TIMES BEACH • In 1925, the old St. Louis Times newspaper offered clubhouse sites along the Meramec River for a "popular new summer resort." Fifty years later, it was a countryfied outer suburb for people of modest means.
Built on bottomland east of Eureka, Times Beach was vulnerable to the periodic rages of the Meramec, a river that drains a wide area of wooded hills. Renowned for its winding miles of rewarding scenery, the Meramec also is a treacherous rain ditch.
Times Beach residents knew how to let the floods pass and get by with ragtag repairs.
In November 1982, they learned that oil used to spray the town's many dirt lanes had been laced with dioxin, a toxin deadly to animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began taking samples.
"People want their peace of mind," said resident Lane Jumper.
As they awaited results, the river changed everything. On Dec. 2, with the temperature a record 74, rain began falling steadily, then in torrents - 5 inches near St. Louis, accompanied by tornadoes that heavily damaged New Baden, Ill. Parts of eastern Missouri, including some of the Meramec watershed, had more than 10 inches over four days.
The first big flooding was along the Cuivre River, chasing people from Old Monroe. Overflow rushed over the Lake Saint Louis dam. Even the Mississippi River rose nine feet.
Almost 4,000 people already were homeless in Missouri and Illinois as the Meramec's swollen tributaries converged. People along the lower Meramec were warned of a crest almost 20 feet over flood stage at Valley Park.
"These people are used to it," said St. Louis County emergency director Jim White as residents of Pacific, Times Beach and other river towns began packing their pickups.
They weren't used to the inundation that rushed into their homes Dec. 5, 1982, with 5 more feet of water than expected. Rescue workers gingerly powered johnboats amid swamped homes to find people on roofs and in upper-story windows. Many of Times Beach's 2,500 residents slogged through the dangerous current to the soggy grass shoulders of Interstate 44.
"There are people here who have virtually nothing left," said Alderman Sid Hammer.
The falling river revealed ravaged homes filled with mud or dashed on bridge piers. Almost 18,000 people were homeless. Parts of Pacific, Valley Park and Arnold never were occupied again, but the towns survived.
Not Times Beach. With confirmation of dioxin, the one-two punch was too much. The last residents were moved by the federal environmental Superfund in 1985.
The former town became a state park. The crest of Dec. 6, 1982, almost 24 feet over flood stage, stood as a record flood until 2015, when a flood in late December beat it by four feet. That record fell in May 2017 when the river hit 46.11 feet.
This article was first published in 2010; it has been updated.