Years after catastrophe forced an entire town to evacuate, the area has been cleaned up and rebuilt as Route 66 State Park. For St. Louis County residents, it’s a popular place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and reconnect with nature.

Cattails line a former borrow pit, where topsoil was removed to cover the incinerated remains of Times Beach.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Stroer

No other unit of the Missouri State park system has had so strange a genesis as Route 66 State Park. Once a natural and beautiful stretch of Meramec River frontage, curving in a gentle, mile-long arc with scenic bluffs lining the other side of the stream, it grew into a town, stimulated by a newspaper publicity stunt, and later was numbered among the nation’s most seriously contaminated Superfund sites, requiring massive cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Against all odds, it wound up reverting to nature once again as one of the most popular parks in St. Louis County. 

A Route 66 special edition motorcycle and Phillips 66 sign are displayed in the 1935 roadhouse that is now the park’s visitor center.
Photo courtesy of Don Fink

So do the ruins of the town or the magnitude of the environmental disaster overwhelm the park visitor? Not at all. What meets the eye is a pleasant vista of mixed woods and open fields, with park-like amenities and pleasant walking paths along the river and amid the trees and fields. Only occasionally does something strike the eye, something not quite right about the woods. For example, a long, straight corridor leading to the river is filled with young trees or sometimes only tall grass, with larger trees all along the sides; one realizes this must have once been a street. The small trees are more recent, having grown since the town was abandoned, while the large ones were individual yard trees, much older and larger, that once shaded houses. Park planners have cleverly worked with the town grid, and the new park plan of trails and roads, parking areas, picnic shelters, and open clearings for special events has taken advantage of the landscape as it was already subdivided, with features in places that lent themselves to recreation. Eventually, this townscape will evolve into a natural landscape, just as old farm fields revert to nature at other state parks. 

Alongside one straight run of park road is a peculiar earthen structure, twelve or fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide, grass covered, and stretching a quarter-mile along the road. It is an interesting landscape feature, mimicking an Etruscan tumulus or a Native American burial mound, since it contains all that remains of the city of Times Beach, mashed, compacted, and safely interred. It is ironically known as the town mound, a gift for future archaeologists. In the meantime, vent pipes at either end carry away any methane gas the debris might generate. 

How did it happen that over 2,200 people once called this place home? 

On the morning of July 25, 1925, the St. Louis Times hit the streets with a screamer topping the front page: “Greatest Subscription Offer Ever Made.” With purchase of a six-month subscription to the paper, the buyer could also purchase a 20-by-100-foot building lot for only $67.50 ($10 down, $2.50 monthly) in the “new summer resort developed by the St. Louis Times for its readers.” The paper explained that all lots, wherever located, would be sold at the same price, and all would have equal rights to the beach, a riverfront park, and membership in a community lodge. The Times had platted the development so that there were some thirteen streets laid out in arcs paralleling the river. Across these arced streets at right angles ran a half-dozen principal streets that radiated out like spokes from a common area near Eureka. The result was a town shaped like a slice of pie but with a subdivided grid that looked on paper somewhat like one fourth of a spider web, containing nearly one hundred blocks and more than a thousand lots.

At first, the owners of the new lots built mainly fishing shacks and small cabins, often on stilts in case of floods. As time went by and major floods didn’t come, more substantial dwellings began to appear, houses for year-round residents, not just summer places. In 1933 one of the principal radial streets became the corridor through town for the newly designated Highway 66, headed for Los Angeles. The town continued to grow, the landscape to harden, and by the 1970 census, there were several hundred houses, two trailer courts, and over two thousand residents—although no paved streets. In 1972 and 1973, the city arranged to have the streets sprayed with waste oil, so that dust from the gravel streets and dirt lanes would not annoy the residents. 

These bicyclists were photographed from the now grass-covered town mound.
Photo courtesy of Missouri State Parks

Then calamity struck, or to borrow the phrase from “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe, “unmerciful disaster followed fast and followed faster.” Ten inches of rain in four days created a massive flood in 1982, huge beyond any previous expectation, inundating the entire town from one end to the other. The December crest of twenty-four feet above flood stage on the Meramec has never been equaled, before or since. At nearly the same time, suspicions long held by the EPA were confirmed: the waste oil sprayed on the streets ten years earlier had been contaminated with potentially deadly amounts of dioxin. Residents received letters from the Centers for Disease Control: If they were still in town, leave; if they were out of town because of the flood, do not return. This was the deathblow to the little settlement begun in 1925. Eventually the town board voted for disincorporation, and the EPA announced a $33 million buyout of the entire town. Times Beach would be no more. 

But then what?

Officials determined that the best method for disposal of dioxin and dioxin-contaminated soil and other material was high temperature incineration. At extreme temperatures, dioxin, an organic compound, simply decomposes into its constituent elements and a harmless residue of ash. Because of the huge volume of earth to be burned, the EPA contracted to have a high temperature incinerator constructed on-site. Fed into a rotating kiln, the contaminated earth slowly progressed from one end of the kiln to the other, enduring an hour at 1,250 degrees Fahrenheit. At the far end, it emerged into a secondary combustion chamber where it received a final blast of 1,750 degree heat before any remaining gasses and ash were finally quenched in a water bath. The resulting ash sludge was then entombed in three mounds covered with earth and grass, each nearly a quarter-mile long. 

