Big Spring

By Jo Schaper



(C) Copyright 2001 Jo Schaper. This paper may be copied for educational purposes only. It may not be sold for profit or altered without contacting the author, Jo Schaper, 46 Cedar Drive, Pacific, MO 63069).




Despite its recent overuse, awesome is truly they only word which adequately describes this small river, which emerge, full blown, at the base of an Eminence Dolomite bluff. Big, at 433 feet, is also the lowest in elevation of any of the major Ozark springs. Despite nearly one hundred years of advertisement to the contrary, Big is not a single orifice spring.  At moderately high flow, a second outlet is clearly visible about 150 feet downstream of the main boil in the bluff incisement, and Vineyard reports evidence of much smaller rises nearby. Hydrologically, these must drain the same conduit, though at different elevations.


Periods of maximum flow which have pegged the recorder at 2000 cfs (1.292 billion gpd) have occurred four times in the 1980s (December 3, 1982, May 1, 1983, February 24, 1985, and November 21, 1985) but the true maximum at Big Spring remains a mystery, since the spring itself is inundated by the Current River at such times. A measurement of 1300 cfs (839.8 mgd) by hydrologist Elmer Roemer of the USGS during a similar high flow is considered authoritative, since Mr. Roemer's expertise was in estimating water flows at just such times. Low flow at Big is generally agreed to be 236 cfs (152 mgd) on October 6, 1956. Average flow of 428 cfs (276 mgd) is reported by Vineyard up to 1982; an average based on daily flow records October 1921 to December 1993 yields 443 cfs (286 mgd).


Access to the supply system has not been successful because of the quantity of unstable breakdown and the all too certainty of a diver being dashed to bits by the current and rocks. The amount of excavation being accomplished beneath this bluff has led to its increasing instability. In early 1988, the CCC trail around the spring was closed along the bluff face because of rockslides onto the trail below. 


The spring branch downstream of the supply passage is about 15 feet deep and flows about 1000 feet before meeting the Current River.


The historical recharge area for Big Spring was thought by Josiah Bridge, an early researcher, to encompass the underground drainage basins of "Pike, Sycamore and Davis Creeks, the upper portion of Mill Creek, and a large territory south and east of the Eminence region. It [Big Spring] may also receive a portion of its water from some of the dry valleys on the north side of the Current River." All these are local losing streams.  He reports that chemical wastes from the Midco Iron Works discharged into the dry bed of Davis Creek 10 miles to the northwest of Big Spring, reappeared in the spring, with the pollution ceasing when the iron works went out of business in 1921. Other reports of spring recharge areas to the north are anecdotal, i.e., increased flow after heavy rains in that locale, (Kastler, pers. comm.) but these are largely undocumented.


The best records of recharge area delineation are those of Aley and the U.S. Forest Service conducted during the Hurricane Creek Barometer Watershed project, during the late 1960's to early 1970's, and more recent work done by Aley and Ozark Underground Laboratory associates for the National Park Service, to gather data to counter attempts to prospect for and eventually hardrock mine lead in the recharge area.


In the earlier study, using fluorescein dye and lycopodium spores, Aley determined that the Middle Fork of, and Eleven Point Rivers, and the Spring and Hurricane Creek watersheds to the west and southwest of Big Spring contributed greatly to its flow. Hurricane Creek is especially interesting, as 70% of the rainfall over its watershed is lost underground.  The presence of relatively unobstructed groundwater flow is evidenced by a 7 to 14 day period to traverse 17 miles or a rate of between 2.4 to 1.2 miles per day, which is practically a gallop by groundwater standards. The longest water traces of any spring in the state occur on this system (just under 40 miles beeline) to Mountain View to the west and Peace Valley to the southwest.


The recharge area of Big Spring overlaps that of Greer Spring, second largest in the state, and a number of smaller Oregon County springs. Much tracing data on Greer has been done under contract, and is not yet publicly available, but it seems likely that Big and Greer are both furnished with water from deeper parts of the aquifer, whereas smaller springs react on the basis of shallower water levels.


