Eilis Garvey on Unsplash
 

There is an air of mystery when the subject turns to what is under the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks. After 85 years there are few folks around who clearly can remember what the Osage River valley looked like before it was inundated by the Lake. And although a few old maps turn up from time to time, most of them provide little detail.

One of the more frequent stories that bear witness to this mystique is the sighting of a certain church steeple that can be seen just under the waves when the Lake is low.

Like any genuine mystery, this one is a little vague. When pressed for details about it, the typical boathouse conversation goes like this:

“What is it?”

“It’s a church steeple.”

“Where?”

“Well, under the Lake. You can see it when the Lake’s down.”

“But where exactly is it?”

“It’s down there by….Oh, heck, you know—that cove.”

“What cove?”

“Gosh, I can’t remember. But everybody knows about it.”

“Have you seen it?”

“Naw. Well, maybe I did; I dunno. It’s been awhile. John’s seen it—ask him.”

John, in his turn, would refer the inquiry to Dave, or Chris, or Holly. Along the way, someone would add the interesting fact that not only is the steeple visible at times, but on quiet nights one can hear its bell softly ringing.

Foggy Linn Creek Cove

And while many seem to know about this mysterious steeple and its bell, few have firsthand knowledge of its exact whereabouts. Once a gentleman came forth who flatly stated in the presence of this writer that the church steeple is in Linn Creek Cove, where he has seen it in low water seasons, and where it dwells still, awaiting another droughty year to rise to within a few feet of the surface and boldly sound its bell.

This is an amazing revelation, and one that greatly adds to the lore of the Lake. Imagine, a whole church down there under the waves, with its steeple eerily reaching upward through schooling fish and intermittent layers of green- and yellow-filtered light.

Unfortunately, there are problems with this romantic vision.

Old Linn Creek photo

Courtesy of Camden County Museum

The town of Old Linn Creek—lying on the bottom of the Lake these eight decades—boasted of three churches in the last years of its existence. The Christian church was a simple, white, wood framed structure; the Baptist church was brick and wood. Both featured attached wooden bell towers. The somewhat larger Methodist church was built of stone, with a high vaulted roof and a stone bell tower that somewhat resembled a squared castle turret. All three churches were within a half-block of each other along Main Street. Today, that same stretch of Main Street is under 30 to 40 feet of water.

Before the old town of Linn Creek was abandoned to the rising Lake in the early months of 1931, most of its hundred-plus buildings were razed. The wooden ones were burned, including the Christian and Baptist churches with their bell towers; the stone and masonry structures were knocked down. The Methodist church was both burned and knocked down, but not before the stained glass windows, pews, flooring, and the bell were removed to be included in the new church just then a-building in the relocated Linn Creek.

Photographs taken during the winter of 1930-31 clearly depict the old town in various phases of destruction. Several of the photos were published in the book, Before the Dam Waters, by T. Victor Jeffries. One shows the gutted remains of the Methodist church with the underpinnings of its bell tower knocked out and a heavy cable attached through a hole in the upper portion of the steeple. The caption states that the tower is about to be pulled over. Another photograph, the most telling, was taken sometime later and clearly shows the area of town where the three churches once stood. Nothing taller than a man's head sticks up among piles of stacked bricks and broken rubble.

The Destruction of Linn Creek

Courtesy Camden County Museum

So what is it that people claim to see below the waves in Linn Creek cove? First of all, there is the “wanna-believe” factor. Folks want to believe that they see things in the water. As any fisherman or boater will attest, it’s common to imagine that one sees the bottom, even in the deepest part of the Lake. It’s simply a mirage of sorts—a play of light and shadows on the surface and few feet below the surface. But it is a convincing illusion.

And what of the claim that a bell tolls from under the waves? Well, bells don’t resonate underwater. Slap two metallic items together underwater and the resulting sound is more like a muffled “clunk.”

The church is no longer there. But attentive boaters may occasionally spot along the Lake’s shoreline, amid thickets of hardwood trees and modern Lake homes, structures strange and unique, whose foundations were laid before the river valley was flooded. Some may even look to the undiscerning eye like a church steeple jutting out of the water…

The Lighthouse

One is the lighthouse at the 38 Mile Marker. It sits atop a low jetty that extends a considerable distance from the natural shoreline. At certain vantage points the jetty is nearly invisible and the lighthouse appears to rise directly out of the Lake. And in profile—especially on a foggy day—it almost looks like a steeple.

The Morris Lighthouse

That seemingly random peninsula has roots in the formation of the Lake, says Dick Morris, who owns the property and built the lighthouse. Ameren—the electric company that built Bagnell Dam in the 1930s—told Dick the early dredging of the nearby coves and channel left a large, long pile of rock and soil. Just leave it alone, Ameren said, and the Lake’s waves would eventually wash it all away.

