A visit to Lake Wappapello should be on your must-do list. The lake is clear, the forests are diverse, the fishing is excellent, and the cabins are a great place to spend a few days relaxing. Learn the history of the dam and how the lake was created.

A beach offers swimming and water fun.
Photo by Lauren Stroer

Lake Wappapello State Park

THE ST. FRANCIS RIVER once flowed freely through the piney ridges of the southeastern Ozarks below Sam A. Baker State Park before dropping into the lowlands of Missouri and Arkansas on its way to the Mississippi. Native Americans gave the river its name of Cholo-Holley or Smoky Waters.

Before 1936 and the building of a dam, there were a number of small communities in the Ozark portion of the St. Francis River, including one called Wappapello. In 1936 Congress passed the Overton Act, which authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to develop the St. Francis Basin Project to control flooding on the lower Mississippi River. Accordingly, the Memphis district began construction of a dam across the St. Francis River near Wappapello in 1938, the first of the large corps dams in Missouri. This was also the site of the first government-funded archaeological survey of a reservoir area in the state, conducted by an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri, Carl Chapman. Chapman would later become the dean of Missouri archaeology and would be credited with lobbying the Archaeological and Historic Pres- ervation Act of 1974 through Congress. The act has provided millions of dollars for cultural resource surveys and mitigation at federally funded reservoirs and other construction projects throughout the nation. State parks at two more recent corps reservoirs in Missouri, Harry S. Truman and Mark Twain, have benefited from studies funded with more than $1 million each under this program.

In addition to submerging archaeological remains, the Wappapello project displaced several towns, eight schools, and hundreds of farms and homes. As is the case with most reservoirs that flood river bottom- land, many complained that the best farmland in Wayne County was being destroyed. Nevertheless, the 2,700-foot-long, 109-foot-high dam was completed in 1941, and it created an 8,400-acre lake at what engineers would call normal pool. The lake can reach more than twice that size at high water, backing up almost to Sam A. Baker State Park some twenty miles north.

The fishing is excellent, especially for largemouth bass, crappie, white bass, and bluegill.
Photo by Lauren Stroer

Notwithstanding the loss of a free-flowing river and its rural communities, Lake Wappapello is one of the more beautiful corps reservoirs in Missouri. The water is all from the Ozarks, and clear. The hills surrounding the lake are steep and scenic. The forests that cover these slopes are rich and diverse. With the Mississippi Lowlands not far away, the addition of southern cherrybark oak, sweetgum, and devil’s walking stick add an interesting bottom-country component to the typical Ozark flora of shortleaf pine, white oak, and sour gum. The fishing is excellent, especially for crappie, white bass, and bluegill, as well as largemouth bass and catfish.

Not far from the dam itself—though more than fifteen miles by road from the town of Wappapello near the former logging boomtown of Chaonia—is a ridge known as Allison’s Peninsula, named for the family that once lived there, and their cemetery still remains on the ridge. In this area, the state of Missouri operates Lake Wappapello State Park on 1,854 acres provided by the corps as a donated lease in 1957. Along with Table Rock State Park, leased to the state on the same day, it is the oldest of the corps reservoir parks in the system.

This state park is well-known and popular among people in southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, and western Kentucky and Tennessee; but still, it is seldom crowded and offers a relaxing hideaway, especially if you enjoy lake fishing, boating, and hiking. The facilities include two campgrounds, one on the ridge and one nestled near the lake, picnic areas, a swimming beach, and tidy little kitchen-equipped cabins that are perfect for a family escape.

Hike a trail to the Allison family cemetery on the ridge above the lake.
Photo by Lauren Stroer

Several trails in the park lead along the lake and into the Ozark forest. One leads also to the old Allison family cemetery. The sunsets over the lake from this point are superb. Trails up Asher Creek valley and along an arm of the lake that is a designated waterfowl winter refuge offer sightings of eagles, ospreys, ducks, and other wildlife. Another longer trail, which heads north along the lake and loops back through adjacent public lands, connects with a spur of the Ozark Trail and beckons mountain bikers, equestrians, and backpackers.

In addition to the intrinsic attraction of a quiet, wooded, lakeside park, Wappapello also is a convenient point from which to explore nearby features. The lake is virtually surrounded by Army Corps of Engineers land, most of which is undeveloped. One such area, the Johnson tract, is a large expanse of little-disturbed forest that is being managed as a natural area. The Poplar Bluff unit of the Mark Twain National Forest is just to the west, and Sam A. Baker State Park is to the north. The fascinating bottomlands of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge are just across the dam to the east, and the former University Forest, now operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, is to the south.

At the state park itself, there is a special quality of early morning light that will lift you from any doldrums. Arise early, walk to the water’s edge, and enjoy the golden shafts of light piercing the cool morning mists, sparkling the dew on numberless leaves across the dark green or radiant autumnal hills and then steadily creeping across the still waters of the deep-shaded cove. Then you may agree that lovely Lake Wappapello State Park is still the Smoky Waters. 

Lake Wappapello is named for a small Wayne County railroad town named Wappapello, reportedly after a friendly Shawnee chief who hunted the area during early pioneer times.


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