Route 66 State Park: Toxic Town of Times Beach

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Despite its name, Route 66 State Park is not a memorial to the Mother Road.  It has much more to do with the small vacation town of Times Beach, on the Meramec River.  The town was evacuated in the 1980’s, and its topsoil incinerated during the 1990’s, all because of a dioxin scare.

Two old alignments pass through this part of Missouri.  If you follow Route 100 from South St. Louis to Gray Summit, you’ll bypass Route 66 State Park, which is located just off Interstate 44, at exit 266.  An old alignment of 66 passes over the Meramec River, then dead-ends (although you can still see where it used to re-join I-44, just beyond the park).

Old 66 enters the park that now bears its name, as it crosses the Meramec River.  From the old bridge…

… you have a nice view of the new one, which carries Interstate 44.

Beyond the bridge are some trees, and a whole lot of empty land.  It wasn’t always like this, though.  Back in the 1920’s, the town of Times Beach was founded here, and developed as a vacation town for St. Louis residents.  By the 1970’s, the population had changed to lower income residents.  The roads weren’t paved, and dust was annoying, so they sprayed the streets with oil.  The only problem was, that oil was contaminated with dioxin, exposing everyone in the town to a serious dose of the toxic substance.

In the early 1980’s the government admitted there was a problem in Times Beach, and offered to buy the entire town from its residents.  Everyone was gone by 1985, and by 1992, all the town’s buildings (except one) were torn down.  A few years later, an incinerator was built, and all that toxic dirt was sanitized.

Times Beach is perfectly safe today.  The park road makes a loop around the area where those old houses and dusty streets once stood.  Trails criss-cross the fields.  It all looked a little grey when I was there, but I imagine it’s a nice, relaxing place for a walk or a bike ride in the summer.

I mentioned that one building survived the dioxin buy-out: that building is the Bridgehead Inn, an old roadhouse at the entrance to the park, just before you cross the Meramec River.  Even if you’re unimpressed by the scenic drive around Times Beach, you should pop in here for a moment.  The old building now houses a welcome center, gift shop, and a nice little Route 66 museum (free!).  Exhibits do a great job of explaining the history of the town, as well as preserving some of Missouri’s Route 66 heritage.

One picture I found interesting was taken during a devastating flood, that caused the town to be evacuated in 1982, just a few weeks before the EPA announced its dioxin discovery.  I tried to imagine the Meramec river rising so high, as to nearly cover a street sign.  Little did I know, I was visiting just one week before another great flood (in March 2008), when the Meramec rose to levels not seen since that flood in 1982.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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