Chemical Danger Forced Evacuation of Times Beach, Mo. : Ghost Town Stands as a Somber Monument to Dioxin
From a distance, it looks merely to be a town napping peacefully in the shade of its flowering dogwood trees. It is not.
Nearly every window of every building has been smashed, every item of value salvaged or stolen. Waist-high weeds harbor snakes and rodents that have migrated from the banks of the Meramec River. Graffiti has been painted on streets. The smell of mold and mildew seeps out of boarded-up houses with much the same force as the floodwaters that seeped in.
There is no electricity. There is no need for it.
Times Beach is not asleep. It is dead.
The board of aldermen declared it so on April 2 by signing an ordinance asking Gov. John Ashcroft to issue an executive order dis-incorporating the community. Ashcroft obliged that very day.
Marilyn Leistner, the town’s last mayor, said, “I think you could call it our death notice.”
Times Beach, Mo.--1925-1985.
Primary cause of death: dioxin, a byproduct of the manufacture of herbicides and other chemicals that was mixed in waste oil sprayed on the town’s dirt roads in the early 1970s to keep dust from blowing.
In February, 1983, the government announced it would buy out Times Beach, which is 25 miles southwest of St. Louis. It has spent about $25 million for 378 of 390 residential parcels and 25 of 30 businesses.
As trustee of Times Beach, Leistner still spends a good deal of time working in the guard shack at the base of the bridge over the Meramec leading to town. At the bridge’s entrance is a big yellow and black sign from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Caution,” it says. “Hazardous waste site. Dioxin contamination. Stay in your car. Keep windows closed.”
Crossing the bridge and catching that first glimpse of the desolation, Leistner explained that she did not like to come around at night, when the only light is from the moon and the only sounds from intruders or animals.
“It’s spooky,” she said. “It’s like being in the middle of a science fiction movie.”
To the left is debris, including two junked police cars, that the government bulldozed into big piles behind buildings so it could not be seen from Interstate 44, which crosses just to the south.
“We call it the I-44 Beautification Program,” Leistner said with a laugh.
To the right, off on Park Drive, is the Times Beach Bible Church, where the doors are swinging in the wind. Inside, vandals have ripped out the light fixtures and turned the pews around so they face the back of the church. Scattered about are moldy Bibles, and pamphlets titled, “My Perfect Waterloo.”
Leistner used to teach Sunday school in the basement.
“I’d take you down,” she said, “but there’s probably snakes.”
The sign is still up in front of Grace Newsom’s beauty parlor at 229 Grove. Inside, the beautician’s chair is encased in rust and cobwebs. The phonograph has been knocked over and a record album is on the floor. It’s the sound track from “Gone With the Wind.”
“It’s really not too bad in here, compared to a lot of the places,” Leistner said. “Some have like a sewer odor. It’s just horrible.”
One such place is a bungalow at 329 Dogwood. The floor, walls and ceiling are coated in fungus, psychedelic blotches of pink and green. Decorations are still out from Christmas, 1982, when floodwaters inundated Times Beach. Dishes are piled in the rack on the sink.
Leistner tiptoed across the buckling floor, holding a hand over her mouth because of the smell.
“I’m always afraid we’re going to find a dead body, a derelict, in one of these houses,” she muttered. “It’s sometimes hard to believe this is real, that it’s ended this way.”
Even amid the sadness, there is some humor. Leistner points to the town’s boat dock leading to the Meramec. At the water’s edge is another of those EPA signs telling people to stay in their cars and to keep the windows rolled up.
“I wonder how many people have seen that sign from their car,” she said.
Newspaper Spawned Town
Times Beach was born in the mid-1920s when the old St. Louis Times--from which the town’s name is derived--offered 20-by-100-foot lots along the Meramec to anyone subscribing to the newspaper for six months, at a cost of $67.50. It gradually grew into a prosperous summer resort and year-round community.
Three years ago, the town had 2,242 citizens. Today it has two-- George and Ida Klein, who remain in their home along the service road south of the interstate while they hold out for a better buy-out deal. The Kleins have lived in the same house for 43 years.
“We’re not lonely,” Klein has said. “This is the way we started out. We were alone for a while until the others started moving out here. I know we’ll have to get out eventually.”
Leistner said she would like to see Times Beach eventually cleaned up and turned into a park.
“But that won’t happen for a long, long time,” she said, “if ever.”
Even if it does not happen, Times Beach will not be forgotten, said Leistner, searching for a letter that former resident Rosalie Elliott wrote following dis-incorporation.
“Left to mourn the passing of this once proud community are the 2,242 people who lived there,” the letter says. “Private memorial services will be held every time the former residents recall their past.”