Our Community

History of Big Lake
As a unique recreation area in Northwest Missouri, Big Lake has been shaped as much by the people who live, work and play here as by nature itself.

Big Lake owes its existence first to glaciers that carved out the Missouri River Valley some 15,000 years ago, and then to the river’s meanderings across the valley floor. 

The lake is an oxbow––a curved stretch of water left behind when a river takes a shortcut across one of its loops. Big Lake is a former loop of the Missouri River and, at some 650 acres in size, is Missouri’s largest natural body of water.


Lewis & Clark at Big Lake

Long before and after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Big Lake was primarily Indian country. Various Native American groups including the Iowa, Sac and Fox tribes, as well as numerous hunters and trappers, knew the oxbow well.

It was only when Lewis & Clark set out to chart the Louisiana Purchase that we get some written history of this vast wilderness. Clark’s journal describes an area which quite possibly was Big Lake: “Set out early,” Clark wrote on July 11, 1804 as the party traveled upriver. “Passed a willow island in a bend off the starboard side. Back of this island a creek comes in, called Tar-ki-o by the Indians.”


The Early Years

After it was formed, Big Lake appears to have been fed by the Tarkio River, and was known by its first settlers as Tarkio Slough and Tarkio Lake. Still other names took hold as the area gradually settled.

We know little of what went on around the lake until 1841, the year Holt County first organized. We do know that Indians and European trappers worked the area in the early 1800s. Many sold their goods at Robidoux’s trading post on Black Snake Creek on the west side of what is now St. Joseph.

After Holt and five other Northwest Missouri counties were formed by the 1837 Indian Platte Purchse, the Iowa, Sac and Fox tribes agreed to relocate across the river to Northeast Kansas. However, they continued to frequent the area.


Other Noted Names

One truly legendary character who frequented the area and used the cable ferry at nearby Rulo, NE on many occasions was none other than Jesse James. After being wounded by Union troops in Missouri in 1865, young Jesse recuperated for a time in Rulo with his family, probably in 1866. While his later exploits made him famous far and wide, Jesse always had strong ties to this area. He is known to have spent time at the home of friends just north of the present-day Rulo Cemetery in 1880.

Because Big Lake has always been an outstanding fishery as well as a great escape from the daily grind, chances are good that Jesse visited here to relax and try his luck with hook and line. Around the time that Jesse was regaining his health in Rulo, John Iden and his parents made the move to Big Lake. By 1890, the Idens had established a popular resort at the lake. That year they hosted a gala July 4th celebration that attracted an estimated 2,000 people.


Floods and Other Doings 

Lying in the heart of the fertile Missouri Valley, Big Lake receives an occasional visit from the big river that once abandoned it. A few of these visits made headlines. The flood of 1903 was a killer, with the river surpassing its 1881 high mark of 22.9 feet. Many drowned, hundreds were left homeless, and crop loss and property damage were devastating. All of Big Lake was covered and even Bigelow homes had up to eight inches of water. Nevertheless, the lake’s appeal continued to grow and the community flourished.

Big Lake came to rely on local runoff and springs for its water after a 1920 rechanneling moved the Tarkio River’s course farther north between Craig and Corning. Little Tarkio Creek, just east and south of Big Lake, is roughly where the old Tark once flowed. Meanwhile, lake visitors continued to enjoy the varied attractions offered by the Iden’s and Jackson’s two resort facilities.

Iden’s boasted a hotel, cozy cottages, boats, boathouses and swimming platforms. Not to be outdone, Jackson’s featured a hotel and store, bathhouse, dock and boats, plus a big dance hall hosting everything from the latest Hollywood picture shows to church and civic group gatherings.

A 1916 tornado wrecked lake cottages and other structures, including the Iden home and Jackson’s barn.


A Hard Decade

Heavy rains in the early summer of 1929 put the Big Tark and Squaw Creek out of their banks. Levees gave way, and by July 6 Little Tarkio Creek was cascading into Big Lake. Only rooftops were visible above water, including the distinctive round roof identifying Iden’s dance hall. This flood had lasting effects on Big Lake, bringing large silt deposits that left the lake many feet shallower than before.

Heavily damaged, both the Iden and Jackson properties were eventually sold to the state to develop as park land. Big Lake’s fancy resort era had come to an end. Despite the ongoing Depression that severely limited state funds available for capital building projects, efforts to create the Big Lake State Park


Perseverance & Progress

The economy picked up during World War II, but gas rationing limited the number of lake visitors. After war’s end in 1945, progress resumed at Big Lake State Park. The old hotel came down in 1947 and a new equipment barn went up. More improvements soon followed: a new shelter house was built, the store was remodeled, and four new cottages were completed––each outfitted with the latest appliances. Park land was expanded and now covered more than 430 acres.

In April of 1952 a record flood hit the area, causing thousands to evacuate along the Missouri River Valley. Flood stage at Rulo is 17 feet; the Rulo gauge read 25.6 feet at its highest mark that spring. With that record volume of water, Big Lake became indistinguishable from the river itself. Damage was widespread. As the area recovered, a group of residents and lake supporters banded together in 1956 in a bid to keep Big Lake thriving. BLIA (Big Lake Improvement Association) was born. It was the start of a tradition of  community spirit and volunteerism that would serve Big Lake well in the years ahead.

BLIA’s main goal has been to maintain more consistent lake levels, especially during times of drought. In 1958 BLIA led efforts to construct a dam at the south end of the lake and to install the first river pump station. Minor flooding occurred in 1960 and 1967, but for the next 14 years the Missouri minded its manners. The entire area was progessing and in 1982 the Village of Big Lake was incorporated. 