Karst groundwater in this region is a complex system, and is not yet completely understood. Faults and lineaments seem to control the movement of subsurface groundwater in the region, as regional dip, stratigraphic control or elevation seem to make little difference to groundwater movement. Vineyard reports that the Big Spring supply system cuts through 500 feet of elevation and at least one formational boundary in its movement to the spring. The water apparently ignores the southwest trending regional dip as well, cutting through it in its movement northeastward. These factors, plus the open systems postulated by the rapid groundwater movement, make large Ozark springs more susceptible to groundwater contamination than springs elsewhere.


Calculations by Grawe (1945) on the mineral content of Big Spring have yielded an average daily removal of 175 tons of calcium carbonate. Over a years' time, this produces 640,000 tons, or enough rock to form a cave passage 30 feet high by 50 feet wide by 1 mile long. The true extent of the feeder systems for Missouri's large springs is not yet known, nor will it be for many eons, until regional uplift and draining permit entrance, or the state of diving technology advances beyond current limits. Vineyard terms these spring supply passages still forming under phreatic conditions "cave factories." If so, Big Spring's system is surely among the Fortune 500.


Those seeking further edification on Big Spring geology and recharge are referred to Ozark Hydrology: A Predictive Model, by Aley, which documents the Hurricane Creek Barometer Watershed project, and attempts to draw local groundwater theory from its data.





The human history of Big Spring is little documented until it became a state park. According to Eunice Pennington, the spring was known to the Natives, but discovered by white people in 1803, by a man named Pocahontas Randolph, a distant cousin of Thomas Jefferson, who found it going by the native name, "the spring that roars." Randolph apparently had a minor mandate to explore and document this area of the Louisiana Purchase, and he later settled at what became Pocahontas, Arkansas, leaving Poca Hollow near Van Buren as his legacy. The area around the spring was known as Bear Camp or Bark Camp, either from a camp for bear hunters, or on account of the temporary bark covered huts constructed there until better arrangements could be made.


Although it seems to have been a popular outing destination around the turn of the century, so little was known about it that Louis Houck, in his 1908 History of Missouri, inaccurately attributes secondary status to a location called "Vail Springs near Van Buren", believing Greer Spring (which he called "Big Ozark") to be larger. Mr Houck, a very thorough, though non-professional historian, went so far as to purchase Greer Spring for that reason. Big Spring was inaccessible except by boat, horseback or foot during this time as no roads led to it. No mention of it is made in the book The State of Missouri, a volume published to boost the state to visitors at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, which waxes poetic on Grand Gulf, Greer and a number of natural curiosities equally off the beaten path.  Big was also referred to as Niagara Springs during this era.


The first record of purchase of the land from the federal government dates to Thomas Morgan in February of 1913. The 400 acre tract on which the spring itself lies was resold in late 1913 to Henry and Martha Sawyer of Buchanan County (near St. Joseph, Missouri), with additional land surrounding and above the spring being owned by Dr. Tolman W.  (T.W.) Cotton.  Dr. Cotton owned a house and land on which he operated a concession stand near the spring. He sold drinks and snacks there during the summer prior to the development of the park, according to George Hosack, whose father moved a sawmill business from Hunter, Missouri to near the spring in order to lumber off the land near there in the early 1920's. L. Z. Hosack owned seven lots over the spring, and what became the entrance to the park. Evidence of the wildness of the land which Hosack acquired to cut is reflected in that it was available to patent for the price of the taxes. He later furnished lumber for Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) construction at the park, and protested the removal of the camp due to lack of funds, which left some projects unfinished.


An interesting article from a 1950 Ellington newspaper by J. Loyd Huett recounts an expedition into the cave behind the spring in 1917. According to Huett, he, Luin Carnahan, and Frank Crawford, (all in their teens and aided from above by Gladys and Thelma Cotton, and Nellie Crawford) entered the spring supply passage on rope, and after a minor amount of exploring, limited by the water, breakdown and the lack of explorable passage, took photos, left a note in a glass jar,  and then climbed back out. Some of the details of this account, reprinted in a Poplar Bluff paper in 1992 by Huett's son, are a bit incredulous (huge eyeless catfish, for example) but like many such stories, there may be a bit of truth behind them. If only someone could produce the pictures!


