CAMDENTON - The place a man envisioned as his retreat away from the hustle and bustle of regular life now sees more than 500,000 visitors a year. It's the Castle Ruins at Ha Ha Tonka State Park in Camdenton.
History of the Castle Ruins
In the early 1900s, wealthy Kansas City businessman Robert Snyder bought a large estate in what is now the state park. His mission: to build a grand, three-story, 60-room, European style mansion to serve as his summer and retirement home. He also planned to host guests so they could bask in the beauty of the rolling hills and natural springs the landscape offered.
The mansion's construction crew consisted of around 100 workers, including Scottish stone masons to quarry and shape the sandstone just right. Workers used sandstone, oak, walnut and cedar from the surrounding land.
Snyder never lived to see his dream home finished. He died in a car wreck in 1906, and his sons took over construction. They did not complete the mansion until 1922.
Jacob Bryant, an interpretative research specialist at the park, said "They still never completed it as intricately as their father imagined."
The Snyder's use of their new mansion did not last long. In the years after the mansion was completed, the Snyder sons fought a lengthy legal battle to stop the construction of Bagnell Dam and the creation of the Lake of the Ozarks.
They lost the fight, and the new lake flooded more than 100 acres of their estate, as well as farmland and a handful of towns such as Old Linn Creek.
With homes and livelihoods underwater, Bryant said, "This place became sort of a deserted landscape."
Bryant said the Snyder's lost interest in the mansion, or castle as some people referred to it.
One version of the story says the family's money ran out because of the lawsuits, and poverty, coupled with depression, led the son who lived there to leave for good.
More misfortune struck the castle in 1942. It was a hotel at the time. An ember from one of the castle's chimneys set the cedar roof on fire, and the entire structure was quickly in flames.
Hotel staff and guests couldn't save the castle.
"Being three stories tall and no fire brigade to come out and extinguish the flame, they were limited to pretty much a bucket brigade," Bryant said.
The property was a no-man's land after the fire, Bryant said, until Missouri State Parks bought the property in 1978 and created Ha Ha Tonka State Park.
Visiting the Ruins
The park had more than 530,000 visitors in 2016, making it one of the top ten most visited Missouri state parks. In addition to the castle ruins, the park has hiking trails, boating access, fishing spots and more. But the iconic feature of the park is the castle.
Tim and Denise Allegri are regular visitors to the ruins. The couple said they come every year for their anniversary, and have brought their children several times.
"We usually come here about this time in the fall, and we'll do a Christmas picture with the scenery in the background," Denise Allegri said.
She said the Snyders were an interesting family from what she has read about them. She enjoys visiting the ruins of their old home.
"It makes you stop and wonder what all went on, wonder about the fire that happened here, the people that lived here."
The last time the Allegri's came to the ruins, they could get up close to them and sit on the stone window sills. Now a fence surrounds the ruins.
"This building is fabulous, unfortunately it's kinda falling apart," Tim Allegri said.
Preservation for the future
The fence is for visitor's safety, Bryant said. A few stones have fallen off the castle. He said park employees are not aware of anyone getting hurt by the falling rocks, and they want to keep it that way.
Bryant said the state park system had a restoration survey of the ruins done in 2015 to identify problems with the stone walls. The next step is to have another company guide the park through how to fix those problems. Then the park can request funding fo restoration and preservation projects.
"We really wanna keep the castle as it sits a ruin, to an extent, because it's how we came about the property," Bryant said. "We don't want it to reduce to rubble."
Bryant said the park would hate to see the castle become lost over time because it is a major draw.
"People come here because they've heard of the castle and then they fall in love with it because of the entire Snyder estate and the fact that you have all these unique, natural features around the park."