The Best Hike … for Nuke Nerds
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because what sounds better than hiking over a nuclear waste site?
Just 30 miles west as the crow flies, a weekend jaunt from St. Louis to the suburb of Weldon Springs provides an escape from the urban jungle. An aerial view shows picturesque farmland, the beauty of fall foliage — and 41 acres of limestone structure jutting seven stories out of the landscape like a massive white speed bump in the rolling grasslands of Missouri.
Believe it or not, what could be seen as an eyesore is one of the most fascinating landmarks of the Show-Me State. The man-made mountain sits atop what once was the largest explosive factory in America during the height of World War II. Later a uranium refinery supplying the nuclear bombs that fed the Cold War, it fell into disrepair for decades, only to be cleaned up in the ’90s. Today, 1.5 million cubic yards of radioactive waste are encased in its rubble. Its purpose? To serve as an educational trail for those of us who see hiking above contaminated uranium, asbestos and mercury as an enjoyable athletic endeavor.
Your adventure starts … within the building once used as a screening facility for radiologists sent to clean up the mess.
As the sound of crickets and June bugs fill the evening air, venturing into the Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail & Interpretive Center is like stepping into the pages of a history book — a tattered one, at that. This place has a checkered past, and your adventure starts as a history lesson told within the building once used as a screening facility for radiologists sent to clean up the mess. Museum placards relate the tale, beginning in 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the War Department to purchase 20,000 acres to build a munitions plant. Nearly a thousand miles from the White House, the residents of two small towns would read about the decision in The St. Charles Daily Banner-News.
In total, 700 locals would ultimately be relocated, many against their will. Because the land was seized for national security, they didn’t even get the typical rights associated with eminent domain disputes. The government’s actions left a sour taste for decades. “What did the villages of Howell and Hamburg in St. Charles County, Missouri, have in common with Germany, Italy and Japan?” begins Donald K. Muschany, in his 1978 memoir detailing the events. “All were defeated by the United States of America.” Look past that grim beginning, and take in what became a historic feat: From 1942 to 1945, the site produced millions of pounds of TNT per day. And from 1957 to 1966, a time that included the Cuban missile crisis, it processed yellowcake into metal, which was shipped across the nation to build missiles and reactors for nuclear power plants.
All that history is important when you’re standing seven stories high, after ascending dozens of steps to the top of the limestone cap. Whether you run it or walk it, the climb leaves you breathless. As you take in the view, remember what a museum aide mentioned below: When the center does radon testing, the absolute lowest reading is at the top. So you’re safe, you tell yourself, because up above this entombed radioactive wasteland it’s quiet, and nobody can hear you comforting yourself.