Conor Watkins' Ozark Mountain Experience
Article 69 & 70 Combined
By Conor Watkins

The Meramec Basin Project
-A Look Back 25 Years Later
(Sit back, relax, and start reading the text.  All the pictures are going to take a while to load.)

This map shows most of the 31 planned and suggested reservoirs in the Meramec
Basin Plan as it was proposed in 1965.

August 8, 2003 marked the 25 anniversary of a decision that ultimately determined the outcome of a project which would have drastically altered the character of the Meramec River Basin and much of the surrounding Ozarks.  In the 1960's-1970’s, 31 dams of varying sizes were planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the Meramec River Basin.  The largest of these, Meramec Dam, was to impound 42 miles of the Meramec River, 9 miles of the Courtois Creek, and 12 miles of the Huzzah Creek to form Meramec Park Lake.  This 180 foot tall structure was to consist of earth fill and impound a 23,000 acre lake, or about 40% the size of the Lake of The Ozarks (U.S. EPA, 2000).  It would have flooded the upstream portion of present day Meramec State Park near Sullivan to Onondaga Cave near Leasburg, MO.

The dams were proposed with the rationale that they would improve water quality by capturing suspended sediments, control flooding, aid in navigation, and provide recreational waters.  Navigation would not have been helped on the Meramec River, but would have been enhanced on the Mississippi River due to a more consistent flow from the dams.  By the time the final project was approved, it had been incorporated into the Flood Control/Pick-Sloan Act of 1944, which called for dams to be constructed for the uses mentioned above in addition to the generation of hydroelectric power.

The project was highly controversial and pro and anti-dam groups organized to further their cause.  The topic became so heated that politicians decided to hold a public vote before the project could be completed.  By the time the August 8th, 1978 vote was held, construction on the main Meramec Dam was well underway.

Aerial photos of the Meramec Damsite taken during Feb 1977.  Initial
exavations were well underway by this time.  Turtle Pond, later shown
very overgrown in 2001, is the small round body of water visible to the
left of the Meramec River in the bottom photo.  The park store in
present day Meramec State Park is located next to the river at the
end of the access road on the left bank of the river.
Additional Airphoto

<Click image for larger and more comprehensive plan>
The 180 foot high Meramec Dam was to consist of one large earth embankment.
A cut through an adjacent saddle was to contain emergency spillways.

The Harry S. Truman Dam near Warsaw, MO is located on the Osage River just
upstream from Lake of The Ozarks.  It is an example of an earth dam of a similar
style to the proposed dam on Meramec, but is shorter in height.

The Maramec Iron Works, operating at the site of present day Maramec Spring Park, first suggested damming the Meramec in the 1830’s. They proposed a system of locks to aid in the transport of their products. A dam was proposed near Pacific in 1929 after the 1927 flooding in the lower Mississippi River.  In 1933, a group of around 50 St. Louis citizens created the Lake Meramec Association to promote the construction of a lake one mile above the mouth of the Meramec just south of St. Louis.  They wanted federal funding from the New Deal to construct the lake for recreation purposes but the proposal was shot down when it was realized this design would have few other benefits. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Congress authorized multiple large dams on the Upper Mississippi and Meramec River basins in 1938 after extreme flooding in both 1927 and 1937. Although the Ozarks only makes up 4% of the Mississippi watershed, it was believed that up to 38.4% of the water in the floods came from the Ozarks (Woerhide, 1935). Missouri Governor Forrest Smith killed plans for dams on the Meramec, Current, and other rivers in 1949.  The projects were delayed and altered until the 1960’s when the project started moving forward.   Changes included moving the main Meramec Dam upstream from St. Clair to Sullivan along with the addition and removal of some supplemental dams.  The original dam site at St. Clair was geologically a good location, as that area of the basin was much less cavernous than the Meramec Park Site.  The dam was moved upstream to one of the most cavernous regions in the basin due to lobbying by the Sullivan Chamber of Commerce (Ruddy, 1992).  A proposal in 1962 suggested that 6 dams be built.  This number increased to a total of 31 dams by 1965 when the project was approved once again.

The remains of the Maramec Iron Furnace at Maramec Spring Park.
The Maramec Iron Works first suggested the damming of the Meramec
River to aid in navigation and transport of its products.

