Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 16

Maramec Spring Park
-Unique History And Recreation

Maramec Spring rises within the park and serves as a source of cool,
clean water for a trout hatchery.

Maramec Spring, the fifth largest spring in the Ozarks, is located close to Rolla and is open to public use.  The spring discharges an average of 100 million gallons per day and is the centerpiece of the park.  Maramec Spring is a privately owned park run by the James Foundation of St. James Missouri.  This park offers scenic views of the countryside and the spring.  The spring feeds a trout hatchery that is usually full of young trout.  Some of these trout end up in Maramec Spring but many are stocked elsewhere.  The park makes for an interesting afternoon, day, or overnight trip.

The park offers camping, trout fishing, hiking, museums, and sightseeing.  The James Foundation runs two museums within the park.  The main museum is an office and general information center for the park.  The area’s cultural history and geology are described very well at this location.  Another museum at the park is an agricultural museum that houses many antique farm implements.

As with most other large Ozark springs, Maramec Spring and the surrounding area have a unique history.  Nathaniel Cook first discovered hematite, an iron ore, in the area while surveying for the US General Land Office in 1823.  He wrote that it would serve as an excellent iron works is his report.  Thomas James, an Ohio banker and merchant, met up with a band of hematite painted Shawnee Indians in 1825.  He realized that their paint might be from an economically valuable deposit so he asked to be led to the location by the Indians.  When James visited the area, he also realized it had all the resources needed for an iron works all in one small area.  There was an accessible iron deposit, a large spring to provide waterpower, limestone/dolomite to use as a flux, and good timber to provide firewood.  James established the first iron furnace west of the Mississippi in 1826.

The more recent iron furnace built at the spring still remains
and is easily viewed in the park.

Thomas James transferred the iron works to his son William in 1843.  High demand during the Civil War and modernization kept the iron works in operation until 1876.  There were two major drawbacks to the Maramec Iron Works, which helped lead to its downfall.  It was both far from large markets and the transportation network in the area was poorly developed at the time, leading to high transportation costs.  These factors, along with an economic panic and the discovery of more economical iron ore elsewhere in the United States, led to its demise.  During the heyday of the iron works, a company town housing 500 people existed nearby.

The company attempted to remain viable by starting the Ozark Iron Works Company in 1872.  This iron works consisted of additional furnace about twice the size of the Maramec furnace operating immediately adjacent to the main Atlantic and Pacific rail line along the bluffs of Little Piney Creek just west of Newburg.  Cost overruns caused the price of the furnace to be around three times the expected.  Problems including a major fire that shut the operation down for months immediately began to plaque the works when it started operating in 1874 production did not even come close to expectations.  James began having troubles paying his workers and debts and both operations went bankrupt in 1877. 

The Maramec company's stock was sold to other investors from New York who tried to keep the operation profitable.  The operation continued until 1890 when high transportation costs and exhaustion of nearby ore deposits made the operation hopeless.  The Ozark Iron Works were purchased by the Knotwell Iron Works of Knotwell (present day Rosati, MO) and run for a short time in 1880 but the operation closed when market prices of iron dropped below its production costs.

The furnace (right) and loading platform (left) from the Ozark/Knotwell Iron
Works still exist just west of Newburg.  These structures are partially built
into the bluffs of the Little Piney.  This is private property and is not open
for public access.

When William James died in 1912, his granddaughter acquired the spring and surrounding land.  When she died in 1938, her will directed that her estate be turned into a trust, which created the James Foundation.  Her will said, “As this is considered to be the most beautiful spot in Missouri, it is my great hope that you will arrange that it may ever be in private, considerate control, and ever open to the enjoyment of the people.”  To this day, the James Foundation has continued to manage the park.  A small $3 per car fee is charged at the entrance to help keep the park in its excellent condition.

One may notice that the Meramec River and Maramec Spring have the same name but with a slightly different spelling.  This is due to the fact that many Ozarkers lacked a formal education and were somewhat illiterate at the time the spring was named.  The James Foundation has kept with tradition and left the name spelled Maramec.  To add to this, Meramec, which is considered to the the "correct" spelling, is a corruption of Miaramigoua, a French word reflecting the pronounced Indian name.  The river was named around 1699-1700 and its name evolved through various spellings before reaching today's accepted spelling.  Merrimack, a name in the east, was also likely hybridized into today's corrupted name.

Maramec Spring Park offers sightseeing, camping, hiking, trout fishing, shelters, picnicking, a store, a café, museums, and playgrounds.  A historic drive takes visitors by a cemetery, an area that used to contain cabins housing workers, and the old open pit iron mine.  The spring branch flows into the Meramec River under a mile from the spring itself.  At this point, a suspension bridge for foot traffic crosses the spring branch.  A trout tag costs $3 per day and fishermen are limited to 5 fish daily.  Vending machines are available where one can purchase handfuls of fish food with coins.  Be sure to buy trout feed (or bring cat/dog food if so inclined) if hiking near the spring, as trout love to swarm and devour the food pellets.  The Maramec Museum, also the main office, features natural and cultural history exhibits pertaining to the area.  The geology of the spring is explained here.  The Agriculture Museum features displays of antique farm implements.  These implements, many of which originated in the Missouri Ozarks, are well worth viewing for anyone interested in the evolution of technology and/or agriculture.

The exhausted Maramec Iron Mine is still visible within the park.  One can't
help but notice a reddish color indicating the presence of iron in the soil.
This same color attracted Thomas James when he saw it being used as
warpaint by Shawnee Indians.

