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Johnson's Shut-Ins, beloved state park, reopens Saturday after 4.5 years, $100 million restoration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2010 - JOHNSON'S SHUT-INS STATE PARK, Mo. - More than a billion years of Missouri geologic history and a beloved state park's fragility were laid bare by a singular cataclysmic event here four-and-a-half years ago.

But the two stories of Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park get equal billing in a new interpretive center, mosaic displays, boulder field, scour trail and other features of the restored park that opens to the public Saturday. Gov. Jay Nixon, other dignitaries and volunteers will mark the occasion with a grand reopening ceremony and tours at the park on Route N in Reynolds County, two hours southwest of St. Louis.

Just before dawn on Dec. 14, 2005, a breach in AmerenUE's Taum Sauk Reservoir atop Profitt Mountain unleashed a torrent of 1.3 billion gallons of water that chiseled a 7,000-foot-long scar and deposited tons of silt, trees and boulders in the valley, and park, below. The destruction took only 12 minutes.

The wounds of the devastation have healed, mostly -- except for a few rare wetlands that state naturalists say are still on life support -- thanks to a $103 million restoration that the power company financed in a $177 million settlement with the state.

The park that officially reopens in time for the summer crush of visitors is different than what visitors might remember, but just as spectacular, Missouri Parks Director Bill Bryan said.

Bryan, who was the state's lead counsel in the lawsuit against Ameren under then-Attorney General Jay Nixon, remembers bushwacking into the Shut-Ins natural area with others shortly after the breach. Forested areas were denuded. Campgrounds were destroyed. The trails and boardwalk were wiped away. Trees snapped at their base. Several feet of silt blanketed the park. It was an utter wasteland, he said.


But the Shut-Ins' unique, ancient rock features, which confine or "shut in" the East Fork of the Black River to narrow channels, chutes and plunge pools, were intact, if silt-covered.

"It was shocking to see the devastation, but there was utter relief, real relief to see the rocks hadn't been affected," Bryan said. "I'll never forget that day. We knew we had our hands full, that we had to do something about it -- and we did."

The handsome new Black River Center, made of native timber and rock, tells the story of the place, nestled in the St. Francois Mountains, one of the oldest mountain chains in North America, and how it was a playground long before ardent St. Louis conservationist Joseph Desloge purchased, and then donated the land to Missouri in 1955 for a state park.

Nearby, a sheltered picnic area and tree mark the spot where former park superintendent Jerry Toops, his wife and three children lived in a small house near the park entrance. The house was in the path of the torrent, but Toops and his family somehow survived. Workers spent the first hours after the breach looking for the family's belongings, even finding his wife's wedding dress.

The breach gave the park a permanent collection of dolomite, rhyolite and granite boulders -- some the size of cars -- that tumbled down off the mountain, and either ended up or were moved to a field across from the center, and that are now part of the park's interpretive history.

The breach's force of water also created a 7,000-foot scour channel that exposed eons of geologic history that has become a living classroom for geology students, DNR spokesman Judd Slivka said. A new, 1.5-mile loop Scour Trail, that conveniently connects to the 350-mile Ozark Trail, takes hikers to an overlook for a view of that day's awesome destruction.

Additional hiking opportunities include Horseshoe Glade Trail with vistas of the valley and the Goggins Mountain Trail for equestrians and backpackers.


Video interviews at the Black River Center of those leading the park's restoration reveal how tough their challenge was. Ken McCarty, natural resource manager for the Department of Natural Resources' state parks division, said the disaster left the park so unrecognizable that he had to call his office for global positioning system points just to find the park's unusual and fragile wetland communities called fen.

Workers used vacuum cleaners to remove three feet of sand and silt deposits on the fen, which had to be cleaned up by mid-March's greening at the risk of losing any new life. They covered nine acres of ground that way, 6 inches at a time. Despite the efforts, some non-native, exotic species have entered the wetlands, and only time will tell if the fen and their native plant and aquatic life will survive.

When the torrent off Profitt Mountain reached the East Fork of the Black River, it lost velocity and split to the north and south, Slivka said. The Shut-Ins served as a natural dam and slowed the flow of muck and debris, but plenty still got in. Smaller rocks were painstakingly removed by hand, and boulders were airlifted out by helicopter. Benches made from rock and wood rubble from the disaster line a new, broader boardwalk and viewing area.

The river itself was cleaned and 4,200 feet restored to the natural bends and curves of a meandering stream, its banks planted with native tree saplings and grasses. The slower, shallower portion of the river is accessible to a new picnic and day-use area.


The old campgrounds, next to the river in the flood plain, were moved a mile away to the adjacent Goggins Mountain Valley for liability and other reasons, and at the request of park users and citizens surveyed after the disaster, parks director Bryan said.

Campers can bike or drive from the state park to state-of-the-art campgrounds, which feature an amphitheater, free Wi-Fi at the camp store, and separate areas for groups, equestrian, RV and trailer, tent, car and walk-in camping, and at least one spot for handicapped users. The park also offers lovely, fully equipped, cabins that are both air-conditioned and equipped with porch and pine rocking chairs for outside relaxing. The camping area, which expanded from 56 to 72 spaces, opened on April 30.

Slivka said as awful as the flood was to the park, it provided a unique opportunity to upgrade one in the 1950s model to that with "21st-century sensibilities."

He said the restored park -- reborn as one of the park system's jewels -- is one of the state's "great success stories." 

Throughout the park are bright-orange signs that warn users to move to higher ground if they hear an emergency-alert siren. Ameren, which opened its electricity-generating Taum Sauk plant in April, said it was required by federal regulators to come up with a plan to notify neighbors of an emergency, and the company settled on a siren system. Ameren said its emergency action and evacuation plans were "greatly enhanced" after the breach. There's just no getting around the fact that the park is in the shadow of a 1.3 million-gallon reservoir, Slivka said.

One day this week, first-time visitors Bill and Judi Leeming drove to Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park from their home in Howell County and marveled at what happened here four and a half years ago. "It would have been a scary 12 minutes," Judi Leeming said. They plan another visit in the fall.

In nearby Lesterville, the owner of Lenny's convenience store said the town's businesses suffered, but slowly built back up during the park shutdown. "Things will be better when it opens," Kathy Gawronski said. "It's definitely good news."

Cheryl Wittenauer is a freelance writer in St. Louis.