to the times
From defense plants to hazardous waste
sites, Weldon Spring's history has paralleled that
of the U.S. in the 20th century
to the Weldon Spring waste disposal cell climb stairs leading to
the top of the 45-acre stone mound containing tons of hazardous
waste. Unlike many hazardous waste sites, the Weldon Spring site,
which includes an interpretive center, is open to the public. Visitors
can learn more about the area’s often controversial
enough that when motorists driving west on Highway 94 see it they often
do a double take. Rising out of the ground like some kind of brilliant
white ancient burial mound, the dome can easily be seen for miles around.
It draws thousands of curious visitors each year to Weldon Spring despite
the tons of hazardous waste entombed within this huge rock dome.
come in here and say, ‘I can see the top of this thing from
my house in Windhaven,’ which is a major subdivision up here. ‘What
is it?’”says Yvonne Deyo, director of the Weldon Spring Site Interpretive
Center in St. Charles County just south of Highway 40.
The Weldon Spring
site has gone from massive defense plant to abandoned industrial waste
dump to a cleaned up hazardous waste site. Today, it welcomes visitors
to prairies, gardens and bike trails. The site’s history is both
sad and encouraging.
Deyo says it surprises
many people that the highest point in St. Charles County is not a rocky
bluff towering above the Missouri River, but the top of the Weldon
Spring waste disposal cell. It might also surprise people that they
can visit the site and climb stairs to the top of the 75-foot tall
mound where placards tell the story of communities that disappeared
in 1940 to make way for the world’s
largest explosives factory.
Visitors can also
visit the interpretive center at the base of the 45-acre disposal cell
and learn about the monumental effort to clean up decades of hazardous
waste left behind by the World War II and Cold War defense plants.
Deyo says they will learn the history of this area and experience a
new approach the United States government is taking to clean up hazardous
waste sites it created and educate the public about its efforts.
Weldon Spring Interpretive Center Director Yvonne Deyo stands on
a map of the original 17,000 acres of land taken to build the World
War II explosives plant at Weldon Spring.
are one of the first cleanup sites of this type to reach completion,” says
Deyo, who adds that because the Weldon Spring site is so close to populated
areas it had to be handled in a unique way. “Most federal cleanup
sites are out West and in places were there aren’t a lot of
people. We are very close to a major metropolitan area and that makes
us very different.”
One and a half million
cubic yards of hazardous waste were contained in the disposal cell,
a process begun in 1997 and finished in 2001. The remainder of the
site began a transformation from industrial complex to natural tall
grass prairie. Gone are the fences and signs warning of radioactive
“This is a
new approach the Department of Energy has taken to try to continue
long-term community education. Instead of keeping the site closed off
to the public and not having people aware of what is going on here,
bring them in, make them aware of what’s
here and what’s going to be here.”
The completion of
the waste disposal cell in 2001 marked the end of five decades in which
the Weldon Spring site was a crucial part of the country’s
national defense, which began just before the outbreak of World
War II. The story’s
beginning is a sad one, says Deyo, who adds the area’s
fate was sealed in the early 1930s when construction began on
the Daniel Boone Bridge over the Missouri River.
At the turn of
the century this part of St. Charles County was isolated from
nearby St. Louis by the Missouri River. Three small communities,
Hamburg, Howell and Toonerville, were connected to the outside
world by the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, which stopped
in Hamburg. In 1937 the Daniel Boone Bridge was completed and
suddenly southern St. Charles County had a direct route into
St. Louis. It was a project many locals lobbied for, believing
it would bring opportunities to the county.
|During the Cold War in the late 1950s and early 1960s uranium ore
was processed at Weldon Spring and then shipped to other sites to
be converted into weapons grade uranium to be used in nuclear weapons.
Instead, it brought
the U.S. Army.
of 1940 the townspeople found out, by reading it in newspapers, that
the Army was going to take 17,000 acres of land through eminent domain
and they had three months to leave their homes and their property forever,” Deyo
By early 1940, even
before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, it was apparent the United
States would eventually be drawn into World War II and the Department
of the Army began to prepare. The Army wanted to find an isolated spot
with access to a large labor pool where they could build
a giant plant to manufacture TNT and DNT explosives.
area in St. Charles County surrounding the towns of Hamburg,
Howell and Toonerville fit the bill. Following an emergency
order, more than 500 residents began to move out.
not happy about being pushed from their land, but most knew what
they (the government) were doing was right for the country,” says
Lillian Yahn grew
up in Howell and remembers the turmoil the resettlement caused.
