ST. LOUIS COUNTY • Toxic waste forced the town’s evacuation more than 30 years ago, but the spirit of Times Beach lives on through dedicated social media sites, occasional reunions and the efforts of Marilyn Leistner, forever the mayor of a town that no longer exists.
Leistner still questions whether she and 2,500 fellow residents made the right decision in 1983 by leaving behind homes, belongings and a way of life.
“If someone said, ‘Let’s rebuild in the same place,’ there would be a line of Times Beach people ready to go back,” Leistner said.
The mayor can be excused a moment of wishful thinking: The chances of Times Beach’s rising phoenix-like from the ashes of contaminated soil incinerated more than a quarter century ago are nil.
Instead, former residents keep memories of the Meramec River town alive on no fewer than four Facebook pages.
“Surely, no one who is still alive from back then will forget it — it’s like Pearl Harbor,” former resident Joe Capstick said.
Since 1997, the site where Times Beach once stood has been occupied by Route 66 State Park, a 419-acre west St. Louis County recreational area for hikers, bicyclists and nature lovers.
The state pays homage to the quirky heritage of the ghost town across the river in a small corner of a visitors center dominated by memorabilia linked to the iconic American highway that draws visitors to the park from around the world.
Times Beach owes its existence to an early 20th-century promotion by the St. Louis Times that offered readers plots 20 feet by 100 feet on an undeveloped Meramec River bend as an incentive for a six-month subscription to the now long-extinct newspaper.
Many readers bought two subscriptions because a single lot wasn’t suitable for building in an area where, as late as the 1970s, a fair share of the roads remained unpaved.
The dirt roads ultimately led to the town’s demise.
Responding to complaints about dust, the city hired contractor Russell Bliss, who addressed the issue by spraying the streets with dioxin-laced oil. Dioxin is the compound found in the defoliant Agent Orange.
Environmental officials had just completed tests to research long-held suspicions that the toxin posed significant health risks when the Meramec crested in December 1982, forcing a full evacuation of the town.
The test results turned up dangerously excessive dioxin levels.
Residents never returned.
The park land once inhabited by Times Beach now lies across the river from the visitors center, separated by a vintage Route 66 bridge, also headed for demolition barring a last-minute infusion of cash.
To visitors, the site is a leafy refuge.
In Leistner’s eyes, it is still the place where she lived during two marriages, raised four children, laughed, cried, worshiped and returned every night from her job as a dental assistant.
Where park visitors see vacant land, Leistner sees the long-gone watering holes Reid Ray’s Riverside Inn and The Frontier Lounge.
A towering oak triggers memories of the tire swing her children played on in their grandparents’ front yard.
Maple and Blakely, the streets where she lived, are no longer. But that doesn’t stop Leistner from pointing out the exact locations where her homes once stood.
The mayor pauses for quiet respect at the burial ground — four football fields long — containing the dioxin-tainted remains of every Times Beach residence, article of clothing, furniture and vehicle.
“Everything in the city is in there,” Leistner said. “Dump trucks, tractors, the water tower. Everything.”
She delivers the Times Beach story with the savvy of a media veteran, a practice honed by 30-plus years of interviews with researchers, journalists and documentary moviemakers.
Leistner did not choose the role.
Elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1981, Leistner by happenstance landed in the city’s top office shortly before the flood that thrust Times Beach into the headlines and the town mayor into conversations with the governor of Missouri and the president of the United States.
The last mayor of Times Beach was later named the trustee overseeing the city’s destruction and transition to state park.
Leistner, 78, continued to dabble in politics and currently holds a seat on the Eureka Board of Aldermen.
Driving through Route 66 Park, Leistner recalls her second husband, friends and relatives who succumbed to illnesses probably connected to toxic poisoning.
Leistner herself has been diagnosed with uterine cancer, diabetes and hyper-thyroid disease.
But nothing can keep her away from the town she moved to in 1956 and fled in 1982.
Once or twice a week Leistner hops in her Lincoln Continental for a quiet drive through what, for her, will forever be Times Beach.
“As I drive through I think about all the things that happened here,” she said. “Some good memories. Some bad memories. Mostly good. I’m not sure it’s 100 percent safe, but my argument is that it can’t hurt me more than it already has.”