Fred McGhee, the Carter County Clerk, and Dr. Cotton were the major promoters of Big Springs as a potential state park. Although the site retained much of its natural beauty, frequent flooding of the spring, and lack of roads into the area were great drawbacks. A initial parcel of 4416.41 acres was purchased for $22,589 from October 17, 1924 to October 6, 1927 from nine sellers, including the spring tract, and three parcels from McGhee. Dr. Cotton did not sell, but maintained his concession, then operated on his inholding at the park. Dr. Cotton's property was acquired in the  early 1950's, presumably after his death.


Big Springs State Park was dedicated on October 17, 1926 by Governor Sam A. Baker, the same day a new bridge across the Current was dedicated at Van Buren. Some meager improvements to the park were begun, including cutting an automobile road to the spring area, and clearing a campground, but due to lack of appropriations from the legislature, major improvements had to wait for the efforts of the CCC camps,  which were stationed at the park from 1934 to 1937. Land survey, road improvement, the construction of cabins, park buildings, and the installation of stonework and park-like landscaping  to reinforce heavily traveled areas were accomplished by the CCC, and much of this remains to this day.


Perhaps the most important CCC addition to the park was the construction of five dikes, beginning in 1934. Big Spring lies against the bluff, halfway along a western bend of the Current, about 2500 feet south of where the river turns west. The intervening flood plain is barely 20 feet above the level of the river and the spring, with an intermittent stream along the base of the bluff. During floods this entire area is inundated, and the Current River periodically threatens to change course, which would put Big Spring permanently beneath the river if it occurred. The dikes were constructed to minimize the effects of flood scouring and to ensure that the river stayed where it belonged. CCC documents of the time indicate that the danger of losing the spring in this manner were imminent at the time. These dikes have been patched and rebuilt over the years, and it is a situation which even now requires monitoring, and occasional remediation. This tendency of the entire area to flood every few years is probably the main reason no mill was ever located at the spring, and the area remained undeveloped as long as it did.


Big Spring State Park existed from 1926 to 1969, and was the draw for Van Buren to develop a tourist industry after lumbering fell as the mainstay of the local economy. Many outrageous claims for the spring were made by the Chamber of Commerce, most notably that it was a single outlet spring, and that the pre-1980's maximum of 840 million gallons of water a day was actually its average flow. Truth aside, the spectacle of so much water pouring from the ground drew many tourists, making Big Spring one of the "must see" sites in the state park system.


Probably more dissent was provoked over Big Spring than either Alley or Round when the U.S. Park Service announced its intent to try to acquire all three parks as linchpins for its Ozark Rivers National Monument (later Ozark National Scenic Riverways) simply because more Missourians felt a proprietary interest in Big Spring as a world class natural wonder. Final arrangements between state and federal governments were made for the transfer in 1969 and 1970, and the property was transferred in 1971. When the Riverways was dedicated, it was on June 10, 1972, by Tricia Nixon Cox throwing flowers into the surging waters of Big Spring.

August 1996





Aley, Thomas J., Ozark Hydrology, Vol. 18, No. 1-4, Missouri Speleology, 1978.


Crafton, Dollie, (resident of Van Buren) phone interview, 1996.


George Hosack, superintendent, Babler State Park, phone interview, 1996.


Houck, Louis, History of Missouri, 3 Vols., 1908.


Huett, Loyd J., "A Cave Into Big Spring? Explorer Tells of Finding It--75 Years Ago"


Daily American Republic, Poplar Bluff, Mo. May 18, 1992.


Kastler, George, purchase information from Missouri State Park Archive, 1996.


National Park Service, Cultural Resources files, 1996.


Pennington, Eunice, History of the Ozarks, Pennington Trading Post, Fremont, Missouri, 1970.


Pennington, Eunice, Centennial History of Carter County, privately printed, 1959.


Stephens, Donald L., A Homeland and A Hinterland: The Current and Jacks Fork         Riverways, National Park Service, Midwest Region, Omaha, NE, 1991.


Vineyard, Jerry and Feder, Gerald, Springs of Missouri, Missouri Department of Natural    Resources, Division of Geology and Land Survey, Rolla, Missouri, 1974.