Where there were cows, now there are fish. Farmhouses gave way to marinas. Fifty years ago, Missouri Life reported on the in-progress construction of the Harry S. Truman Dam & Reservoir. Despite early misgivings from locals in the region that stretches from Warsaw to Clinton to Osceola, Truman Lake has proven to be a boon for business and a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Harry S. Truman Dam & Reservoir Visitor Center is a mid century architectural marvel sitting atop a bluff and affording views that stretch for miles.
Photo Credit: Missouri Division of Tourism

By Lisa Waterman Gray and Sandy Selby

There was plenty of controversy when the Harry S. Truman Dam and Lake project began. In fact, when Missouri Life interviewed residents in 1973 about the planned lake, locals were particularly troubled about the potential impact on the area’s wildlife and natural beauty. That was a concern that the lake’s builder, the US Army Corps of Engineers, addressed head-on by restricting construction near the lakeshore.

Fast forward to today. The old fears have faded as Truman Lake has delivered economic benefits for the locals and become renowned as one of Missouri’s favorite outdoor playgrounds.

Truman Lake has evolved into an angler’s paradise. Marinas and rampslocated around the lake make it easy to launch a boat.
Photo Credit: Missouri State Parks


Abundant bass, crappie, and catfish populate Truman Lake. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) controls more than 55,000 acres for wildlife and fish management. Approximately 8,800 acres of submerged oak and hickory forest improve fish habitat, facilitating spawning, feeding, and cover. As a result, the lake has earned a reputation as one of the best bass and crappie fishing lakes in the country. Naturally, fishing tournaments fill the calendar from spring through fall.

Among the many tournaments hosted at Truman Lake each year is Fishing for Freedom, which takes place October 6–8 in 2023. This tournament pairs military veterans with volunteer boaters for three days of companionship and recreation. There are trophies for the top finishers, although it’s the camaraderie, not the competition, that draws anglers to this event. 

On any given day, hundreds of anglers will be meandering around the lake in their boats, searching for the most bountiful spots to cast their fishing lines in the hope of landing a whopper. But landlubbers should not be deterred. According to the MDC, one of the most overlooked hot spots for Truman Lake fishing is its shallow water areas. Especially during the temperature extremes of summer and winter, crappie may be found within casting distance from the shore in water eight feet deep or shallower.

The Harry S. Truman Dam was completed in 1979 after 25 years of planning, land acquisition, and construction. It produces power from six turbines.
Photo Credit: Lisa Waterman Gray


The hum of boat motors has become part of the soundscape of the region, and many of those boats are moored at marinas that encircle the lake. Among the most popular is Beyonder Marina at Sterett Creek. No boat? No problem. This marina offers boat rentals, a motel and campground, fishing gear, groceries, and a helpful staff. Osage Bluff Marina holds the distinction of being the first marina to open on the lake. Established in 1982, after the facility was floated to its new home near Warsaw from its original location at Osceola, Osage Bluff Marina gets boaters prepared for their day on the water with amenities that include a full-service restaurant and a convenience store.

Boaters seeking solitude for fishing or autumn leaf-peeping will find it at Truman Lake. Unlike the adjacent Lake of the Ozarks, there aren’t houses and condos crowding the shoreline. Truman Lake is not a party lake, and that happened by design. “Many people thought this might turn out like Lake of the Ozarks, but the Corps has put some controls in place,” says Warsaw resident Amie Breshears, whose father was a member of the Army Corps of Engineers in the lake’s early days. “People are glad the Corps doesn’t allow building right next to the water, so it’s a little bit quieter.”

Harry S. Truman State Park is located on a peninsula that extends out into the lake with water access on three sides.
Photo Credit: Missouri State Parks


From concept to completion, the development of the Truman Dam and Reservoir took more than a quarter century. By the time the project was completed in 1979, 8.5 million cubic yards of earth had been excavated. There were 327,000 cubic yards of concrete incorporated into the dam, with its 5,000-foot-long earthen embankment and 964-foot-long concrete section. At its highest point, the dam is 126 feet above the Osage River bed. Truman Lake lies approximately 700 feet below sea level. Typically, its surface area covers more than 55,400 acres. During flooding episodes, water may cover upward of 200,000 acres, touching portions of Benton, Henry, Hickory, and St. Clair counties.

The US Army Corps of Engineers manages or leases 20 parks and access areas near the reservoir, including 100,000 land acres of rugged, rocky hills and bluffs, as well as forests and prairie. As the project unfolded in the ’70s, attitudes began to change when the area economy improved. “The construction phase was an economic boon,” says longtime local and Benton County Historical Society volunteer Randy Eaton. “It provided jobs and housing. Many improvements were made with grant money. Lots of people moved here to work, and they never left.”