As plans evolved, various groups organized to support or fight the project.  The Meramec Basin Association was formed to insure that the area was developed properly.  The association turned strongly in favor of the dams, as it was mostly comprised of local businessmen who thought that they would profit from tourism and other industries around a lake.  At first, most residents of nearby towns such as Sullivan, Cuba, and Bourbon were opponents of the Meramec Dam, as many were concerned with being chased off their whether from flooding caused by the lake or rising taxes/rent due to increasing property values. Others worried about losing their rural way of life to an influx of tourists visiting to the lake.  Towards the end of the fight, most locals had switched sides and were supporting the project.  They believed that a lake would bring tourism dollars and jobs to their communities while serving as a reliable water source for the area.  They were also given some questionable information that the river was polluted, dying, and no longer an asset to the area.  Such information led many area residents to believe that a lake was the only way to develop the Meramec.

Speculators came to the area to buy land, hoping that its value would increase once a lake was built.  Some entrepreneurs started construction of stores, gas stations, and other businesses as soon as the lake was initially approved.  Opponents to the project claimed that politicians were catering to the wants of these residents and that the dam had become another pork barrel project.  Although the dam was originally proposed mostly to provide flood control, it now seemed that the promise of recreation dollars had some wanting the dam for potential tourism dollars.

Residents wanting to expand water supplies in the area also supported the project.  One of the Sullivan, MO wells had been drilled into a clay filled cavern, which caused it to produce turbid water.  Although drilling another or extending the existing well deeper would have cost an insignificant amount compared to a dam and likely solved the muddy water problem, those wanting a lake were quick to point out its water supply benefits.  At the that time, Sullivan couldn't afford the cost of building a pipeline and treatment plant to harness the lake's water.

Nearby Jefferson County was also growing quickly.   Its residents were almost evenly split over their support of the lake but there was an ever so slight tendency to support the project, as the Pine Ford Lake would be constructed in the county.  Supporters in Jefferson County saw the lake as a potential source of water and tourism dollars while the opposition realized that the project would flood most of the prime farmland in the county.

The first opposition against the dam was started in 1965 by Sam Orr of Leasburg, MO.  He believed that the dam would cause many problems and worked to get the Sierra Club involved in the fight.

Opposition from The Missouri Coalition for the Environment followed in 1971.  This group had been started in 1969 by individuals and organizations concerned with the environment.  R. Roger Pryor, a caver from the St. Louis University Grotto (caving/spelunking organization), was one of the main founding members.  The Meramec Basin Association was originally part of the group but was removed when the coalition turned against the dam.


The Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club also organized and came out against the project and became a major opponent to the project.  It filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers in 1972 after reviewing the project's environmental impact statement (EIS).  The Sierra Club believed that the original 8 page EIS was incomplete and that more studies were needed.  The lawsuit was amended in 1974 after the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.  Populations of endangered Indiana and grey bats live in several caves that would have been flooded by the reservoirs.  Ultimately the Sierra Club lost the lawsuit, as expert witnesses stated that the bats would be extinct in 15-20 years even without a dam.  These lawsuits did stall the project for a time.  Environmental groups came out strongly against the project, as they were concerned that the dams would alter aquatic habitat and eliminate dry land on which several other endangered species live.  As it was, 120 of 574 (nearly 21%) freshwater fish species in North America reside in the Meramec, making it one of the most ecologically diverse rivers in the Midwest.

When the Army Corps of Engineers was required to revise its EIS, it cooperated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation.  The three agencies hired a group of researchers from the University of Missouri - Columbia to study the habitat and possible impact upon endangered grey and Indiana bats living in two reservoir areas.  Their 1976 report titled An Evaluation of The Status of Myotine Bats in the Proposed Meramec Park Lake and Union Lake Project Areas, Missouri stated that the construction of these reservoirs would harm bat populations, as some caves and feeding areas would be flooded.  The report recommended against the construction of the reservoirs in order to preserve the bat species.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on an aggressive land acquisition campaign to obtain land that would have been flooded by the dam and to buy property surrounding the lake.  Many residents of the area did not look upon these tactics kindly.  Families who had lived on and farmed the same land for generations were unhappy to be forced from their property.  Independent minded Ozarkers didn’t care for the federal government coming and demanding their land.  Many in the area saw no need for a lake to increase water quality because they believed that the area was better left in its natural state, as it was beautiful and provided plenty of recreational opportunities.  There was also concern that sewage from haphazardly built resort properties and oil/fuel from motorboats would pollute the waters.