Big Lake Today

For excellent boating, angling for bass, catfish and crappie, and other recreation in Northwest Missouri, Big Lake is hard to beat. The State Park & Resort offer outstanding camping and lodging, restaurant dining, a free boat launch, swimming pool, lakeside picnic areas, scenic views and much more. The park also contains the largest wetlands marsh in all of Missouri’s state parks. Like the nearby Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, this marsh and Big Lake create a migratory mecca for untold numbers of Bald Eagles, herons, egrets, pelicans, ducks, geese, and many other birds.

Funded by BLIA and the Village of Big Lake, the pump station on the Missouri River has been helping maintain desirable lake levels for wildlife and recreation since 2004.


Meanwhile, BLIA has continued to work toward preserving and improving the lake’s water resources. Serious drought and an aging dam and pump station led to critically low lake levels by the fall of 2003. Fish were dying by the thousands, boats were stranded at dry docks, and lake activity came to a standstill. In an unprecedented effort to save the lake, BLIA and Big Lake Village launched a joint venture to build a new pump station on the Missouri. Funded by a temporary tax levy and generous donations from homeowners, the $100,000+ diesel-powered station would enable pumping water both to and from the lake through a series of
tubes and gates.

Besides homeowners, many vacationers also frequent the area, enjoying the beautiful 435-acre Big Lake State Park & Resort which lie along the northeastern shoreline.

The Big Lake community assumed Village status in the early 1990s to provide for a much-needed city water system. Improved levees for basic flood control have also been key to the lake’s development. Because floods punctuate the lake’s story, residents have a keen interest in weather forecasts and in water levels of the
nearby Missouri River.



May 14, 1804. Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery heads up the wild Missouri by keelboat and canoe, launching the two-year adventure that would take them past today’s Big Lake.


Clark also wrote of going ashore just upriver from the creek’s mouth and walking parallel to the river about a half-mile inland in a low area subject to flood. He was probably looking at Big Lake.



Holt County Surveyor, Stephen C. Collins, noted in 1841 that the lake area was largely a wilderness of trees, high weeds, vines and grass, and that at night wolves, geese, ducks, loons, cranes and owls made such a racket that sleep was difficult.

Brothers William and Harmon Higgins settled at the north end of the lake in November of 1847 and kept cattle there for several years. The lake thus became known as Higgins Lake for a time after the brothers established their farm. As years passed, other early folks used several different names in describing the lake. Among them were Duckling Lake, Tarkio Lake, Fish Lake, and perhaps the most colorful, Impassable Lake. Just when the name Big Lake finally stuck is unclear, but it seems to have been in popular use by the 1870s.





Coke Jackson came to Big Lake with his parents in 1876. By the time he was a teenager, Coke was operating a pleasure launch that was a popular lake attraction. It held ten passengers, each of whom paid fifty cents for a scenic, six-mile cruise.




Two resort hotels, a big-band dance hall, motion picture shows, boating, fishing, swimming and much more made Big Lake the place to be for folks in the early 1900s.

In July of 1921, the Idens opened a dazzling new dance hall that always drew large crowds. Built out over the water, its circular blackwood dance floor measured some 64 feet across. Its most spectacular feature was the stage where big bands performed. Suspended from the ceiling above the center of the floor, it ensured true “surround sound” entertainment.

Unfortunately, the agricultural downturn of the early 1920s brought financial hardships, and by 1926 the Idens had been forced into bankruptcy. The family worked hard to build the resort back up, but the onset of the Great Depression and the lake’s waning popularity combined to thwart them.






Missouri River floods have played a recurrent role in the life and times of Big Lake, but area residents have always fought back, working together to make many major improvements.

managed to gain momentum in the 1930s. Missouri made many improvements to the park and optimistic Big Lakers pressed on. Several new cottages plus a dock and bathhouse appeared. The former Jackson hotel and store were also repaired.





Two years later the Mighty Mo struck with a major flood. Rulo’s gauge reached 24.4 feet and evacuation was ordered.

In 1993 the river returned with a vengeance, hitting 25.4 feet on July 24, just short of 1952’s record high. The water hung on for three weeks, forcing the evacuation of some 300 people and the rescue by pontoon boat of stranded livestock.

May of 2007 saw the latest major flood event at Big Lake., with waters topping 25 feet and people forced from their homes for more than two weeks. Since then, levees have again been reinforced. New and rebuilt homes have gone up all around the lake, many on elevated foundations offering greater protection should rising waters threaten.




Spectacular bird shows are a year-round treat enjoyed by Big Lake residents and visitors.

Work commenced in March of Funded by BLIA and the 
Village of Big Lake, the pump station on the Missouri River has been helping maintain desirable lake levels for wildlife and recreation since 2004.

2004 and on April 14 Big Lakers turned out to cheer as crews fired up the new pump and sent fresh river water flowing to the lake. Roughly two months later, Big Lake was once again brimful. With today’s high fuel prices, meeting the costs to run and maintain the system is an ongoing challenge for homeowners and lake supporters. BLIA continues to seek additional funds from the Missouri Department of Conservation and other sources. You can help through your tax-deductible BLIA membership fees and donations to the Pump Fund, and by supporting our annual fund-raising events.


To join BLIA and donate to the Pump Fund, please make checks payable to the Big Lake Improvement Association and mail to:

Big Lake Improvement Association
522 Lakeshore Drive
Craig, MO 64437