Moments in History

Times Beach, MO: A Modern Ghost Town Tale


In 1925, the St. Louis Star-Times sold lots along the Meramec River about 17 miles southwest of St. Louis along Route 66 for $67.50 each. The purchase of a 20 ft. by 100 ft. lot would also entitle the purchaser to a six-month subscription to the newspaper. Soon, the St. Louis elite was purchasing the property and creating a small resort town. However, after the Great Depression hit then the gas rationing during and after WW2, the wealthy weren’t as wealthy and stopped coming. About 2,000 people perservered and kept the town going. Until 1985.

Unlike it’s pre-Depression boom, the residents who inhabited Times Beach in the 1970s were lower-middle class. Tax revenues were slim and the streets were primarily dirt. Dust storms were a problem, but the town didn’t have the money to pave the streets. So, they turned to the next best thing. They would oil the streets. A man named Russel Bliss was hired to start spraying waste oil on the dirt roads starting in 1972. He had developed his technique by oiling the dirt on his farm and those of his clients to keep dirt down in the horse stables. The first sign of trouble came in March 1971 when one of his clients found 62 dead horses in his stable. Bliss convinced the man it couldn’t have been him since he only used waste motor oil.

That wasn’t entirely true. In fact, it is what many would call a lie. You see, Bliss also had a contract with a company called IPC to dispose of their toxic waste. IPC was being paid $3,000 per load to get rid of the hazardous waste from Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company (NEPACCO). IPC, in turn, paid Bliss $125 to get rid of the waste. You might be seeing where this is going.

Bliss had mixed some of the waste oil with the NEPACCO waste. When other horses began dying, the owners began tracing Bliss’ dealings and got the Centers for Disease Control on the case. In 1979 a NEPACCO employee admitted to the disposal scheme.

What was in the NEPACCO waste? It was primarily clay and water that had been stored at NEPACCO’s facility as contaminated material from when they were in the business of making Agent Orange during Vietnam. Agent Orange contains 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD). If you’re chemically-challenged like me, that substance is a dioxin. TCDD has been called “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man”. Now this stuff was being sprayed on the streets of Times Beach and in the horse stables of Bliss’ clients.

After the 1979 admission by a NEPACCO employee, the government sued NEPACCO. The EPA first visited Times Beach in 1982 (the government doesn’t do anything fast), and found high levels of dioxin in the soil. In November 1982 they measured soil dioxin levels of 100 times the limit set by the EPA for human contact. On December 5, 1982 the Meramec River flooded covering the town in 10 feet of water. Two weeks later the EPA announced that the government would be buying the town for $32 million. Oh, and high levels of PCBs were also found. Just to add to the toxic cocktail brewing in the town.

By 1985, all 2,000 residents except one elderly couple had been relocated. Gates were put up warning people of the dangers contained in the now empty town. Residents, shunned by their new neighbors due to fears about dioxin, sued Bliss, NEPACCO, and the subcontractors. Bliss was never found guilty of spraying dioxin after pleading ignorant.

Times Beach, now one of the largest Superfund sites, underwent a transformation beginning in 1996. The government removed 265,000 short tons of dirt and incinerated it. The incinerator was built and operated by NEPACCO’s parent company. Once that was done, the incinerator was demolished and the land was turned over to the state of Missouri. It is now a state park known as Route 66 State Park. The EPA continues to occasionally monitor soil contaminants in the area to make sure the site remains safe.

The moral of the story is, “No matter how much Bliss you have, toxic chemicals are still dangerous.”

[Image Credit: Now I Know]

  • Well done. I've driven through that area on I-44 several times and I never knew this.

    • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

      Same here, well only once, but my kids got out and romped around, my wife took photos, hadn't clue! I think it had that red box on the atlas that means scenic area, so we stopped on a road trip.

  • skitter

    This sort of thing is almost enough to make me hate people.

    Edit: Parallels to current events with fracking water all around West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

    • BlackIce_GTS

      If you already hate people, this is kinda funny.

  • cruisintime

    They are killing our planet in the name of Profit…

    • SSurfer321

      remember, when pointing a finger, three are pointing back at you.

      we are all responsible for the planet.


      • chrystlubitshi

        ever since this was pointed out to me at a young age (7 or 8… probably) I have made a point (haha) of using my index finger crossed over the back of my three other fingers (as seen below) to point at people.

        <img src=" Uploads/20130924_131826.jpg?w=AAD6h6fZRdjFQDdM7I80tggond2xHDvXkDCqI7IUOjNOdg" width="400">

        this pic is meant to be rotated 90 degrees clockwise…. also… I try not to point at people…. I give a head nod or the clock position when pointing someone out…

  • Felis_Concolor

    When the ingredients list is composed of single digits separated by commas, it's past time to run as far away as you can.

  • Metric Wrench

    The prof for philosophy at the community college would, once a lecture, phase out into a trance for an awkward ten or so seconds, then state in a low monotone "The flood of '82. Lost my house, lost my wife." He would remain still for another ten seconds, eyes unfocused, and then continue the lecture where he left off, apparently unaware of the event.

    His son was my age, and on campus for the free kids of staff thing. I asked, and he just shook his head and explained that he and his parents had lived in Times Beach. Seems the whole flood – government forced relocation bit had a somewhat deleterious effect on the already shaky marriage.

    He was around 12 years old when it went down, and vividly remembered riding his bike behind the guys in white chem suits with bullhorns announcing everything was fine, but we're asking you to leave for your safety. And you can't bring anything with you.

  • Now they have Rhino Snot to keep the dirt down.

  • Sign may as well say, "Welcome to Newark."

    • FЯeeMan

      I don't care who you are, that's funny!

  • fodder650

    This reads an awful lot like the story of Love Canal. I'm surprised no one else made a correlation between the two.

  • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq

    Just the thought of used motor oil (contaminated or not) being sprayed on roads, different country now.

  • GTXEliminator

    Bliss also dumped waste on his own land, only a few miles from where I live. They want to build a neighborhood there now. As you can imagine there's a lot of public skepticism on whether the land is clean or not. I know I wouldn't want to live there.

  • papamarc

    I had car trouble on I-44 in mid August in 1982 at the Times Beach exit. I walked a short distance to a farmhouse to ask for assistance and a drink to quinch my thirst. The house seemed to have been abandoned. I saw a small building in the back and found a well there. I had the best drink of water I've ever had.