The Citizen’s Committee to Save The Meramec was formed by Emmett Schlueter, a Crawford County businessman and farmer to fight the Meramec Basin Association.  The purpose of this group, consisting of urban canoeists and local landowners set to lose their property, was “to preserve the scenic, historic, scientific, and cultural value of the Meramec Region".  Many locals were poorer and used john boats and canoes on the river.  Since they couldn't afford larger power boats needed to traverse a large lake, they wanted the river to be left alone.  The group also believed that other methods would better provide recreation and flood control in the area, as the proposed lakes would have permanently flooded more land than they would protect downstream.

"Please No Dams"
This picture from an unknown source was produced by
opponents of the dam.  Notice the phonetic spelling
of "Meremac."

Multiple caves, which would have been partially or totally flooded, were located upstream from the proposed dam.  These included Onondaga Cave, Cathedral Cave, Greens Cave, and over a hundred other smaller caves.  Many of the caves such as Onondaga are scenic and contain very unique formations.  Others contain endangered species of bats and rare wildlife unique to caves in the area.  Cavers played a very important role in working to fight the project.  Lester Dill, the owner of Onondaga and Cathedral Cave (both now part of Onondaga Cave State Park), provided much publicity against the project.  Dill was originally a founding member of the Meramec Basin Association and in support of the dam but changed his stance when he realized that a large portion of his own Onondaga cave would be flooded.  At this time he opened up Cathedral Cave, another scenic cave on his property, for commercial uses and filed a lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers.  It was his goal to have the Corps of Engineers compensate him for two show caves instead of one.  He hired a man with a love for geology, Don Rimbach, to help fight the dam project.  Rimbach ended up writing and distributing a book called “Stop Meramec Dam: It’s A Damsite Worse Than Teton” to further the anti-dam cause.  Although some of the engineering geology concerns addressed in the book were questionable, it helped to sway public opinion by comparing the Teton Dam, which had catastrophically failed in 1976, to the proposed Meramec Dam.  The lawsuit was dropped in 1976, as Dill decided that he wouldn't win, and decided to settle out of court.  Negotiations over a price for the land and caves were taking place up until the vote cancelled the project once and for all.

When the 1973 Endangered Species Act was passed both Indiana and grey bats were listed as protected species.  Caves along the Meramec River provided habitat to these species, allowing for further delays in the project.  Cavers also questioned the geology of the dam site.  Protecting scenic caves, wildlife habitat, and potentially unstable geology/dam safety were the main issues to cavers.

Concerns about the geology under the dam site were based on the fact that the area is karst terrain with many caves and voids dissolved into the rock.  Corps of Engineers reports stated that they were planning to remove clay fillings from the caves and fill them with grout.  A grout curtain was also to be constructed under and around the dam to prevent excessive leakage and high hydraulic pressures that could destabilize the dam.  Grout is basically a mortar/cement type substance that is injected into fractures and voids in the rock.  Such procedures are commonly used during dam construction.  In this case, grouting would have been very expensive and time consuming due to the large number of caves. 

There were differences as to what was defined as a cave to to the Corps of Engineers and cavers, so not all caves would be grouted or have their clay fillings removed as stated in reports.  The Corps defined any passage with a height of four or more feet as a cave.  Anything less was not considered a cave and would not be grouted, which raised concerns among many familiar with caves.  A perfectly round passage four feet in diameter would have a cross sectional area of over 12 square feet.  12 square feet is the approximate area of a standard doorway and the area of the Titanic open to the sea when it sank.  Clayey sediments could be eroded out of a cave, even with a few inches of open space, so plans of leaving four feet passagers were questioned.

There was also 120-130 miles of lake shoreline, all of it being cavernous karst terrain, to worry about.  The cost of finding and grouting all the sizeable leaks in the entire reservoir bottom and rim might have been astronomical.  There is a chance that the lake would never have been able to fill to its maximum capacity due to leakage through caves and other solution openings.

Some worried that the filled caves underneath the dam and lake would be overlooked.  Cavers in the Ozarks realize that most caves are partially filled with clayey sediments that make for a muddy mess.  These sediments are mostly clayey residual soils left after nearby carbonate bedrock has weathered away while leaving its impurities behind.  Many Ozark caves with seemingly huge passages are mostly filled with sediments and some are completely filled with sediments, making them harder to discover by geophysical analysis.  As it was, five air filled caves were discovered under the left abutment (side) of the dam.  A boring was drilled into Mushroom Cave and it was found that the true bedrock cave floor was covered up by more than 140 feet of clay and weathered rock fill.

