Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, gazed at a grass-covered mound, the size of four football fields, where the remains of her town are buried.
“Everything that was near and dear to the people in this community. All the houses and the city equipment. Everything that they didn't take with them that was left in their homes is buried here,” she said, softly.
The “town mound” isn’t in the brochures, but it is the most unusual landmark at Route 66 State Park, which opened 20 years ago on the site of Times Beach.
The park is next to the Meramec River, just off Interstate 44 about 17 miles southwest of St. Louis. The creation of the 400-acre park was the final chapter of an environmental disaster that destroyed Leistner’s close-knit community of 2,000 people.
Times Beach made national headlines in December 1982 when state and federal health officials declared the town uninhabitable because its unpaved roadways were polluted with dioxin, a toxic chemical.
In February 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a buyout of Times Beach. Structures were bulldozed and buried. The contaminated soil was scooped up and incinerated. The cleanup took 14 years and cost $110 million.
Hundreds of homes are in the landfill, plus four churches, assorted businesses — even the Times Beach water tower, Leistner said. She would like to see a plaque placed at the mound to commemorate the town and its history.
Leistner, 81, believes it’s her duty to continue telling the story of Times Beach to reporters, researchers and area schoolchildren now several generations removed from the catastrophe.
“The whole country needs to know what happened here, so it doesn't happen again,’’ Leistner said.