Stephens Lake Park History

Stephens Lake Park land view

Gordon Family History

The roots of the Stephens Lake property date back to the early 1800’s when David Gordon and 33 other land speculators founded the Smithton community that in 1821 became Columbia. He was a prosperous farmer in Madison County, Kentucky, who moved his family and their 26 slaves here after the outcome of congressional debates on the extension of slavery in new states.

Captain David Gordon built a cabin on the site in 1818, which served as a home for the Gordon family while the Gordon Manor was being built. The Gordon Manor was erected in 1823, the second year of Missouri statehood. The deed was signed by James Madison. The home was built with slave labor, using bricks made from clay found near Hinkson Creek. After completing the manor, the Gordons turned the cabin into their slave quarters. Pioneers along the Boonslick Trail would have seen David Gordon’s stately house on the hill beside Hinkson Creek. Gordon’s land featured a three-acre watering hole that often was the site of political rallies.

Gordon Manor home

Happy Hollow and Cherokee History

Located in this area was a portion of Columbia known as the community of Happy Hollow. As early as the 1820’s, people were settling here along the Hinkson Creek, from the Stephens Lake property two miles southward, then northeast almost to today’s Hallsville. According to Northern Cherokee lore, there was a concentration of Cherokee families living in this area as well as some slaves. Ministers for various churches came and preached every Sunday. Reverend McGuire, a Baptist minister, reported in the Rocheport Commercial, June 28, 1895, that money had been raised to build a church, although no evidence of that structure remains to tell of its existence or location. No physical evidence of Happy Hollow remains. Nothing remains of the small farmsteads and homes that once filled the surrounding area, but some current Columbians have memories of stories told by their parents and grandparents about life in Happy Hollow, an early Columbia neighborhood.

Stephens College Purchases Property

The land stayed in the Gordon family until one of David Gordon’s descendants sold the family homestead and its surrounding 100+ acres to Stephens College in 1926. The school built a nine-hole golf course and enlarged the lake. A Stephens College administrator, Enoch Arthur “Pop” Collins, had the cabin restored in 1935 with logs brought in from other Kentucky cabins. The cabin became known as the Pop Collins Cabin. The Gordon Manor was a college administrator’s residence in the 1930’s and served as a student dormitory into the 1970’s. The Gordon Manor and Pop Collins Cabin were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Pop Collins Cabin at Stephens Lake Park

Stephens College lacked funds to give the historic buildings much attention, other than spending $20,000 for a roof for the manor in the mid-1980’s. On November 9, 1998, Gordon Manor caught fire, which was determined to have been intentionally set. At the time it was oldest brick structure in Boone County. Burned beyond repair, the building was razed. About a month after the fire, the college announced it would close the golf course. The lake was closed to the public shortly thereafter.

Rumors followed that the college was interested in selling the property with an asking price of $10 million.

City of Columbia Purchases Property

The possibility of the property falling into the hands of a private developer mobilized the City of Columbia, environmental and other community groups to organize efforts to preserve the property for public park land. City Manager Ray Beck began talking with Stephens College President Marcia Kiersct early in 1999 about the possibility of a lease-purchase of the property.

Citizens who were strongly opposed to the commercial development of the property formed a group called “The Coalition to Save Stephens Lake.” In 2000, this group approached the City Council requesting the City of Columbia pursue acquisition of the site. Barbara Hoppe and Mike Sleadd led the Coalition in their efforts to save the park, volunteering many hours collecting signatures, holding meetings, sending letters, producing brochures, contacting the Trust for Public Land, and taking out ads.

The college was not in a financial position to hold off the sales transaction for very long. Conserving this large portion of green space in the center of town, along with the desire to preserve its log cabin, mature trees, and lake for public use, motivated the City Council to seriously explore the possibility of purchasing the site.

The City of Columbia was presented with the challenge of finding an immediate funding source for the land acquisition. Help from The Trust for Public Land was secured to assist with the property appraisal and to poll citizens to determine if a sales tax ballot issue to purchase the property would be supported. The appraisal led to a negotiated $7 million sale price. The positive results from the poll reinforced the decision to put a dedicated park sales tax issue on the November 2000 ballot. The tax would provide 1/4-cent sales tax for five years primarily to purchase and develop the property, reducing to 1/8-cent without sunset for park operations and other park capital projects.

The Coalition to Save Stephens Lake worked hard to rally support for the ballot issue. After an enthusiastic campaign spearheaded by the Coalition, the voters passed the ballot with a 53.7% favorable vote, establishing Columbia’s first dedicated Park Sales Tax .

Within days of signing the lease/purchase contract in 2001, the City of Columbia opened the property for public use, allowing sledding, ice skating on the lake, and other winter sports.

On November 5, 2001 the City Council (RES236-01) officially named the property “Stephens Lake Park.”

Planning the Park

The controversy among the citizens as to how the park property should be developed posed quite a challenge for the Park and Recreation Department’s park planners. The Department embarked on an extensive public input process. The planning staff developed four master plan options for consideration. 

