Winner | Terrain.org 8th Annual Contest in Nonfiction
We make our lives among relics and ruins of former times, former worlds. — Lauret Savoy
From the road, the river is hidden amid bluffs of limestone and sand, but I can trace the water’s arcing path by the leafless trees that line its banks. Where the river bends gently northwest, I exit the highway and drive through a gate marked Route 66 State Park. Mine is the lone car in the wide asphalt parking lot. I kill the ignition and stare through the windshield at a play structure that sprouts primary-colored against the brown of Missouri’s monotone winter woods. Sun glints off the yellow tube slide, and shadows web the ground.
I’ve come here to understand a decades-old story about contamination and erasure in flyover country, a place just outside my home ground, a place abandoned, quarantined, vanished. I’ve come here to see what it looks like when an entire town disappears.
Rewind 35 years.
“Di-o-xin, Di-o-xin.” My brother Pete taps on the Plexiglas cage and taunts me. He’s just nicknamed my pet guinea pig “Dioxin,” and I am little-sister mad.
“Don’t call her that!” I yell, turning my back on him to watch my rodent friend root around in her cedar-chip bedding. I don’t know what dioxin is, but I know it’s bad. It’s late December 1982, and the TV news anchors are talking about dioxin and floods and a place called Times Beach. Morning after morning, the newspaper on our breakfast table shows houses half-submerged. The government is telling people to leave and not come back.
“It’s true,” Pete says. “They test dioxin on guinea pigs, and it kills them. Di-o-xin, Di-o-xin!”
I lift the wire mesh lid off the cage, reach in, and stroke her broad forehead.
I sit in the car for a moment and orient myself on the small map I printed back at my parents’ house. From the parking area, three parallel trails run out to the Meramec River, where they dead-end at a path that contours the river from the old Route 66 bridge at the east end of the park to the Burlington Northern Railroad trestle at the west. The park, like the town that came before, is shaped like a generous piece of pie. The river forms the curve of crust; the highway and the railroad tracks are its edges. My car sits in the gooey center of the slice.
I grew up less than an hour from Times Beach, but on our trips out of the city my family never stopped here. Once a destination, the town was, by the 1970s, the kind of place you passed on your way to somewhere else. Folks outside eastern Missouri wouldn’t have heard of it or might only know the name from an exit sign along the highway. Then, in December 1982, a convergence of disasters natural and manmade bestowed upon the town instant infamy.
Early that month, the Meramec River spilled through Times Beach, forcing residents to evacuate. After the river receded but before people could clear away water-tossed debris and begin to dry out their homes, the EPA released results from soil samples collected just before the flood. Two days before Christmas, at the town’s annual holiday party, residents who had returned heard the news: dioxin contaminated their roads, accumulated in ditches, and now, carried by floodwaters, may have infiltrated their homes. Testing showed that dioxin levels in some places reached 100 times what was then considered safe for humans. The CDC urged those who had come home to get out and those who hadn’t to stay away. They were instructed to take nothing with them.
I slide the map into the outer pocket of my backpack and step out of the car. Past a public restroom, locked for the winter, and two picnic shelters is another parking lot. I pace the length of it until I find one of the wide grassy paths leading to the river. On either side a thicket of brush and trees grows dense around me, and a gentle panic pricks at my skin as I trek deeper into the woods. Side trails looking much like the one I’m on intersect mine at intervals, and I begin to feel like a child trapped in some long-forgotten labyrinth. When I finally reach the trail that parallels the river, the woods open up and a long cloud of breath slips from my mouth into the cold air. Weak winter sun filters through bare trees, warming my back as I walk along a bluff high above the Meramec.
I had expected the river to be more accessible, the beach part of Times Beach to be more evident. Where I live now, in the Pacific Northwest, beach connotes a certain vastness: wide, wind-whipped sand pounded by a thunderous sea that stretches on and on to that indistinct line where distance disappears into imagination. Beach means longing into that blue forever.
But in the Midwest, it’s the land that is boundless. Water, here, means rivers, running between and through. The map of Missouri is riddled with their blue veins. The muddy Mississippi, flat and wide enough to sail on. And all the small streams our family floated from the time I was two: the Current and the Jacks Fork, the Eleven Point, the Gasconade, the Black. This one, too, the Meramec. We spoke not of beaches but of gravel bars, where we’d pull our canoe up for the night and search for a spot high enough to evade rising waters and flat enough to pitch a tent.