This figure shows the 140 feet of clay filling uncovered by the borings
through Mushroom Cave.
<Click image for a larger and more comprehensive figure.>

The Corps of Engineers denied that caves in the area crossed underneath surface watershed drainage divides in its report “Meramec Park Lake – Site Geology.”  The locals and cavers who had explored caves in the area realized this was not true, as (Big) Hamilton Cave crosses under a drainage divide.  Flow underneath surface drainage divides is common in karst terrains and has been indirectly observed by dye tracing throughout the Ozarks.  Both sides of the drainage divide crossed by Hamilton Cave would have been flooded by the lake so this cave was not a concern.  Undiscovered caves might have been a problem, especially in the area of the Hamilton Creek Fault.

There was concern that the increased water pressure caused by a partial or full lake level could have lead to the possible piping (internal erosion) of sediments from filled caves.  The erosion of these sediments could have led to possible dam instability.  Another concern was that large amounts of water could have traveled around or under the dam without an actual dam breach.  This could happen if the increased water pressure eroded sediments from a large filled cave that had been overlooked.  Such a loss of sediments would lead to an underground flow path able to pass large volumes of water.  A massive release of water could lead to a rapid lowering of the lake and potentially devastating flooding downstream.

On the other hand, the clayey sediments found in most Ozark Caves are very insoluble, cohesive, and non-dispersive in still water.  Any caver cleaning up after a trip to a muddy Ozark cave will attest to the fact that cave clay is hard to wash off.  A flow path through an undiscovered completely clay filled cave would have likely been very long and not a threat to the dam's stability, as the hydraulic gradient would have been low and unlikely to cause piping.  Several clay filled caves were discovered near Norfork Dam on the North Fork River in northern Arkansas during its construction.  No corrective action was taken and the lake has experienced no abnormal leakage since its final filling in 1944.

<Click image for more comprehensive plan.>
This cross section shows one abutment (side) of the dam and nearby caves.

Postcard of Norfork Dam (unknown date)
<click for rear description>
Norfork Dam in Arkansas has not experienced problems even though
clay filled caves are present throughout the area.  Sorry, cute girls are
not included with all dams!

It is possible to build dams in karst terrains.  This is shown by the successful projects constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the karst regions of the southeast U.S.  On the other hand, problems at Wolf Creek Dam, which impounds Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, has needed multiple repairs due to the fact that the karst geology of the area was somewhat overlooked during construction.  Hales Bar Dam, a TVA project, had to be decommissioned due to leakage and potential instability caused by karst.  After the construction of Bull Shoals Lake on the Missouri/Arkansas border, a spring downstream from the dam went from discharging 2 cubic feet per second to an average of 50 cubic feet per second.  The spring, named Dew Spring, is obviously a leak from the lake and became Arkansas’ second largest spring.  Although the Corps of Engineers tried to stop its flow by grouting caves, these attempts have been unsuccessful.  The flow rate from this spring has not increased since the filling of the lake so it is thought to pose little threat to the stability of the dam or lake.  On the other hand, the cave passages near the proposed Meramec Dam site are much larger in cross section and might have led to higher grouting costs if problems arose.

In 1977, large solution features were discovered during the construction of the Mark Twain Lake's Clarence Cannon Dam on the Salt River near Hannibal, MO.  The feature was directly under the dam's left abutment so it needed to be addressed.  All sediments were removed and then the cavities were filled with clay and concrete.  A large concrete blanket was placed over the filled cavities.  If such a modification had been made at the ill-fated Teton Dam, it would have been much less likely to fail.  These problems were not inexpensive to fix, as they helped run the cost of the dam up from $40 million to $364 million. 

Large karst features were uncovered beneath the Cannon Dam during the
construction of Mark Twain Lake.  They were filled and covered before the
dam was completed and have not caused problems with the lake or dam.

