MIDDLEBROOK – A billion years of erosion sculpted the beauty that made Johnson’s Shut-Ins a popular state park. A manmade catastrophe altered the landscape in a matter of minutes.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 14, 2005, the AmerenUE Taum Sauk Reservoir, perched on the top of Profitt Mountain overlooking the park, breached, releasing 1.3 billion gallons of water that swept through the valley.
Four years later, millions in settlement money from the power company has been used to resurrect the shattered park. Visitors to the grand re-opening ceremony on May 22 will find the handsome new stone-and-timber Black River Center that tells the whole story, beginning with the volcanic formation of the surrounding St. Francois Mountains.
More recent history is displayed at the center by a monitor with a hand crank. Spin the crank and the monitor replays an image of the crumbling concrete walls of the reservoir, and the resulting deluge. Look out the window nearby, and you can see the path of destruction gouged on the mountainside.
Greg Combs, field operations supervisor for the eastern parks district of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, knows the story because he lived through it, and was in charge of the massive restoration project.
When he got a call on the day of the disaster, Combs immediately thought of Jerry Toops, the superintendent who lived with his family in a small frame house near the park entrance.
That house would be in the path of the torrent of debris-clogged water scouring the mountain. The water pushed one block of granite, as big as a van, more than a mile. And that was just one of hundreds of boulders carried by the rampaging waters.
“I got a call from a park ranger at the site who said the family was missing,” Combs said. “He said, ‘We can’t even find the house.’”
Only the basement remained.
In what many consider a miracle, , Toops, his wife, Lisa, and their three young children, including an infant, were found alive amid the displaced boulders, scattered trees and layers of muck that filled the valley..
After determining the family was safe, and relatively sound, Combs went to the park the next day. Park managers from around the state volunteered to help, and personnel searched through the rubble for the Toops’ belongings.
“They found all kinds of things, including some photo albums that we were able to get cleaned up,” Combs said. “And they found Lisa’s wedding dress.”
Combs said the outpouring of support for the Toops’ family, from staff members and the public, was a motivation in the rebuilding of the park.
“I said to myself, ‘We can rebuild this park, we all need to be thankful that no one lost their life in this tragic event’,” he said.
SAVING A SPRING
When Combs toured what was left of the park, he didn’t recognize the landscape.
“All the visual landmarks were gone,” he said. “There were so many feet of sediment, you weren’t standing at the same elevation.”
The monumental cleanup began, and at times had more than 100 people laboring at the park. A gigantic tub grinder, so large that it required a special permit to move on the highway, was brought in and began reducing thousands of trees to mulch.
At the time of the breach, the park was home to a unique natural community called a fen -- a wetlands fed by an underground spring. The constant flow of cold, mineral-laden water created a garden of unusual plants. That nine-acre area was buried under trees, silt and rubble.
“That’s one of the first areas we concentrated on,” Combs said. “If we didn’t get it cleaned by greenup in mid-March, we would lose the opportunity for it to recover.”
After the timber and rock debris was removed, workers used a large vacuum to suck up the sediment. “When we got down to the exposed root hairs, we didn’t go any further,” Combs said.
The delicate work paid off. On a recent four-hour tour of the restored park led by Combs, last season’s cattails were turning to fluff on the perimeter of the fen, and watercress was flourishing in the cold water. Minnows swam in the spring pool, and a single frog leaped for cover.
A pavilion has been built so visitors can view the fen, and witness the success story.
A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT
The East Fork of the Black River flows through the park, and over eons has eroded its channel down to the purplish volcanic rock called rhyolite. The park’s centerpiece is the shut-ins, where families have gathered for more than 100 years to play in the pools, chutes and falls of ancient stone.
The park is named for a Scots-Irish family that settled in the valley in 1829. St. Louisan Joseph Desloge later bought the land, and donated it for a state park in 1955.
After the 2005 flood, the shut-ins themselves were littered with debris, but the pinnacles and other formations withstood the beating.
Crews began clearing out rocks smaller than a basketball by hand. Others were blasted down to a manageable size. To remove huge underwater boulders, divers bolted cables to the rocks and used a helicopter to fly them out.
“The rocks had collected in the pools of the shut-ins and created underwater entrapment hazards that hands and feet could get caught in,” Combs said. “We had to get them out of there.”
The boardwalk leading back to the shut-ins was rebuilt, wider but with the same overlooks. Benches along the way were constructed of cedar and stone salvaged from the rubble. The boardwalk begins with a mosaic plaza, one of several in the park, that shows a collared lizard, timber rattlesnake, pileated woodpecker and other local inhabitants.
Upstream, the Black River had been straightened over the years by agriculture. When the streambed was recreated after the breach, bends were added to mimic the natural meanders.
Picnic areas now line the river along the slower, shallower portion up from the shut-ins. The area provides easier access to the river.
A LOOK AT ANCIENT HISTORY
Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park has more than 45 miles of trails.
One trail that has been added to the park is a 1.5-mile loop called the Scour Trail. It begins in a parking lot and heads through the woods to a pavilion overlooking the flood plain littered with boulders. Exhibits explain the scene to visitors.
The trail than leads up the scour carved by the rushing water in Profitt Mountain to an overlook. To the left, the rebuilt reservoir looms on the mountain’s crest like a fortress. In the distance, to the right, is the new Black River Center. In between is a 7,000-foot bare gouge down to bedrock where cottonwood and sycamore saplings are starting to grow.
“You never want an event like this to occur, but the scour has revealed rock that is over a billion years old,” Combs said. “You can spend an afternoon just examining the scour. It’s a new feature in the park.”
With exhibits on the park’s plants, animals, geology and first settlers, the visitors center also is worthy of a lengthy stop. “We had an opportunity to do something neat by showing visitors what’s out there,” Combs said. “We wanted to dangle a carrot, and get them out into the park.”
NEWER AND BETTER
The last stop on Combs’ tour was the campground, which formerly had been located next to the river in the flood plain but now has been moved across Route N to the adjacent Goggins Mountain Valley.
The move was made for several reasons, Combs said. It allows more room so park development no longer crowds along the newly restored river and it allows the damaged resources better conditions for recovery; the park’s original campground is now a barren field, with the replanted saplings years away from forming a canopy of shade.
Public sentiment was another reason for the change.
“We asked people how comfortable they would be camping under the upper reservoir if it was rebuilt,” Comb said. “Over 70 percent said they would be uncomfortable.”
The new camp sites have something for everyone: some have water, sewer and electric hookups, and some are designed for horse trailers. There’s a large site for groups and 14 platforms scattered on a wooded hillside for tent campers. Six one-bedroom camper cabins look down on Beaver Pond. State-of-the-art shower and restroom facilities are at the center of camping loops. A store with laundry area sells groceries and camping supplies. There’s even a Wi-Fi hot spot for those who want to check their e-mails.
Combs expects some veteran visitors may complain that the new camping area is too far from the shut-ins.
However, the rebuilt area has a vantage point for viewing the rebuilt reservoir, located on the far horizon.
“That view is a reminder,” he said. “We sure didn’t think it was going to fail in 2005, and they say it won’t fail again. But this is an earthquake zone. We often have winter campers, but on that particular night in 2005, we didn’t have anybody, thankfully.”
The reopened Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park will never be the same. But in several aspects, including the visitors center, enlarged campground and riverside picnic areas, it is better. And the shut-ins, a beautiful example of nature’s sculpture, escaped unscathed.
“Visitors are coming to a new park, and they’re going to have mixed emotions,” Combs said. “We made a commitment to make the best of the situation. I hope they’ll give this new park a try and begin making memories that they will cherish for generations to come.”