The beach in Times Beach hints at the town’s origins, as does the other half of the name. In 1925, the St. Louis Times ran a promotion to increase readership: a six-month subscription and $67.50 got you a 20-by-100-foot lot in a brand-new summer resort town, sited on an empty floodplain that had once been rich, alluvial farmland. For just $10.00 down and $2.50 a month, advertisements promised, you could purchase “the opportunity to have your own place in this wonder vacation land. . . . Nature’s own playground.”
Beach simply meant proximity to water, a chance to dip in the river. “The Sweltering Heat and Discomfort of the City Are Unknown at TIMES BEACH,” one ad’s headline assured. But the air 30 miles outside the city is no less hot or humid. In Missouri, summer is a season of moisture and swamp. Thick air coats your skin, wets your lungs, saturates. Submergence is the only escape, and Times Beach offered that.
Sales were brisk, and the paper sold through three separate plats. Advertisements for the final round of lots proclaimed, “A Marvelous Future Predicted for This New Summer Resort.”
I keep looking for ways down to the water, to dip my fingers in the cold shallows, listen to the clack of rocks as the river slithers by. Near an overlook, a side trail drops off. About halfway down, my feet begin to slip in sandy soil and I grab hold of some spindly-limbed shrubs to keep from skidding down the bluff. Still ten feet above the river, and I can’t get there. Peering down, it’s hard to believe the water could rise high enough to spill onto the land above. But it did, does.
Early owners built summer cabins on stilts, but the Depression and World War II gas rationing made a weekend summer resort impractical for some, unaffordable for others. As post-war housing shortages in the city pushed people farther west, Times Beach evolved through the ‘50s and ‘60s into a year-round town, where residents built more permanent housing, at ground level. Maybe houses on stilts were viewed as inconvenient or impermanent, or maybe they were too hard to heat in winter. But I wonder, too, if they offered an unwanted reminder of what might happen.
Flood stage here is 18 feet. The 1982 storm that coincided with the dioxin discovery swelled the Meramec to 43 feet. River turned ocean, and a wave of water ran all the way to the highway, engulfing the town.
With no way down to the water, I turn around and pull myself up. On the gravel path, with my back to the river and the woods before me, I try to picture the layout of the town. The lots would have spread out in rows in front of me. A hand-drawn map I found online shows a triangular grid of streets with the suburban-sounding names of Anywhere, America: Birch and Beech, Cedar and Dogwood, Hawthorne and Juniper, Maple, Ivy, Elm. Before me, oaks tower 50, 60 feet tall, remnants of cultivation, of a lived-in landscape. But the clearings where homes must have stood, shaded by those tall trees, are now clogged with undergrowth, saplings and shrubs fighting for space and light, filling the interstices where memory might reside.
The path I’m standing on is as wide as a one-lane road and must be, I realize suddenly, one of the original streets of Times Beach. I squelch an urge to hop off the trail. This is where the town’s demise began, on its roads. Roads where kids would have raced around on dirt bikes. Roads that led to friends’ houses or to secret paths down to the river. Roads without stoplights. The kind of roads where kids could run free.
A child’s brain turns easily toward apocalypse—at least mine always did. I was ten in 1982, and World War III seemed to lurk just around the corner. I often lay awake in my twin bed envisioning the cloud that would engulf my neighborhood, instantly incinerating me, my parents, my brother, my guinea pig, and my pink Huffy with the banana seat.
Tornados, too, threatened to wipe away what I loved. For years, elementary school drills had sent my classmates and me to the basement, where we crouched on our knees on the red concrete of the cafeteria floor, covering our necks with our small hands for protection from shattering glass. That threat had become real the summer I was nine, but there was no basement to flee to. Instead, on a warm July day, as the air stilled and the sky turned the yellow-green of an overcooked egg yolk, I was ushered, along with tens of other parentless children, out of a local pool and into a cinderblock changing room, banks of metal lockers on either side of us as we waited through the wail and rush of a funnel charging through. When the roar finally quieted, we emerged to umbrella tables upended and hundred-year-old trees mown down like a row of reaped corn. A massive old oak filled the pool. My parents were somewhere just beyond that line of broken trees, their only cover a flimsy wooden shack on a hill, and I pictured their bodies flung.
