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A Look Back • How a December flood wiped Times Beach off the map in 1982
Times Beach

A Look Back • How a December flood wiped Times Beach off the map in 1982

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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.

Times Beach

An aerial view of Times Beach taken in 1971, with Interstate 44 to the right, and the Meramec River along the east of the town at the top of the picture. Post-Dispatch file photo

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.

Look Back: Demise of Times Beach

The Mississippi River rises onto the Arch grounds on Dec. 5, 1982, swollen by torrential rains that dumped more than 10 inches of rain in some parts of Missouri and Illinois. The river crested downtown nine feet over flood stage -- noteworthy, but nothing like the record set 11 years later on Aug. 1, 1993, when the river reached almost 20 feet over flood downtown. The big news in December 1982 was along the tributaries, such as the Cuivre River north of St. Louis and the Black River in southern Missouri. Along the Meramec River, a record crest swamped parts of Pacific, Eureka, Valley Park and Arnold, and helped bring about the end of Times Beach, a bottomland town downriver from Eureka that was founded in the 1920s by the former St. Louis Times newspaper as a weekend retreat of cottages. (Larry Williams/Post-Dispatch)

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.

Times Beach

City attorney Thad F. Niemira, right, reading the ordinance that dissolved the city in April 1985. The Board of Aldermen members listening are (from left) Seymour C. Loucks, Candice MacGill, Harold Goddman, Mayor Marilyn Leistner and (hidden from view) Larry Curtis. Post-Dispatch file photo

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.

Gone over 30 years, the spirit of Times Beach lives on social media

This article was first published in 2010; it has been updated.

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