“No way,” Dick chuckled. “I paid a lot of money for that property!” Not keen on watching his Lakefront real estate slowly disappear, Dick installed a seawall and rip rap around the peninsula. The 30-foot-wide stretch of land became a little park: manicured with green grass and ornamental trees planted in a row.

But a trend began to emerge. Night boating can be a peaceful affair, but every so often, a boater coming around the bend at night would hug the shoreline too closely, and the Morrises would hear a “BOOM!” as the boat crashed into their peninsula.

The night can also be host to strange sights on the Lake. Dick recalls one incident: a guy and several women were enjoying a raucous night: an after-dark boat ride and a bit of skinny-dipping nearby. Dick was in bed when he heard the sound of the collision. “I jumped out of bed, and told my wife to call the Water Patrol,” he recalls. When he ran out to the peninsula, he found all four people apparently unharmed, and seemingly unfazed. “They were there in the water laughing… and the boat was sinking.”

Dick doesn’t know how many boats have hit that peninsula. But it happened often enough that he decided the spot needed a time-tested nautical tool to warn boaters of the coming shoreline: a lighthouse. A builder his whole life, Dick constructed the lighthouse himself, and it shines brightly from dusk until 2 a.m. (though he wonders if he should keep it shining even later). He also installed a “very loud Amtrak train horn” in the lighthouse, just for fun. The lighthouse seems to have worked: there hasn't been a collision with that peninsula in years.

The Iron Smelter

Not far from the Morris lighthouse is the old iron smelter in Bollinger Creek Cove, at the 44 Mile Marker. This impressive stone structure seems entirely out of place, half-submerged along the shoreline. It very closely resembles the shape of the old Methodist church bell tower, though it’s located miles upstream from Linn Creek Cove and so would be unlikely to be construed as the old church for all but the most navigationally challenged boaters.

The Old Iron Smelter

Osage Iron Works built the smelter in 1873 for processing ore in what was originally called “Iron Town”: a few cabins clustered around a mine shaft, on a road that ran from Linn Creek along the south side of the Osage River. The road led to the ferry (sometimes called Bollinger's Ferry) located about a mile upriver from the Iron Works and proceeded northward toward Gravois Mills. Two men, named Condee and Campbell, bought up land in the area in 1871 and began mining deposits of iron ore. During the brief flush times that followed, as many as 150 miners and laborers lived at the site, but the cost of constructing the furnace and associated equipment had depleted most of the company's capital. The operation shut down after only a year.

Iron Town continued to exist even after the smelter closed. In the 1890s D.P. Moore, of Linn Creek, owned a general store there. Moore was described as big, tall, jovial, and "a little bit drunk" most of the time. Nestled in what must have been a picturesque valley of the Missouri Ozarks, Iron Town was occupied until Union Electric bought up the land in 1930-31 to make way for the Lake of the Ozarks. The last buildings were burned to make way for the coming Lake.

The smelter is on private property now, but it’s worth taking a look from the water: a peek back into the Lake’s pre-history, and a reason to explore further upstream than the majority of boating traffic tends to go.

Given, then, the available evidence and it would appear that the mystery of the submerged church steeple and its ringing bell—like many rumored tales—is nothing more than a collection of misunderstood facts. Someone sees an illusion of light playing on the water; someone else chances upon the old smelter and wonders about its origin; yet another person comes across photos of Old Linn Creek and imagines the buildings still standing down there. The stories are told and retold—and combined, and embellished. Eventually a mysterious legend is born.


That is the convenient way of explaining it. But consider one other.

The bell still tolls, though not from under the waves. It rings from the new church, located four miles up the valley. And when, through unexplained means, its heralding chime echoes over the very spot where the old church once stood, it can stir the soul with a powerful and tangible sense of the past.

When people hear the faint pealing of the bell and then see the watery outline of a steeple long removed—and believe that what they are sensing is real—they may in fact be unknowing witnesses to something quite extraordinary.

There is so much more to this world than our minds can grasp, and we are often too quick to dismiss the inexplicable. That old Methodist church was a place of profound emotion and Geist—the German word for “spirit,” whence we derive our English word “ghost.” Consider the prayers that were offered up from that hallowed spot: prayers of joy and grief, heartfelt prayers of petition and of thanks that defined the highest and lowest moments of a lifetime. Though the building was reduced to rubble a lifetime ago, might not the spirit, the Geist, of the place dwell there even now?

That, dear reader, may be the only plausible explanation for the legend of the phantom steeple. Maybe it is there after all.

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