It seemed so easy to go from here to nowhere.
Once people began living in Times Beach year-round in the decades after World War II, the population changed. Most city dwellers with enough money for a summer cabin departed, leaving behind a small semi-rural river town. Kids who grew up here stayed, got married, had kids of their own. Everybody knew each other, nobody had much money. The homes were modest, the streets unpaved. To keep the dust down, city aldermen hired a waste-oil hauler named Russell Bliss to spray the roads. Bliss had a good gig going, paid on the front end to haul away oil and on the back end to spray it on roads and parking lots, on horse arenas and stables. For two years in the early 1970s, Bliss saturated the roads of Times Beach with used oil. At times, that oil was mixed with what Bliss later claimed to have thought was some kind of grease. During a legislative investigation, he stated, “You could have told me it was some kind of a new jelly and I’d have put it on toast and eaten it.”
But in the wake of the ‘82 flood, a decade after the spraying, as Times Beach began to dry out, the public would learn that this “grease” was anything but harmless. It originated in a small town called Verona on the other side of the state, in a chemical plant that had, during the ‘60s, produced Agent Orange for military use in Vietnam. After that, the owners leased part of the plant to a company that made an antibacterial substance called hexachlorophene. The byproduct of both was dioxin.
“Still bottoms” is what you call the sludge Bliss was paid to haul away, the thick, highly concentrated residue that collects at the bottom of a still during the production and distillation of chemicals. But what the name makes me think of is rivers. Bottomlands. The calm eddies where my dad and I would set our paddles in the canoe and pull out our fishing rods. The swimming holes. The gravel bars where current song lulled me into a sleep free of nightmares. The low-lying banks where streams left their silt when the rains came.
But here, mixed with the Meramec’s rich silt, dioxin spread across the land.
Floodplains are classified by how often they can be expected, based on past records, to flood. According to an Association of Missouri Geologists report, Times Beach sat on a 25-year floodplain, with portions on a five-year floodplain. Alluvial deposits of clay and silt, sand and gravel that lay beneath parts of the town were as deep as 70 feet, the sedimentary wealth of centuries of a river rising.
It may be a sign of human arrogance to build in such an area, but the evolution here seems, if not inevitable, then at least understandable—a gradual shift toward permanent habitation. You love a place and can’t bear to leave. Or there’s nowhere else you can afford to go. When rains are predicted, you sandbag and cross your fingers. If the floods overtop your makeshift barriers, you dry out, rebuild, and pray it doesn’t happen again for another quarter-century or more, pray that past isn’t prelude, that history isn’t prediction. You learn to hold inside yourself an improbable fusion of hope and resignation.
And in the end, it isn’t the river that makes you leave.
When the EPA announced the soil test results, residents came forward with stories: the roads turned purple after Bliss came through with his truck. Birds dropped dead. The police shot a dog, presumed rabid, trapped in a roadside ditch. One man collected the bodies of birds and stored them in his freezer for a health department representative who never showed up. How long do you keep evidence before you forget it’s there, hidden behind the ice cube trays?
After discovery of the dioxin, most townspeople fled to nearby areas. Local media coverage stoked fears of contamination and contagion, and people in neighboring communities warned their children not to play with children from Times Beach. Word was that the dirt those kids played in was so toxic it killed lab animals. Di-o-xin, Di-o-xin!
The EPA barricaded all roads into the town and posted warning signs. Next to one barricade, they set up a trailer that dispensed flyers about hazardous contamination. A security guard patrolled the perimeter and the empty streets of the town, watching for looters but mostly finding wild turkeys in overgrown yards.
In late February 1983, the federal government announced it would buy the entire town, and by summer began making offers to the 2,240 residents of Times Beach. According to an account by the town’s last mayor, the offers were so low people spray-painted the numbers on their houses as TV news cameras rolled. “Offers improved,” she wrote. Still, the buyout took two years, until only one elderly couple remained, seeking more money for their home.