The fish are not the only animals that enjoy the fish food; the size of this
squirrel indicates that it has done very well when begging for food!

During one weekend every fall (usually the second week in October), Maramec Spring holds the Old Iron Works Days festival.  This event features live music, crafts, and trades common in the Ozarks during the 1800’s.  Some of the features include beekeeping, blacksmithing, woodcarving, and the cooking of traditional foods.  The event is unique and attracts thousands of visitors every year.   Admission to the park is $5 per car during the two-day festival.  Old Iron Works Days is definitely interesting and well worth a visit.

As with much of the landscape in the Rolla area, Maramec Spring Park is an example of a karst terrain.  Acidic groundwater has eaten away at the carbonate bedrock to create a cave from which Maramec Spring issues.  Losing streams (ones the lose water into the ground) in the area provide much of the water to the spring supply system.  A stream known as The Dry Fork of The Meramec is the largest tributary of the upper Meramec and the main source of water for Maramec Spring.  It drains 383 square miles but has a much lower flow than the section of the Meramec above its junction, which drains only 343 square miles.  This is due to the fact the most of the water in Dry Fork goes underground and eventually resurfaces at Maramec Spring where it more than doubles the flow of the Meramec River throughout most of the year.

The author stands atop a bluff overlooking the Dry Fork (of The Upper Meramec)
near Maramec Spring.

Click links for more pictures

Additional views of Dry Fork 1 & 2
Panoramic View
Looking through Dry Fork Natural Arch into Dry Fork

Because karst springs draw water from a large area of the ground surface and subsurface, it is very important that water quality be high throughout a spring recharge area.  On November 15, 1981, a Williams fertilizer pipeline carrying ammonia was discovered to be leaking into a surface stream feeding the Dry Fork and may have been leaking several days before the problem was discovered.  The surface stream was a losing stream that contributed to the recharge of Maramec Spring.  The spill happened about 13 miles away from the spring near the town of Lecoma and took about seven days to travel to the spring.  Fertilizer reacted with almost all dissolved oxygen in the water and made the spring inhospitable for almost all aquatic life.  Dead fish and crustaceans from the spring and surrounding waters showed up by the thousands.  These animals included extremely rare Salem Cave Crayfish, the southern cavefish, and other species adapted to living in a cave environment.  All of these animals lack pigment in their skin/shells and have poor, if any, eyesight because they have evolved to living in total darkness.  Before this spill, no one was aware that these specialized and rare cave animals lived in the spring system.  Other animals, such as trout, living in the spring branch were also killed.  Luckily this spill didn’t affect the entire recharge system and the spring ecosystem has since recovered.  The pipeline that broke in 1981 is no longer a threat to Maramec Spring.  It now serves as a conduit for fiber optic communications cables and does not carry any material that could threaten groundwater quality.

In the past, the Ozarks have experienced previous karst episodes.  Evidence of this ancient karst (known as paleokarst) is visible today in the form of filled sinkholes and other features somewhat unique to the Ozarks.  There are currently several theories as to what created these sinkholes and not all of them involve standard karst processes.  Structures referred to as sinkholes here may not be normal karst sinkholes.  These sinkholes were filled with fireclays, coal, sandstone, and various iron ores during the Pennsylvanian and Mississippian Periods, between 360 and 286 million years ago.  The hematite filled sink at Maramec Spring was exceptionally large.  Other hematite filled sinks in the area also provided ore for the Maramec Iron Works. Examples of these sinkholes can be seen in roadcuts all around the Ozarks.  One of the most famous examples of this phenomenon is the Vichy Road Filled Sink, which is located in Rolla along I-44.  The exposure is directly under Thomas Jefferson Hall and just east of the Vichy Road Overpass.  The Thomas Jefferson Residence hall at UM-Rolla is also built atop of a different filled sinkhole, which has led to a variety of myths about the stability of the structure.  The Vichy Road Filled Sink is mainly filled with fireclays but has a small amount of purplish staining from hematite.  For more information on this type of feature, see

The south exposure of the Vichy Rd. Filled Sink is clearly visible here,
as it has weathered back into the hillside, allowing snow to accumulate.
The surrounding Jefferson City dolomite (buff color) remains free of snow as
its walls are steeper.  Thomas Jefferson Hall, built on another such structure,
is visible in the background.

The filled sink within Capital Quarries' Rolla Quarry is filled with shales and
some sandstone.  It is very easy to see, as the face is relatively unweathered
due to its recent exposure by the quarrying.  A small mud filled cave
was exposed while quarrying nearby.

Click links below for more pictures.
-Another picture, slightly farther back, of the same filled sink
-Crushing and processing equipment within the quarry
(part of filled sink visible as small white area at very left of picture)

To get to Maramec Spring from Rolla, follow I-44 east to the St. James Exit (exit 195).  Then follow Hwy 8 southeast about six miles to Maramec Spring Park, which is located on the left.  For more information on Maramec Spring, the park, or Old Ironworks days, please visit the Maramec Spring Homepage at  Thanks to the Maramec Spring Homepage, “Water Resources Report No. 55 - The Hydrology of Maramec Spring” by James Vandike of the Missouri DNR, "Geologic Wonders And Curiosities of Missouri" by Vineyard and Beveridge, "Frontier Iron - The Maramec Iron Works, 1826-1876" by James D. Norris, and users of the MOCAVES listserve for much of the information provided.

Maramec Spring Park is shown on this map as "First Iron Furnace in Missouri"
just east of Saint James, MO.

Last Updated: 6-16-2004

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins