Times Beach, Missouri, was originally a weekend getaway town. Until April 2, 1985—when it ceased to be a town at all.
That’s when the town's former residents voted it out of corporate existence. Only one elderly couple still lived there at the time, according to a report published in The New York Times. Three years previously, the town had been home to 2,242 residents, who were all suddenly evacuated when it was revealed that their dirt roads had all been sprayed down with a mixture containing dioxin—a toxin present in Agent Orange.
“Disincorporation of Times Beach is a sad but necessary step in allowing local citizens, the state and the Federal Government to complete the job in that area,” Missouri Governor John Ashcroft said at the time.
It was yet another sad chapter in a dramatic story that began in December 1982, when men in white suits and respirators showed up on people’s lawns in the small town, writes Jon Hamilton for NPR.
Dioxin had been found throughout the town. The chemical is known to be extremely toxic, according to the World Health Organization. It causes birth defects and reproductive issues, as well as immune issues and, you guessed it, cancer. As William Powell writes in St. Louis Magazine, there's still debate about just how much dioxin was in the road spray, but the dangerous chemical was certainly present.
Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, says the message people received was, “If you live in the community, you need to get out. If you’re outside of the community, don’t go back. And don’t take nothing with you.”
Because of a massive flood that showed up not long after the government agents, many people were already staying elsewhere. Some didn't go back, while others returned only to leave again. The controversy over what to do pitted townsfolk against one another, writes Powell.
“The first time I went to the site, I went by myself, and it was heart-wrenching,” Gary Pendergrass, who was in charge of cleaning up the town, told Hamilton. “Walking around the streets, walking into houses, many of them were like people had just simply stood up, walked out and never came back,” he said. “Plates on the tables, Christmas trees, Christmas decorations outside, and just street after street of that.”
The massive clean-up operation he directed demolished those houses and buried them, and removed dioxin from 265,000 tons of soil. The whole thing cost more than $100 million, Hamilton reports.