Of Schemes and Schemers Gone Awry

Some of my relatives have made memorable trips to Branson, Missouri. If only they had known about it, they could have driven a couple hundred miles and visited the remains of a castle built by my cousin.

Robert M. Snyder, my fifth cousin twice removed, was born in 1852, the first of eight children of John Snyder (of Yager/Wilhoit descent) and  Sarah Pence. The family started out in Kentucky but moved to Missouri when Robert was in his teens. He was described as a “man of brains and energy and enterprise,” but also one of “dreams and idealisms.”

rm snyder

Robert M. Snyder

Robert’s brains and energy helped him build a number of successful enterprises, beginning with a wholesale grocery business. He sold out at a profit and established a wholesale tobacco house, which he also sold at a substantial profit. He next took the son of a prominent banker as his partner in a realty loan business, which led to his opening a savings bank in Kansas City.

He was learning to wheel and deal, and perhaps not always without stacking the deck. Snyder went into the gas business, offering $1 gas when the prevailing price was then $1.60. The legislature attached to his franchise a clause prohibiting a merger, but Snyder successfully lobbied to have the restriction removed. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of October 28, 1906, “There were many reports of the use of boodle in this connection.”

You may be unfamiliar with boodle — I was until I looked it up.  Boodle is an old-fashioned term for bribery. And it appears that Snyder was well acquainted with boodle.

He sold his gas business, which made him a millionaire, and he also retired from the banking business. He had set his sights on the money to be made in St. Louis street railroads (streetcars) through the colossal Central Traction franchise enterprise. His plan was to force all the independent street railroad systems of St. Louis to buy out or sell out. A bill was drafted to accomplish his purposes, and its passage by the St. Louis Municipal Assembly in 1898, “in a riot of legislative corruption,” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) led directly to the consolidation of all the street railroad lines. Councilmen were carried on the payrolls of street railroad and lighting corporations and 25 of the 28 delegates were said to be on the take.

Snyder’s bank account swelled when he and his associates sold for $1,000,000 the rights which had cost them only $250,000 in boodle.

In 1902, the Circuit Attorney began investigating various corruption schemes. The statute of limitations for bribery prosecutions was three years, so most of those involved in the Central Traction deal were safe. There was an exception in the statute, however, which disallowed protection for out-of-state residents. Snyder had a residence in New York, as well as the one in Missouri, so by showing that Snyder spent a considerable amount of time there — and the fact that Snyder was known to introduce himself as a New York millionaire — the Circuit Attorney was able to indict Snyder for bribery.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, “His trial before Judge Ryan in the October following was the greatest legal battle of the boodle prosecutions. It began on a Monday morning, and ended shortly before midnight the following Saturday.” Testimony centered on whether or not Snyder was a legal resident of Kansas City at the time of the bribery. After deliberating for one hour, the jury found that Snyder was a resident of New York and thus was not protected by the statute of limitations and was guilty of bribery. He was sentenced to five years in prison, stayed while he appealed. In 1904, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for retrial. A new indictment against Snyder was issued. (Stay tuned, folks, for the conclusion of his legal case.)

Here we will take a detour from Snyder’s money-making enterprises to look at his imagination and how he spent some of his money. He was an avid sportsman and enjoyed hunting and fishing and wanted a private retreat. “Here I will spend my leisure, secure from the worries of business and the excitement of city life,” Snyder said. “I will fish and loaf and explore the caves in these hills, with no fear of intrusion.”

In 1903 Snyder purchased 5,400 acres in the Missouri Ozarks, an unspoiled wilderness with caves, a waterfall and a lake. His plan was to built a castle like those he had seen on his European travels. He imported 40 stonemasons from Scotland and employed hundreds of local subsistence farmers as workers to build it on a bluff over the water. They dug quarries to mine the sandstone for its walls, and built a sawmill to cut the timber for its floors and beams. The estate was to include a mansion with nearly 40 rooms; a two-acre greenhouse, the largest private greenhouse in the world; a 100-acre lake stocked with game fish; stables with capacity for 100 horses; and “cozy cottages” for the servants. Two thousand pheasant eggs were hatched on the estate to reinforce the other game naturally found there. A rustic stone fence was to surround 200 acres of the property.

But you know what they say about the best laid schemes of mice and men. Before Snyder’s dream home was completed, and before he could be retried for boodling, he was killed in a freak accident which involved more than a little irony.

In 1906, when he was 54 years old, he was being chauffeured in his Royal Tourist automobile through Kansas City. Witnesses said the machine was going at a high rate of speed — 45 mph. Suddenly a young boy jumped off the front of a streetcar into the auto’s path. The chauffeur swerved to miss the boy and crashed into a steel trolley pole, instantly killing Snyder. The accident was said to be one of the first automobile crashes in Kansas City, when streetcars were the primary mode of transportation.

The Morgan County Republican of November 1, 1906, wrote: “Perhaps when the splendid fortune that Snyder accumulated shall have been dissipated and the sorrows and shames that pursued him and his house shall have been forgotten, the materialization of his dreams shall prevail, and the world will remember him, not for his money or the things he did to gain it, but for the beauty spot that his brain conceived and his money wrought.”

There may be some truth in that. The castle at Ha Ha Tonka was finished in 1922 by Snyder’s son and brothers, although not as lavishly as he originally planned. By that time, however, the family businesses had begun to decline and troubles with the property were just beginning. The Snyders entered protracted litigation against Union Electric, contending that the dam which created the Lake of the Ozarks had virtually ruined the Ha Ha Tonka resort by causing much of the land surrounding it to be under water. By 1937, the Depression and the litigation had depleted the family fortune, and the surviving family members leased the castle out for use as a hotel.

Five years later, misfortune again struck when sparks from one of the castle’s many fireplaces ignited the roof. Within hours, the mansion and carriage house were gutted; all that was left were the ruined outside walls of the mansion and the nearby water tower. These sat abandoned for the next 36 years. In 1976, vandals torched the water tower, and only the ruins of the castle remained.

The area Snyder intended to be a personal retreat was purchased by the State of Missouri in 1978 and is now open to the public as a State Park. The water tower has been restored and the castle’s rock skeleton has been stabilized so that the stonemasons’ artistry may be appreciated. The park features a series of boardwalks and trails touring the woodlands, tunnels, caverns, springs and sinkholes of the area. Hunting is not allowed.

Planning to take in the sights and sounds of Branson? Add Ha Ha Tonka to your itinerary.


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