Mike Kapstick doesn’t just see the sprawling green space, trees and trails when he walks through Route 66 State Park just outside Eureka.

The 53-year-old also sees the community he grew up in – Times Beach.

Before it became a 418.61-acre park, the land just east of Eureka started as a summer resort area on the Meramec River, then developed into a small town, and disappeared after a massive flood and the discovery of high levels of dioxin in 1983.

Thirty-five years after Times Beach was erased, Kapstick can still recall where his family’s home was, where neighbors’ homes were situated and can name most of the streets that are now walkways through the park.

“It was a great town,” said Kapstick, a former Eureka resident who recently moved to St. Louis. “I just can’t imagine any other place to grow up.”

And no one could have imagined that on Feb. 22, 1983, the federal Environmental Protection Agency would announce a Superfund buyout to remove the town’s residents.

“When you said to me 35 years, I’m thinking it can’t be 35 years,” said former Eureka Ward 2 Alderwoman Marilyn Leistner, who was the last mayor of Times Beach. “Some of it seems like it was last week.”

Town’s roots

Times Beach got its start through a newspaper promotion.

In 1926, the St. Louis Times sold a 20-foot-by-100-foot lot in Times Beach for $67.50, advertising the land as a place to get away from the city. The purchase included a six-month subscription to the paper. In order to build a home on the land, a second lot needed to be purchased.

Eventually, the get-away spot grew into a town of nearly 2,500 residents with 801 families.

Because it was in a Meramec River flood plain, some of the houses were on stilts; others were modular homes and some were typical ranch homes of that era.

“Times Beach was family,” said Donna Pollard-Branson, 61, whose family resided there until 1983 and who now lives in Fairview Heights, Ill.

“It was an amazing way to grow up. I feel sorry for the kids today. They might not have the dioxin, but our lives were wonderful. I loved it.”

Unfortunately, the neighbors who looked out for each other also paved the way for Times Beach’s downfall.

Times Beach, or as natives called it, “The Beach,” had dusty roads and a lack of city funds to pave them. The solution to the problem came in the form of Russell Bliss.

In 1971, groups of neighbors hired Bliss, a waste hauler, to spray used motor oil on the streets to help control the dust, Leistner said. The city entered into an agreement with Bliss’ company in 1972 and 1973 to spray down all the roads.

Ten years after that, Times Beach was thrown into chaos because of dioxin and flooding.

Disaster

In November 1982, a newspaper reporter contacted the city clerk to inform him the town was on a list of places sprayed with waste oil containing dioxin.

A call from the EPA soon followed, confirming the reporter’s information, but also the news that it would take up to at least nine months to test the area.

“A resident found a lab in Creve Coeur, and we collected money from the businesses and people,” Leistner said. “It was going to cost us $2,200, just to test to see if the dioxin was there. It wasn’t to quantify, it was only to qualify. Since we found a lab, the EPA decided to test.”

Before results could come back, the Meramec River crested at 42.88 feet on Dec. 5, 1982, flooding the town, especially bad because Times Beach had opted out of the National Flood Insurance Program in 1980.

Then on Dec. 13, 1982, it was announced that dioxin had been found in Times Beach. Ten days later, those who had not returned after the flood were told to stay away and those who had returned were told to leave.

In February 1983, EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford, from behind glass in a second-floor conference room in a Eureka hotel, told Times Beach residents about the buyout. Burford resigned a month later, amid allegations of mismanagement of the Superfund program.

Leistner was an alderwoman at the time the flood occurred and the dioxin threat was discovered. She became mayor after two resignations. First, Mike Kapstick’s father, Joe, resigned the mayor’s post. Then, his replacement, Sid Hammer, resigned, too. She was elected to the position in June 1983.

She said the buyout process was supposed to be fair market value for the homes with the possibility of getting $15,000 in supplemental relocation assistance, an interest differential rate for 20 years and $500 for moving expenses.

But the initial offers came in low, which prompted residents to spray paint the government’s price tags on their homes. An appeals system was set up to allow homeowners to get up to 20 percent more than the initial offer.

“They (the EPA) had never done anything like this before,” Leistner said. “They were making the rules as they went and as we complained.”

Class-action lawsuits, families refusing to move only to lose their homes through condemnation, and hard feelings followed.

Leistner said because she was the mayor she was named trustee of Times Beach, but she was not allowed to have anything to do with setting buyout amounts, nor was she given preferential treatment.

“Because I was the trustee, they thought I was controlling the amount of money they would get,” said Leistner, whose family relocated to Eureka after receiving compensation for its Times Beach mobile home. “The government wouldn’t let me anywhere near that. There was no way. If that was the case, they would have gotten far more than what they got.”

A mobile incinerator was used to burn 265,000 tons of dirt from 27 locations. Contaminated houses remain, but they are buried in the park, and visitors can still discern the mounds of earth where homes once stood. As a result, the park will always be connected to Times Beach.

Mike Kapstick said that is one of the hardest parts to deal with. He still sees Route 66 State Park as the place where he came of age.

“I learned my love of baseball there,” Kapstick said. “I never played that well, but we would play it. It was like the movie, “The Sandlot.” We had a big field, and our little crew would go there all the time and play baseball and football and all of that stuff. We would hang out there. I kissed a girl for the first time there.

“When I go back there now, I can still see and feel the people, and all of the cool stuff we did as kids.”

Pollard-Branson, whose grandfather opened the gas station and had cottages at the town’s entrance, said it is sad Times Beach is forever linked to disaster.

“It does upset me that some people are so negative,” Pollard-Branson said. “I loved Times Beach. I don’t care that I was called a river rat. I had the best life ever.”

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