-From Clarence Cannon Dam, Left Abutment Conference, 7-8 September 1977

One of the more visible examples of a lake’s failure to hold water happened in Missouri a few miles south of Willow Springs, MO near the town of Pomona.  The Missouri Department of Conservation constructed a fishing lake named Ponoma Lake by building an earth embankment dam.  Investigations showed the area wasn’t well suited to building a lake, but political pressure encouraged the project to continue.  The creek is a losing stream watershed (one that loses much of its flow to groundwater) and the valley floor consists of highly permeable residium from the Roubidoux Formation.  The lake held water, but not for long.  Almost all the water was drained overnight when a sinkhole opened in the bottom of the lake.  Local residents between the lake and nearby Greer Spring reported hearing an underground roar and observed dust being emitted from dry cracked soil as the lake was draining, indicating that water was displacing air in a cave passage.  Attempts were made to plug the leaks but they were unsuccessful.  Today, the area is called the Dean W. Davis Wildlife area and no mention is made of a lake.  The dam and spillways are still present but no water is retained except in two sinkhole ponds.  At first glance, one might have a hard time determining which side of the now heavily overgrown dam was meant to be a lake.

This picture of the Ponoma “Lake” was taken in spring 2003 looking off the dam
in the upstream direction.  A sinkhole pond is present in the distance.

A similar situation also occurred at Lake Chesterfield, a subdivision lake in the West St. Louis County community of Wildwood, MO between June 6-9, 2004.  The 22 acre Lake Chesterfield was constructed in the mid 1980's to serve as a detention basin and recrational area for the surrounding subdivision, which is aptly named Lake Chesterfield.  The lake was built in the upper reaches of Caulks Creek, a known losing stream watershed.  Prior to June 2004, the lake had experienced intermittent leaks where about half the lake drained into the ground.  Its waters would re-appear at Lewis Spring, about 4 miles away.  These leaks were repaired by grouting the lake and the lake remained filled to its rim until a large sinkhole collapse in the lake bottom drained the lake over a matter of days, during which the flow of water at Lewis Spring increased dramatically and became turbid.  A smaller sinkhole had appeared along the shoreline of the lake prior to the catastrophic loss of water.  As the time of this update, repairs are ongoing at Lake Chesterfield.

This picture of Lake Chesterfield taken on July 4, 2004 shows the empty lakebed and irregularly
shaped sinkhole through which millions of gallons of water drained in a matter of days.

Although the situations at the Dean W. Davis Conservation Area and Lake Chesterfield are not directly comparable to the main Meramec Dam, one of the 31 dams in the project was to be constructed on the Dry Fork (of the upper Meramec) near Salem, MO.  It was to be a fishing lake much like the Dean Davis Lake.  This waterway is a blatant losing stream and serves as much of the recharge area for Maramec Spring.  See for more information on the Dry Fork and Maramec Spring.  The dam abutments and reservoir rim would have been in contact with the permeable Roubidoux Formation.  This would have likely been a leaky reservoir if it had been constructed and would have required extensive grouting and/or lining in order to hold water.  It is likely that more money and effort would have been spent on the project than on the Pomona Reservoir, as the project was funded by federal and not state dollars.  The chance of success might have been higher due to the additional funding.  An earlier proposal titled “Gasconade river, Mo.; letter from the Secretary of War transmitting report from the chief of engineers on the Gasconade river, Mo., covering navigation, flood control, power development, and irrigation” (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1932) proposed the construction of four large dams on the nearby Gasconade River.  These plans specifically stated that no reservoir would reliably hold water once the level reached the Roubidoux Formation due to its high permeability.

Perhaps the attitude that a lake could be built in an obvious losing stream was fueled by the fact that the United States had achieved incredible technological feats in the previous few decades.  These achievements included the harnessing of nuclear power and putting a man on the moon.  At the time, it seemed that anything was possible and that no goal was too ambitious.

It appeared that political support was behind the dam for years.  In the 1970’s, the public support for the dam started to diminish and politicians took note.  Farmers and residents didn’t want to give up their lands and some doubted the safety of the project.  The Teton Dam in Idaho had just failed in 1976, causing one billion dollars worth of damage and 14 deaths.  When members of the public asked questions about the safety of the project with respect to its geology, the Corps of Engineers skirted the subject.  This led many members of the public to believe that the proposed dam was not safe.  Soon politicians began to question Meramec Dam.  President Carter evaluated many Corps of Engineers projects and deemed them unnecessary.  He cancelled funding for 19 including the Meramec Dam in his first 1977 budget.  Congress soon reinstated funding for all but the Meramec Dam.

Support for the dam was diminishing during the 1970's.  From the Missouri
Earth Advocate, an environmental activist publication.