The history of the construction is recounted through displays at the Harry S. Truman Dam & Reservoir Visitor Center. Other exhibits at the center address Truman Lake’s cultural and natural history through displays of fossils and artifacts, and a large-scale painting of a Missouri leviathan. This is a creature that a mistaken scientist suggested once inhabited an ancient area sea, but his hypothesis was based on poorly reassembled mastodon bones.

The Visitor Center itself is a destination for all who appreciate dramatic midcentury architecture. The building, with its curved walls and window-lined observation deck, extends from a high bluff and overlooks the lake and dam. Visitors enjoy a birds-eye view and sometimes find themselves eye-to-eye with the birds as eagles and vultures swoop by on the wind currents.

Budget constraints at the Corps of Engineers mean public access to the Visitor Center is limited to weekends (Fridays through Sundays) from mid-April through the end of September.

Warsaw’s Drake Harbor offers trails, picnic areas, and playgrounds for family fun.
Photo Credit: Lisa Waterman Gray


Located on a peninsula that juts out into the lake, Harry S.Truman State Park is a gem among the many treasures in the state park system. The 1,440-acre park features two swimming beaches for vacationers or day-trippers. Although the campground beach is open exclusively to those who are camping at one of the basic or electric campsites in the park, the other is open to everyone for daytime swimming. There are restrooms and changing rooms nearby. For those who prefer drier forms of recreation, the park features miles of hiking trails, including the Western Wallflower Glade Trail that preserves glade and savanna habitat in presettlement conditions and the Bluff Ridge Trail that offers commanding views of the lake. There’s a marina in the park, too, with watercraft rentals, fishing supplies, and a four-lane launch for those who prefer to bring their own boat.

Truman Lake’s wildlife and unspoiled shorelines are protected by US Army Corps of Engineers regulations that prevent construction near the water.
Photo Credit: Missouri State Parks


The recreational opportunities aren’t limited to the lake itself. The creation of Truman Lake directly led to the creation and growth of other enterprises.

“The Lake of the Ozarks and Truman are about the same size,” says Randy Pogue, Warsaw’s city administrator and planner. “We consider ourselves the more laid-back area, but there’s still room for special projects, such as a resort at Shawnee Bend Golf Course, which is adjacent to Truman Lake.”

The par-72 Shawnee Bend Golf Course opened in 1985. Its designers took advantage of the hilly terrain and lake vistas to create a course that is both challenging and aesthetically pleasing. Luke Johnson, owner of Warsaw Adventures, a business that rents kayaks, paddleboards, and bicycles, says there have been many improvements in the area because of the lake and the dam. “The general area has gone from this resistance phase into acceptance and then leveraging resources.”

Warsaw’s Drake Harbor was developed after the completion of Truman Lake and has become the local epicenter for family fun and recreation. Hiking and biking trails loop around the park, and the Drake Harbor Trail leads to the historic Joe Dice Swinging Bridge. Warsaw’s Pioneer Heritage Days, taking place this year on October 21 and 22, draws visitors from hundreds of miles around for the weekend celebration of old-time crafts and non- stop entertainment. The event, which debuted in 1981, connects the town with the lake as it extends from Drake Harbor to Harry S. Truman State Park.

“Warsaw’s on the cusp of ‘hipness,’ ” says Amie Breshears. “In September, the Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities conference was held here, and that’s pretty exciting.” In the past half-century, Truman Lake has gone from a much-maligned proposal to a favorite Missouri destination that changed minds as surely as it changed the landscape.

Warsaw’s Heritage Days event in October showcases artisans and reenactors who provide a glimpse of life during the 1800s.
Photo Credit: Kaysinger Basin Pioneer Heritage Association


Beyonder Marine at Sterett Creek, BeyonderCamp.com

Drake Harbor, WelcomeToWarsaw.com

Fishing for Freedom Tournament, FishingForFreedom.us

Harry S. Truman Dam & Reservoir Visitor Center, NWK.usace.army.mil/Locations/District-Lakes/Harry-S-Truman-Lake/Harry-S-Truman-Visitor-Center/

Harry S. Truman State Park, MoStateParks.com/park/harry-s-truman-state-park

Joe Dice Swinging Bridge, WelcomeToWarsaw.com

Osage Bluff Marina, OsageBluff.com

Pioneer Heritage Days, HeritageDays.com

Shawnee Bend Golf Course, ShawneeBendGolf.com

Warsaw Adventures, WarsawAdventures.com

Truman Lake: The View from 1973


Article originally published in the October 2023 issue of Missouri Life.