  • Option 1 – Traditional Park 
  • Option 2 – Park and Golf Course
  • Option 3 – Arboretum
  • Option 4 – Park and Arboretum

The public process included a city-wide statistically-valid mail survey; three public planning meetings; and collecting citizen votes on the master plan options via public meetings, displays in public buildings, and the Department’s first on-line web survey. Option 4 – Park and Arboretum received 53% of the public’s vote on the master plan survey.

Stephens Options survey results

Option # of Votes Percent of Votes
1 – Traditional Park 84 17%
2 – Park and Golf Course 84 17%
3 – Arboretum 67 12%
4 – Park and Arboretu  262 53%


After public hearings were held by the Parks and Recreation Commission and City Council, a final master plan supported by the citizens was selected for the property, based on Option 4 – Park and Arboretum. The master plan was officially adopted by the City Council on April 1, 2002opens PDF file .

Park Construction

While juggling prior capital improvement project commitments, the Department forged ahead with the development of the park. Construction of Phase I of the $2.5 million development of this project began in 2003. Funding for the park development was spread out over four years.

FY 2001
FY 2002
FY 2003
FY 2004

In 2003 the lake level was dropped to facilitate the lake work. An aeration system was installed to keep the aquatic life alive while the lake level was low. The old boathouse and dilapidated buildings were demolished. The sled hill and amphitheater area were graded. The island and island shelter were constructed. Concrete bent walls for the boardwalk were constructed.

Stephens Lake construction

In 2004, the boardwalk, Happy Hollow Shelter, Collins Shelter, Gordon playground, firepit, new restrooms, boat ramp, hard-surface lake trail, and south and west parking lots with their internal roads were constructed. The old shelter and restrooms were demolished. The Pop Collins Cabin was disassembled and relocated to Nifong Park. The swimming beach was completed and opened to the public on August 9, 2004.

In 2005, Gordon Shelter, Happy Hollow playground, and the majority of the perimeter trail were completed. Beginning April 30, 2005, the new shelters were available for reservations. Trail side benches and single-table picnic shelters were installed.

For information regarding park elements completed after the park dedication, see Stephens Lake Park Development – Capital Improvement Program webpage.

See also – Related Articles

2017 – Level II Accreditation as Arboretum

In 2017, Stephens Lake Park was awarded Level II accreditation by the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program and the Morton Arboretum. This was earned for achieving high standards of professional practices deemed important for the arboreta and botanic gardens, including planning, governance, public access, programming and tree science, planning and conservation. See press release.

Related Article:

Park Dedication

With about 75% of the Phase I construction complete and the park well in use by the public, the Parks and Recreation Department along with the City Council chose to hold the dedication of the park on Sunday, June 26, 2005. Dedication activities included a scavenger walk; prize drawings; children’s activities; kayaking, fishing, and kite demonstrations. The ribbon cutting ceremony took place at 2:00pm at the Island Shelter.

Dedication Program opens PDF file

Park Dedication Photos – June 26, 2005

Band musicians

Outdoor children's activities


Kite demonstration


crowd at Island Shelter

Stephens Lake Park ceremony


Stephens Lake tent

Outdoor horseshoe game

Children activities table

Prize drawings

Speech at Stephens Dedication Ceremony

Ribbon cutting

Clarence Riechmann Indoor Pavilion Dedication

Date: April 29, 2006
Dedication Programopens PDF file

Ribbon cutting at Riechmann Indoor Pavilion dedication

For information regarding park elements completed after the park dedication, see list of capital improvement projects below.

Capital Improvement Projects

Year Completed Project Description
  • 2005 – 75% Phase I completed – park was dedicated 6/26/05.
  • 2006 – Riechmann Pavilion and playground completed and dedicated 4/29/06.
  • 2008 – Spraygrounds completed and opened 5/1/08.
  • 2009 – Waterfalls completed and dedicated 6/14/09.
  • 2010 – Amphitheater completed. Grand opening event held 6/26/10. (Last main element in Phase I.)


Stephens Lake Park Development – Phase I

Wireless Internet
Annual Road and Parking Asphalt Projects: Seal Broadway upper drive, upper parking lot, east parking lot and drive, Old 63 parking lot, and Riechmann parking lot
Darwin and Axie Hindman Discovery Garden
Christy Welliver Memorial – Landcaping Improvements (west side)
Amphitheater walkway lighting
Children’s Grove
2011 Annual Park Improvements: Walkway Repair
Water Line Installation in Southeast Corner of Park
Parking Lot Improvements
2015 Trail Lighting
2017 Parking Lot Lighting
Stephens Lake Park Lighting Improvements
 2019 Emergency Phone Replacements
2020 Annual Park Project: Indoor Facilities Improvements (Riechmann Pavilion and Armory)
2019 Stephens Lake Park Sprayground UV Replacement

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