The Civilian Conservation Corps made Big Spring. Not just the buildings, or the roads and bridges, but the spring.

Don't get me wrong. Big Spring is one of my favorite places in the state. I've spent some absolutely magical time there in the company of people I love. And it's always going to a place of memory for me, in part because of a visit during a time of loss for my family.

But the fact still remains. The CCC built Big Spring. And I don't mean that they built the cabins, although they did. I mean they build the spring, the most lovely spring in the state of Missouri:

[Big Spring CCC

The problem was this thing, the Current River itself, the very heart of wild river movement in Missouri, the scene of Leonard Hall's Stars Upstream:

[Big Spring CCC

The National Park Service, which runs Big Spring, is pretty up-front about the facts, although not the intepretation. The bare facts go like this: the Big Spring spring branch, running from the spring proper down to the Current River, flows down an old channel of the Current River. The old channel runs upstream to where it meets the Current River. Between the two channels (the old, largely dry one which, at its downstream end drains Big Spring, and the new channel, through which the Current River runs) is a low island, which presently contains the picnic area and boat launch. At some in the past, the Current ran down the old channel, then switched so that runs down the new channel.

I suspect that in labeling one channel the "old" one and one the "new," I'm simpifying. More likely is that sometimes the river runs down one or the other, switching back and forth periodically. And it probably has run down both, depending on how much water the river is carrying. And the river probably rearranged the island from time to time. The key fact here--the basic ground truth--is that Missouri streams are constantly pushing around and rearranging the sediment in their bottoms.

At some point in the thirties, the Current River appeared to be about to jump back into its old channel. It's not surprising, wouldn't have been particularly alarming, except for one problem: if the Current were two switch channels, it would effectively erase the long Big Spring branch. And Big Spring, instead of being the most beautiful spring in the Ozarks, would have been just another spring dumping its flow directly into the river.

So, instead of letting that happen, the Civilian Conservation Corp build a series of dikes across the old channel upstream from Big Spring. These dikes prevented (and still prevent) the Current from flowing back into its old channel, thus preserving the Big Spring.

It wasn't a trivial effort. There's a trail along the old channel, it's possible to get a look at the dikes. I suspect that the CCC put more--far, far more--grunt labor into building the dikes than they did into the buildings and cabins.

Now, for the intepretation, the part the Park Service doesn't mention: there's a strange three-way dance going on between the river, the spring and our intervention in the landscape. The spring both is and isn't natural. Before the dikes were installed, there were probably times when it ran much as it runs now, depending on which channel the river ended up in. And yet it's fixed in its current appearance, its sometimes natural appearance, by our having force the river away from the old channel.

In other words, the CCC, in preserving a scene of great natural beauty, confused the very category, "natural", that they were trying to preserve. Nevermind that what they preserved was natural. It's enough to make a guy's head hurt . . .