In April 1985, three and a half years after the initial discovery of dioxin, The New York Times ran a three-paragraph update on the disaster, with the headline “Times Beach, Mo., Votes Itself Out of Existence.” The town aldermen had unanimously decided to disincorporate, and the governor had approved.
It would be a decade before all parties involved would agree on how to clean up the site and who would pay for it. When they finally did, a state-of-the-art facility was built on-site to incinerate contaminated soil, and all of Times Beach—the ash and the remnants of a town—was buried, covered with clean soil, and planted with grass.
The trail along the river ends at an overlook near the railroad tracks. From where I sit on a cold concrete bench, I can see the mottled white bark of sycamores that line the Meramec. Ghost trees, they’re called. They glow in the thin late-afternoon light.
Music drifts across the river from a group of rundown houses on stilts. In the distance, a train whistle blows. As the engine rumbles closer, I watch for it to cross the trestle. I wait and watch, watch and wait, but the train never appears. The rumble becomes a roar and then fades away.
What haunts me most about this place is the completeness of its disappearance, the way all evidence of both habitation and contamination have been so thoroughly erased. What is it I’m looking for? A monument, a sign, some trace? An acknowledgment of what was lost?
Rivers have whispered to me for as long as I can remember, but land has always seemed solid, silent—stoic, like the Midwestern people I come from. Here today, though, I sense that this silence is not passive, that the land is listening, absorbing, storing all we tell it in the small pockets between soil particles. Seventy feet of sediment lies beneath my feet; layered on top are the remains of a town, and layered on that is clean, uncontaminated soil. It is all still here, but we must listen for it.
The story of Times Beach is singular but not solitary. Displacement is as old as time and rings our globe. Countless numbers of human beings can no longer return home, to the site of their stories, can’t drop to their knees and feel the dirt that undergirded their childhood. The waters receded in Times Beach, but we are in for a future where a more permanent flood will do its own work of erasure. How will we remember?
As the sun sinks below the treetops, I head back toward my car. The path ends abruptly at the edge of a vast field. Disoriented, I pull out my map. The parking lot is beyond the field and a distant stand of trees, so I start walking. It’s a strange expanse. No trees or brush, only thick plugs of coarse grass evenly spaced. The austerity is an odd contrast to the rest of the park, so dense and brambly.
Rewind again, not to a beginning, but to a time just before an ending. Forty years ago: mown lawns, children shrieking, dogs barking, a grocery, a gas station, a church. Thirty-five: a flood, Christmas lights tangled in trees, trailers washed off their foundations, the silence of drowning. Twenty-five: a Superfund site, an incinerator, the scrape and groan of bulldozers moving earth, the crash of a table, a lamp, a door, someone’s dishes dumped into an immense ditch. Twenty: a burial ground, a question mark. And today: these woods, this park, the calls of chickadees, the screams of jays.
One source I wanted to consult but didn’t because out-of-print copies are rare and relatively expensive is Judy Piatt’s Killing Horses: A Personal Chronicle of an Environmental Disaster in Missouri. Piatt owned Shenandoah Stables, one of the horse arenas Russell Bliss sprayed with dioxin-laced oil. In the wake of the contamination, horses, birds, and family pets died and Piatt’s young daughters became very ill. Shortly thereafter, Piatt began tracking Bliss’s hauling activities. She later provided detailed information that helped the Centers for Disease Control follow the trail of contamination, which began at the chemical plant in Verona and led to more than two dozen sites around the state. This part of Missouri’s dioxin story is less public but no less tragic.
Judge Nicole Walker says…
“Ghost Trees” weaves immediate, personal narrative with matter-of-fact reporting. The tension between the brother, who mocks the narrator’s guinea pig by naming it ‘Dioxin’ and actual dioxins dumped in Missouri river hits home the personal connection to this land and the sorrow at losing it. The guinea pig’s story provides the short timeline. The saga of the Meramec River provides the long one. What I loved most about this essay is the second, subtle weave between the near-silence of land and the noisiness of water that takes this particular situation from the anecdotal and raises it to the universal. The water makes its case daily but its up to us to listen to the quieter, burden bearing ground.
Jennie Goode works as an independent writer, editor, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity, Water~Stone Review, slag glass city, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle.