Crews from around state helping clear Trail of Tears State Park

Saturday, February 16, 2008
A large tree fell victim to the ice storm in Trail of Tears State Park along Moccasin Springs Road near the intersection of Hill Road. (Fred Lynch)

In his 18 years as its superintendent, Hershel Price has never had to close Trail of Tears State Park before. Even in the Flood of 1993, when the Mississippi River submerged the marina and a few campsites, the park remained open. But the ice storm that wracked southern Missouri earlier this week forced Trail of Tears State Park to close indefinitely Friday out of concern for visitors' safety.

Crews brought in from other state parks have been working to clear the roads in the park in the wake of the storm that blew into the area Monday and continued for 24 hours. By Friday, one-lane paths had been cleared along the main roads in the park. The view today is already very different from the one park personnel initially faced. Trees had fallen down about every 50 feet along Moccasin Springs Road, which winds from the park's southern entrance to the marina. "It was like a tornado had gone through and uprooted them," Price said. Clearing a lane in the 1.5-mile road took three days.

Hillsides in the park are littered with fallen trees and splintered limbs. The visitors center, the Otahki Memorial and the bathhouses appear undamaged. "It's a wonder we didn't have more damage," Price said.

Assistant park superintendent Jim Griggs, his wife, Tara, and their 14-month-old son, Ethan, moved into their house near the Mississippi River only a month ago. He awoke Tuesday expecting to drive out before peering outside. "It looked like a forest had been planted in the road," Griggs said.

The family had no power and no water because the storm knocked down the line that operates the park's well. They used a cookstove to heat the house. The following day, Griggs walked along the hills to meet with Price and discuss the situation, following the cleared land alongside the Citizens Electric Cooperative power poles.

"It was like basic training, boot camp," Griggs said. "I was on my hands and knees."

He said Tara started getting nervous when their cookstove began running low on gas. After two days no one could get in to rescue the family, so ranger Steve Hayden in the state parks' Festus district office called Burlington-Northern. The railway offered to send one of their maintenance cars along the railroad tracks to pick up the family and take them to Neely's Landing. "My wife was yelling at me and telling me we had 15 minutes to get on the tracks," Griggs said.

The nearest motel room the family could find was in Sikeston, Mo. On Friday crews hooked up a generator to provide the family with power once again, and Citizens Electric restored power to the park's wellhouse. The Griggses plan to return home today.

Crews from other state parks have driven in to help. They include Hunter-Dawson, Sam A. Baker, Johnson's Shut-Ins. Babler State Park in St. Louis, St. Joe, St. Francois, Hawn and Big Oak Tree state parks. Price estimated the number at almost 20. Randy Quade works at Bollinger Mill Historical Site but was at Trail of Tears State Park on Thursday. He and Lee Haines, who works at Hunter-Dawson State Park, were trying to set up a generator at the visitors center Friday afternoon. Quade said Bollinger Mill is littered with tree limbs as well.

Price said the top priority was to restore heat in the visitor's center to prevent pipes from bursting.

The Missouri Department of Conservation cleared Highway 177, the route to the park, quickly after the storm because Procter & Gamble employees use the road to get to the plant.

Opening a path on Moccasin Springs Road required days of chain sawing, a backhoe and a tractor. "We had to bull our way through the limbs," Price said. Some broken limbs will continue to fall, Price said. "It's going to be a safety hazard."

No visitors were in the park at the time of the storm. Price and his wife, Brenda, also live in the park but at the more accessible northern end. They have had heat but did not have water until Friday.

'A tangled mess'

The storm knocked down five power poles and many wires in the park, said Barb Casper, a spokeswoman for Citizens Electric Cooperative. "It's a tangled mess there."

Restoring power in the park even in good weather would take awhile considering the terrain, she said. She predicts the work will take at least a week.

Price hopes the park can be reopened in two weeks.

Rocky Hayes, an urban forester with the Department of Conservation in Cape Girardeau, said last summer's drought could be playing a role in the numbers of trees and branches that have fallen. "Mainly it's just the extreme weight, but some of the trees could be falling if their root systems had been weakened or stressed," Hayes said. "Periods of drought do cause stress."

The saturated ground could be adding to the loss of trees, he said, and some species -- among them soft maples, sassafras and eastern white pine -- are more vulnerable to breakage.

Hayes was in Springfield, Mo., after a similar storm last year and saw some oak trees on the ground as well.

The park will try to salvage some of the larger trees that have fallen so the logs can be used in other state parks.

The devastation in the park now won't simply disappear once spring arrives. Price suspects limbs block most of the hiking trails. He's certain the 11-mile Pee-Wah Trail, one of the most popular trails in the state park system, is damaged. He says many trees that didn't come down may still die. "It's going to look different," he said. "A whole lot different."

335-6611, extension 137

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