Domestic daylilies abound in the woods and will last a century or two. Archaeologists use them as a market to find old house sites.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Stroer

Other nearby farms and subdivisions had also pursued the same dust-settling waste oil treatment in the 1970s, but on a smaller scale than Times Beach. Rather than dismantling and re-erecting the kiln repeatedly, the EPA determined instead to haul the contaminated earth from these sites to the kiln at Times Beach for incineration. Altogether, dioxin-contaminated earth from twenty-seven different sites was incinerated at Times Beach, a total of 265,000 tons at a cost of $110 million, one of the most expensive Superfund projects in America at that time. 

By 1997 testing showed that there was no longer any dioxin contamination, and the cleaned-up real estate was deeded to the state of Missouri for a state park that same year. Trying to turn a corner from less happy times, the park was named in homage to the era when “the Beach” was linked to a proud national phenomenon—Route 66, America’s great Mother Road. Nearly a half-mile of the original highway remains in the park. There are also 418 acres of fields and woods, youngish woods to be sure, but attractive and pleasant for strolling the unnaturally straight byways that crisscross the park. 

Some 200,000 visitors per year use the park, and they are a little different crowd than one finds in many more rural state parks. The park’s status as a day-use area is obvious—people aren’t as settled in or relaxed as they are when visiting a park for a few days or a week of camping. At Route 66, the visitors seem busy: walking, pushing strollers, walking the dog, jogging, running, or biking. These are mostly city people, here for an hour or two for exercise or some fresh air, for a quick stretch of the legs and a bit of blue sky. Then it’s back into the car and off to town again. Nonetheless, the deer and turkeys that have taken up residence seem unconcerned with the intensity of the visitors, and the birds and other small wildlife seem to move at their usual pace. The river itself suggests more leisurely activity, with a walking trail along its gently curving bank and a ramp access for launching boats. 

The town and the park have always been about the road and the river. First the town and then later the park were established where the road crossed the river on its way from St. Louis to Eureka. From the earliest days, there was always a route out of the city to the southwest, and a steel truss bridge with oak floor planks crossed the Meramec here in 1900. Today when the river is low, you can see the remains of several piers of that bridge, lying low in the water. But when this southwestern road out of the city was designated for the routing of Highway 66, a new bridge was needed, one capable of carrying the heavy traffic loads of the modern highway that was coming. In 1932 a new bridge was completed: a riveted, Warren deck truss bridge, a type wherein the truss structure of the bridge was beneath the roadway, rather than above it.

Not long after the bridge had been completed in 1935, an establishment was built at the east end of the bridge that is still in use, now serving as the park’s headquarters and visitor center. It was built as the Bridgehead Inn but probably achieved its most lasting fame as Steiny’s, a classic roadhouse of the 1940s. During the dioxin crisis, it served as headquarters for the EPA and the contractor’s staff. Long before it became part of the state park, the building already had been heavily re-modeled, and today, its vinyl siding and pop-in windows are rather incongruous with the style of the architecture. Nonetheless, visitors enjoy the gallery inside, where many interesting exhibits and artifacts of Route 66’s heyday, as well as materials explaining the dioxin problem and its remedy, are on display. 

The new bridge carried the highway over the river for three decades or so, until the coming of Interstate 44, which bypassed the town one lane at a time and crossed the Meramec just downstream a few hundred yards. After that, the old bridge continued to serve the town, and then just the park until 2009 when it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Ironically, it was condemned that same year, because of advanced deterioration. Highway engineers had determined that the old truss system beneath the road deck was too weak to any longer support traffic. The bridge was still property of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) but was no longer part of the highway system, hence the determination that it be demolished. However, because the bridge played such a vital role in the park operation, connecting segments of the park on either side of the river, and is also an important link in the Meramec Greenway Trail, being the only place the trail can cross the river, MODOT offered a deal: the bridge and some of the $600,000 set aside for its demolition could be given to any entity capable of taking responsibility for it and raising the millions of dollars for repairs. In hopes that some group or agency would step forward, MODOT used some of the $600,000 to remove the heavy bridge deck, lightening the load on the truss structure to avoid possible collapse in the meantime. 

The Route 66 bridge over the Meramec River was an engineering marvel in its day, but today park lovers fight for its survival. In the water beneath the bridge, pier supports from the 1900-era bridge are still visible.
Photo courtesy of Scott Myers

Thus, we leave Route 66 State Park at a juncture, a crossroads so to speak. The old bridge looks forlorn, with no roadway over it, its rusty steel trusses open to the weather, an airy lacework hanging between the sky and the river. The park is split in half, with no direct connection between the visitor center headquarters on one side and the acreage of woods and fields on the other, and the park system has no money to repair the bridge. Visitors wanting to enjoy both halves of the park must venture out onto several miles of busy Interstate 44, using two different exits a couple of miles apart, one exit for the visitor center and a different one for the recreation area. It is inefficient and inconvenient for both park staff and visitors and an obstacle for the Meramec Greenway Trail. Yet, where can the millions of dollars be found that are needed to repair the bridge? Once again, “the Beach ” finds itself at the center of a drama. 

The state park staff has taken well-earned pride in meeting the challenge of turning this area once nearly universally considered a disaster into a pleasant, increasingly attractive recreational asset enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. It seems likely that this same can-do spirit, in cooperation with the Meramec Greenway organization and other urban partners, will likewise find a solution to the bridge problem. Stay tuned.


Featured image courtesy of Lauren Stroer