“It was shocking news,” says Yahn, who moved with her family to Troy
when the government bought their property. “You
can imagine if someone told you, ‘We want
your property and you have to be out in two months.’ It
would bewilder you. And yet people knew they had
to go. When the government said you had to do something,
you did it. War was imminent.”
The Army immediately
began demolishing and burning hundreds of homes,
businesses, churches, schools and any other buildings
within the 17,000 acres and within a few months
the three towns ceased to exist.
The Weldon Spring
Ordnance Works, operated by Atlas Powder Company, began production
in 1941 and, at its peak, employed more than 5,000 people
and contained more than 1,000 buildings. By the
time the plant ceased production on Aug. 15,
1945, the day the Japanese surrendered, it had
produced more than 700 million pounds of TNT.
|Residents of Hamburg pose for a picture in front of the general
store in the small town before it and two other communities ceased
to exist. After residents were moved out in 1940 and 1941 the area
was converted into the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works.
After the war the
Army began selling off pieces of the original 17,000 acres. The Missouri
Department of Conservation bought 7,000 acres, with a donation from
August Busch, while the University of Missouri bought another 7,000
acres which was later sold to the Conservation Department. These
pieces of property are today the Busch Memorial Conservation Area and
the Weldon Spring Conservation Area.
The Army kept 2,000
acres and it was there the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission built a uranium
ore processing plant in 1955. The Weldon Spring Uranium Feed Mill Plant,
operated by Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis, did not produce
weapons grade uranium, as is often thought, but instead processed raw
uranium ore into “yellow cake,” or concentrated ore which
was shipped to other sites.
The processing plant
operated until 1966. During the Vietnam War the Army planned to
use part of the old uranium processing facilities
to produce Agent Orange, a herbicide used
to defoliate jungle during the war. The Army
later abandoned the plan without ever producing
the chemical at Weldon Spring. The site,
empty and decaying, sat abandoned for more
than 20 years, but still contained contaminated equipment
and hazardous chemicals.
In the 1980s the
U.S. Department of Energy took over the site and began studying ways
to clean up hazardous and radioactive waste left there. Waste lagoons
on the site contained thousands of gallons of water contaminated with
radioactive wastes and heavy industrial metals as well as hundreds
of drums, some empty and some filled with unidentified chemicals. A
nearby quarry contained hazardous materials dumped there over many
years while the abandoned uranium processing plant buildings themselves
were widely contaminated.
Next began a long,
often controversial process involving the Department of Energy, state
and county governments and thousands of area residents that led, in
1992, to an ambitious plan to clean up the Weldon Spring site and move
all contaminated materials to a 45-acre site and enclose it in the
waste disposal cell designed to safely contain the materials for 1,000
Almost nothing remains of the more than 1,000 buildings constructed
in 1940 and 1941 and used to manufacture TNT and DNT explosives for
the U.S. Army in World War II. A few concrete bunkers that were used
to store explosives can still be found scattered around the August
Busch Memorial Conservation Area, which during the war was part of
the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works. During the war workers planted
grass on top of the bunkers to hide them from the air.
The Weldon Spring
site has now come full circle, says Pam Thompson, the former Department
of Energy site administrator.
has taken many years but we have been able to clean up a hazardous
waste site and create in its place a prairie that’s open to the
public and returns a piece of St. Charles
County to what it once looked like before European settlement,” says
What was once a giant
explosives factory covering thousands of acres
is now a 200-acre site surrounded
by thousands of acres of public land
for hunting, fishing, hiking and
bicycling. In an odd twist in the
story, Deyo says it’s likely
that original 17,000 acres
of land would have been developed into towns and subdivisions like much of
St. Charles County to the north.
“The Weldon Spring Ordnance Works actually
made the preservation of thousands of acres of green space possible in St.
Charles County,” says Deyo. “I
guess if it wasn’t for
all that land bought by the
Army, it would probably be
The Weldon Spring Site Interpretive Center is located on Highway 94
just south of Highway 40. For more information call the center at (636)
300-0012 or visit the Web site www.wssrap.com.