By 1978, construction on the dam had started but was on hold due to lack of funding.  Work in 1977 had uncovered a large cave with no natural entrances near the future dam.  A large diameter boring was drilled into the cave with a calyx drill rig in order to allow people to be lowered into the cave.  After investigating, it was found that the elevation of the cave was entirely above the level of the proposed reservoir but the fact that a new cave had been invigorated the opposition.  This cave was named Moore’s Cave after Bruce Moore, a Chief in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.  He was a forceful person who fought hard against opponents to the dam.  Excavations also tapped into a spring, which flows to this day.  Five other known caves in the left abutment were possibly interconnected.  Evidence also indicated that there was a large cavern 90 feet below the downstream edge of the proposed dam.  It was obvious that Mother Nature wasn’t going to make this a cheap and easy project.  Projected costs just kept rising higher, due to both the non-ideal geology of the site and delaying tactics of anti-dam activists.  In 1966, the estimated completion price was $38 million but that had risen to $124 million by 1977.

Large diameter calyx cores are displayed adjacent to Truman Dam near Warsaw, MO.

UMR Professor Emeritus, Dr. John Rockaway of the Geological Engineering
Department, is getting ready to be lowered down a large diameter calyx
boring to investigate the newly discovered Moore's Cave.
Additional picture of boring
Map of Moore's Cave

The entrance to Moore's Cave as it appears today.

Some Corps employees began to question the viability of the project when borings began to reveal rotten rock at many locations at or near the dam site.  Many believed that an excessively deep cutoff trench and grout curtain would be needed below the dam if it were to hold water.  Even more people began to wonder about the project after the report "Geotechnical Evaluation of The Hamilton Creek Fault, Meramec Park Lake" was produced by John Rockaway, now UMR Professor Emeritus of Geological Engineering, in March 1977.  The fault consists of an approximately two mile wide zone of parallel normal faults with a total displacement between 100 and 150 feet trending east to west south of the dam site.   Although the fault has been inactive for over 250 million years and would not have been a direct threat to the stability of the dam, the rock within the zone is highly fractured, weathered, and could have served as an excellent location for leakage.  The fault is believed to be very deep seated, so plugging leaks may have been nearly impossible, as witnessed at the Hales Bar Dam.  Some argued that Sprinkle Spring, a small spring downstream of the dam, would have turned into a much larger spring if the lake had been built.

"Looking up Hamilton Creek From the west side of the Meramec River."
-From Geotechnical Evaluation of The Hamilton Creek Fault, Meramec Park Lake (Rockway, 1977).
Hamilton Creek has developed its wide valley in the area of the Hamilton Creek
Fault, as the rock is weaker and more easily weathered than surrounding formations.

Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton decided that he couldn’t support funding for the dam without a public referendum.  On Aug 8, 1978, a nonbinding voter referendum was held in 12 counties to be directly affected by the dam and the city of St. Louis.  As a whole, 64 percent of voters opposed the dam.  Reisdents of the St. Louis metro area voted heavily against the project while residents in communities near the dam voted largely in favor of the dam.  Although this vote was nonbinding and carried no legal clout, it forced Congress to re-evaluate the project.  On December 29, 1981, President Regan signed a bill from Congress to deauthorize the project.  This vote was one of the first times in history that the public had a direct say in a Corps of Engineers project.

The anti-dam side scored a large victory when Marlin Perkins, a well-respected naturist came out against the project just before the vote.  He worked with the Sierra club to create a short film showing the Meramec in its free flowing form that urged voters to vote NO on the project.  Wehrenberg Theaters of St. Louis showed the film before every movie for 30 days before the August 8 vote.  Perkins worked to make the St. Louis Zoo the premier facility it is today while serving is its Director.  He also starred in Mutual of Omaha’s nationally acclaimed television program, “Wild Kingdom.”  By the 1970’s, he was known around the world and was an icon in the St. Louis region.  There is no doubt that his opinion helped sway voters.

During the fight over the dam, both sides exaggerated and twisted their points and often brought up topics irrelevant to their originally stated concerns in order to further their cause.  Public meetings were heated with passionate arguments being commonplace occurances.  A 1977 public meeting in Sullivan filled the city hall and resulted in very intense discussions.  The meeting is now referred to as “The Meramec Shootout” although no actual shots were fired.  Fighting got particularly nasty when extremists from both sides of the debate began exchanging death threats and personal property was sabotaged.  Don Rimbach, the geologist/activist hired by Lester Dill, was attacked and nearly run down by earthmoving equipment while investigating at the dam site.  To this day, both sides still hold strong beliefs in support of their cause and suggestions to restart the project have been discussed as recently as 1998.  Pro-dam sentiments are still strong among residents of nearby towns such as Sullivan, Leasburg, Cuba, and Bourbon.  There were no black and white answers to questions about the project.  It would not have been known if the reservoir had leakage problems until after it was filling .  Only the presence of a reservoir would have demonstrated the changes to the environment, recreation, culture, and the economies of surrounding towns.

