The settlement of Branson dates back to the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century it was becoming clear that this small town in the Ozark mountains was becoming a special place for people to visit from across the nation.
The White River / Lake Taneycomo
Visible from Stops 1, 2 and 6
Branson’s history, and it’s role as a tourism destination, is tied to this normally calm river that runs through town. The White River was an essential link for travel and commerce, and fishing and floating trips were what drew the first tourists to this region.
In 1951, the Missouri legislature approved work to clear obstructions along the Missouri section of the White River and deepen the channel where possible. By 1853 steamboats were able to travel as far upstream as Forsyth, and that settlement became the county seat of Taney County. After the Civil War, new shallow-draft paddleboats were able to continue upstream and eventually reached Branson and the mouth of the James River. With that connection, Branson was able to thrive.
However, the early settlers also knew that even with a moderate amount of rain this river could escape its banks and quickly threaten life and home. To help with flooding, and to generate much needed electricity, the first dam was built on the river in 1912 at Forsyth. This created Lake Taneycomo, and goods and people were now able to move to and from Branson via rail.
Branson Railroad Depot
Visible from Stops 3 and 5
Appearing today largely as it was constructed in 1905, the Branson Railroad Depot is now the home of the Branson Scenic Railway. This depot was originally built even before the railway to Branson was completed and served as an administrative office for railroad employees, a window to sell train tickets and a small gift shop with train memorabilia (remarkably similar to how it is used today).
Lake Taneycomo / Veterans Boulevard Bridge
Visible from Stop 1
This historic arch-span bridge over Lake Taneycomo has connected Branson and Hollister since 1931. It underwent rehab projects in 1959 and again in 1989, but by the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair due to the sheer volume of traffic that was now passing through Branson. So Branson and the Missouri Department of Transportation began a massive project to save the bridge and also accommodate the increased Branson traffic.
Work began in 2009 to build a new parallel bridge, and once that was completed in 2010, the historic bridge was closed for a 1-year rehabilitation project. When completed in 2011 (in time for Branson’s 2012 Centennial), the entire deck and upper portion had been completely replaced.
While Liberty Plaza itself is new, the location is an important site in Branson’s history.
Liberty Plaza was the site of Branson’s first city hall, a community center and a library. The Mabe Brothers (later known as the Baldknobbers) performed Branson’s first ongoing live music show in a 50-seat auditorium in the basement starting in 1959. The site is literally the birthplace of Branson’s entertainment industry. The current park features an amphitheater, and when it opened in 2017 the Baldknobbers returned to be the first entertainers to perform there.
You’ll also notice images of the “Liberty Tree” throughout Liberty Plaza, which is where the park gets its name. The Liberty Tree was a giant bur oak tree along the banks of the White River and an important landmark during Branson’s first century, serving as the city’s unofficial gathering place. By the early 2000’s however, the tree (estimated to be about 200 years old at the time) had been struck by lightning and had become diseased. When construction began on Branson Landing, arborists determined that it had to be removed for safety reasons.
Historic Owen Theatre
Near Stops 5 and 12
Branson’s first movie theater building was built in 1936 by Jim Owen. Envisioning the city as a thriving tourism destination, he provided float fishing excursions on the White River attracting thousands of visitors. Owen, who served as mayor, hosted many celebrities, including Gene Autry, Forrest Tucker, Bing Crosby, Charlton Heston, artist Thomas Hart Benton. Extraordinary publicity stunts promoted his film showings, such as sending volunteer firemen to the train depot to receive the reels of a Mae West film that was billed as “too hot to handle.”
Today the building is the home to the Branson Arts Council and the site of many live theatre productions each year.