Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park is finally completely re-opened, more than four years after it was devastated by more than a billion gallons of water from the breach of the upper Reservoir at Ameren UE’s Taum Sauk Hydroelectric plant. Jeff Ayres, the park’s superintendent, gave the Missourinet a tour of the virtually brand-new park.
Ayres says there’s very little about the park that is recognizable from the park as it was in 2005, aside from the shut-ins themselves. They didn’t sustain much damage. The huge scour in the side of the mountain left behind by the rushing waters is still distinct, and it left scores of huge boulders in what used to be the campground.
“They decided to leave the boulder field area, to show people exactly how much rock was brought down,” Ayres said, as he looked out over the field full of the large stones.
Ayres says like it or not, the disaster is part of the history of the park now. But it’s also made history itself a part of the park. The scour tore away 30 to 40 feet of rock in the mountainside, revealing layers of sediment. There’s now a hiking trail that takes people into the scour.
“It’s uncovered rock formation and geology that you would have never got to see before at all. We’ve been having just tons of interest from local colleges and colleges all over to come and actually get to go up in that scour and look at some of those neat features,” Ayres said.
Johnson’s Shut-Ins was mostly a rudimentary park in 2005; there wasn’t much beyond the shut-ins and a campground. It isn’t often that a state park gets to start from scratch. In fact, Ayres says he’s never heard of it happening before. But that’s what they did, after cleaning up the destruction left behind by a billion gallons of water from the Taum Sauk reservoir breach.
After the clean-up, the park what was left of the $103 million it was granted through Ameren UE’s settlement to put in brand new day use facilities and amenities at the campground. But the campground is across the highway now, out of the path left behind by the breach.
“There were surveys early on, they asked the public would you feel comfortable camping back in this area if the upper reserve reservoir was built again and the answer was no. So that’s why they moved the campground across N Highway to a safer area,” Ayres said.
There’s also another new attraction.
“We went from no visitor center to a 10,000 square foot visitor center,”
The visitor center has numerous displays, many of which focus on the impact of the 2005 breach. The location of that center shows some confidence in the new reservoir that Ameren re-opened last month.
“We know that where this building is right in the line (of the water’s path), and we all feel comfortable with the new construction. Obviously, because we built our orientation center which is right in front of the scour where they water came before,” Ayres said.
Johnson’s Shut Ins State Park has been gradually re-opening over the last year, and now it’s officially at full operation after opening its camping facilities at the end of April. The old park had 50 general sites; 25 electric and 25 non-electric. The park has increased its capacity to 79 sites that are much more diversified.
“We have 10 sites for equestrian users; we have 20 sites that have the full hookup; sewer electric and water. We have 21 sites that just have electric, 14 basic and then we have 14 walk-in sites where you basically park and you hike in to a wooden platform and camp in the woods. Also we have 4 camper cabins which is completely new,” Ayres said.
Ayres thinks that over time the park will get back to the same high levels of patronage it had before the breach, and thinks the new features may actually bring in new visitors. But as the previously mentioned survey revealed, some have voiced concerns over safety. We met Elaine Wright and Peter Svenson as they were visiting the park, and asked whether they had they had safety concerns.
“That’s not how I feel, I’ve been listening and watching the rebuilding of the dam and everything and I know a little bit about the old dam the construction of the old dam and the new dam is definitely strong. It’s not coming down again,” Svenson said.
Svenson says they’ll likely continue driving from St. Louis to visit the park at least once a year, as they did before the breach.
Ameren UE has posted “evacuation route” signs throughout the park, which would direct people to higher ground in the case of an emergency. But an Ameren UE spokesman says they’ve done everything possible to make sure it never happens again. For more information on the new Taum Sauk upper reservoir, see our coverage of the re-opening ceremony.