The law signed by Reagan to decommission the project also gave the Corps of Engineers options on how to deal with properties acquired for the dam and lake.  In 1974, the Corps of Engineers had built a visitor center and overlook above the area and held thousands of acres of land.  The state of Missouri had first dibs on the land and took around 20 percent of the land deemed to have unique scenic and natural values.  Parts of the Huzzah State Forest, The Vilander Bluffs of Onondaga Cave State Park, and areas of Meramec State Park were acquired by these gifts.  The portions of Meramec State park containing Hamilton Valley and Greens Cave were acquired in this manner.  The remaining 80 percent of the land was sold back to the public with first options given to the original landowner.  Much of the land was re-appraised at higher values, sometimes up to ten times the amount the owners sold it for, so many original owners were unable to repurchase their land.  The owners who had tied their land up in litigation were among the few who kept their property.  Unclaimed land was sold at three public auctions.  Scenic easements were established along the banks in an attempt to insure that the river remains clean and natural.  These easements are legally unclear and are more voluntary than mandatory.  Enforement of the easements has remained a contentious issue to this day.  The Corps of Engineers visitor center became the Hickory Ridge Conference Center at Meramec State Park.  The scenic overlook meant to overlook the dam and its lake remains nearby and provides a sweeping view of the Meramec Valley.

Hickory Ridge Conference Center

Present day topographic map of the Meramec Damsite.  Note the small
bodies of water (pink) intersected by the dam axis (red line) leftover from
dam construction.  The scenic overlook built by the Corps of Engineers
is located just to the left of the dam axis near the word "tower."

During and after the fight over the dam project, residents of St. Louis and other nearby areas came to see what all the fuss was about.  Although people had always floated canoes on the Meramec River, the pastime became much more common and floaters soon jammed the river on summer weekends.  This occurrence continues to this day and shows no signs of letting up.  Many canoeists who enjoyed their inexpensive form of recreation cast votes against the project on voting day.

Over twenty years have passed since voters defeated the dam project.  The area where the dam was to have been is now overgrown and one wouldn’t even know that it was once the site of such a large project.  There are two small ponds, one on each side of the river, left from excavations during the first part of the construction.  These two ponds show up on maps as Turtle Pond and Beaver Spring Lake.  The site on the northwest side of the river (Turtle Pond) is easily reached by walking 1,000 or so feet upstream from the Meramec Store and Canoe Rental at Meramec State Park.  A dirt 4-wheel drive trail leaves the parking lot and heads into the woods back several hundred feet from the riverbank.  This trail leads directly to the north part of the dam site.  Beaver Spring Lake is located just across the river from Turtle Pond and is fed by the spring that was tapped into during construction.

Turtle Pond, now havily overgrown, is one of the few recognizable remnants
of the Meramec Dam Project.

The Meramec Motel was built near the Hickory Ridge Conference Center after the deauthorization of the dam and serves as a place for visitors to stay.  The casing surrounding another calyx boring sits almost directly in front of the motel and closely resembles the one over Moore's Cave.  One can park near the motel and walk to the scenic overlook built by the Corps of Engineers, which is at the very end of the parking lot.  This excellent overlook provides a scenic view into the hills and farms of the surrounding area.  If Meramec Dam had been successfully completed, the overlook would have looked directly down the axis of the dam and much of the forest below would now be a lake.  It is hard to imagine that this area led to so much public and political turmoil as one sits and admires the scenery from this peaceful location.  On the other hand, one can see why so many wanted the land left alone.

Calyx hole near the Meramec Hotel and Greg Hempen, a USACE employee
who worked on the dam project.

The overlook built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still in use today.

Additional View
This scenic view is visible from the overlook built by the Corps of Engineers
to show the Meramec Dam and its lake.  If the dam had been completed, much
of this scene would now be underwater.  This overlook was to look down the
axis of the dam.

