Signs of life returning to Times Beach
You won’t find Times Beach on any up-to-date map of Missouri. And all references to it have been taken off signs on Interstate 44, the major east-west highway that replaced old Route 66 in this part of the country.
But 25 years ago, Times Beach, located about 25 miles west of St. Louis, was Missouri’s best known — the right word is notorious — city after the waters of the nearby Meramec River rose more than 20 feet above flood level, inundating homes to near ceiling level and spreading an oil that the city had sprayed on its unpaved roads.
Unfortunately, that oil, applied to keep the dust down, wiped Times Beach off the map.
The city contractor had used waste oil contaminated with a toxic chemical called dioxin. Even before the flood in late 1982, researchers were scrambling to figure out why animals in town had been dying mysteriously. But by the time the lab results came back identifying the culprit, the waters of the Merrimac had tuned what might have been a manageable clean-up into a full-scale environmental disaster.
Two days before Christmas 1982, the 800 residents of Time Beach received a letter from authorities: “If you are in town, it is advisable for you to leave and if you are out of town do not go back.”
In 1983, the federal government purchased the whole town. Over the next two decades, in fits and starts, the buildings were razed, the contaminated soil incinerated and the debris piled up and buried in what became known as the “town mound” (left).
Today, Times Beach is a memory. In its place is a 410-acre park run by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that’s known as the Route 66 State Park. Though it bears the old highway’s name and features both the old Route 66 bridge across the Meramec and some portions of the original road, the park itself is essentially a nature preserve, with the town’s old street’s now serving as hiking and biking trails. The visitor center, located in a roadhouse inn, has memorabilia celebrating both the old highway that ran trough town and the 1982 flood that destroyed it.
A quarter of a century after one of the most notorious environmental catastrophes in U.S. history, there are encouraging signs. The Department of Natural Resources says the area is now home to healthy deer and turkey populations and other animal and birds have been sighted here.
And the town mound? It’s still there, covered in grass, but easy enough for the visitor to spot, eerily reminiscent of the Indian burial sites that dot the state.