Today the Meramec is one of seven free flowing rivers (meaning no large dams have impounded the river) in Missouri.  The other six such rivers are the Bourbeuse, Gasconade, Big Piney, Current, Jack’s Fork, and Eleven Point Rivers.  If all dams proposed throughout the years had been constructed, none of these rivers would be free flowing through their entire length today.

The Flood Control Acts passed after the disastrous Mississippi River floods specifically targeted the Missouri Ozarks, as the area was subject to local flooding and was believed to be a disproportionately large contributor to the flooding problem on the Mississippi.  The Ozarks comprise only 4% of the land area in the Mississippi watershed but were thought to have provided over 38.3% of the water in the 1927 flood.  This figure is somewhat suspect today, as measuring techniques, especially over such a large area, were not that precise in 1927.  The percentage of water contributed by the Ozarks to the 1927 was probably actually smaller.

The whole story behind the Meramec Dam will probably never be heard.  Although some of the reports and other information created during the project still show up at many libraries, much of the information was destroyed after the project ended once and for all.  Some involved in supporting or fighting the project have died without ever fully documenting their story.  Others have sworn themselves to secrecy for fear of negative repercussions and will likely never tell all their part of the story.  Even after 25 years, people on both sides of the fight still hold strong opinions and one might want to maintain a neutral stance if discussing the project with residents of the upper Meramec Basin.  As recently as 1998, a suggestion was made to revive the reservoir idea in order to supply drinking water to the Sullivan area.  This was in response to part of the city water supply being contaminated by TCE.  It is likely that strong beliefs will continue well into the future.

On the evening of Friday August 8, 2003, an event titled “Miracles And Milestones – The Rebirth of a River” was held at the Powder Valley Nature Center in Kirkwood, MO.  The event was held by the Open Space Council to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the vote ending the Meramec Basin Project once and for all.  All were welcome to attend but the majority of those present had worked to fight against the dams.  Presentations were given on the history of the project’s evolution and eventual demise.  Other presentations focused on the cleanup and progress on the Meramec River that has occurred in the 25 years since the dam was voted down.  Tours the next day at Onondaga Cave State Park focused on the history of the cave and how it played into the dam.  These tours concluded over a month of activities held at various sites along the Meramec River in honor of the vote.

To get to Meramec State Park, which contains the main dam site and other features discussed above, take I-44 east to the second Sullivan exit (exit 226), which is labeled Hwy 185 south.  Follow Hwy 185 south for around three miles to the park entrance on the right.  For a map of the developed areas of the park, stop at the main visitors center or store.  Maps and information can be obtained at the visitor center.  A natural history museum within the visitor center highlights the proposed dam and the fight over its construction.

Highway map showing location of Meramec State Park (M) in relation to Rolla.

Thanks to the “WPA Guide To Missouri: Route 66 Tour” (, The Independent Caver (, Fisher Cave Biology (, U.S. Forest Service Program in Missouri - Gardner Unit (1935), Missouri-Illinois Forest Picture” by John D. Woerheide, “Toward a Vision For Missouri’s Public Forests” (1992), "Weathering - Some Topographic Clues To Its Depth" (1964) by George D. Roberts, personal conversations with Greg Hempen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - St. Louis District, Jo Schaper, Rich Orr, “Geologic Wonders And Curiosities of Missouri” by Thomas R. Beveridge and Jerry Vineyard, “Passages of a Stream” by James P. Jackson, “Stop Meramec Dam – It’s A Damsite Worse The Teton” by Don Rimbach, “The Lake That Never Was” by Tom Uhlenbrock (6-8-2003) of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the friendly staff at Meramec State Park, The Missouri Earth Advocate newspaper, personal and e-mail conversations with Jo Schaper, “Geology 260 – Karst Hydrology: South-Central Missouri Karst Field Trip” (UM-Rolla course - 2003) and personal communication with by Jim Vandike of the Missouri DNR, “Meramec Park Reservoir – Site Geology” by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, brochures present at the park visitor center, and the users of the MOCAVES listserve for much of the information presented in this article.  Other excellent references on the Meramec Basin project are the book “Damning The Dam: The St. Louis District Corps of Engineers and The Controversy Over the Meramec Basin Project from its Inception to Its Deauthorization” by T. Micheal Ruddy and “Silver Anniversary of the Meramec Dam Defeat, August 8, 1978” by Jo Schaper (

(C) 2006 by Conor Watkins