f/8 and Be There
Fred Lynch

Smelterville flooded 1951

Posted Wednesday, July 16, 2014, at 12:00 AM

July 30, 1951 Southeast Missourian

Flood water of the Mississippi River is beginning to leave the blighted Smelterville area in south Cape Girardeau after driving out some 150 families more than two weeks ago. The picture shows a row of houses on Pecan street between the railroad tracks and the river. Water is nearly touching the roofs of the porches. The river stage had fallen 18 inches from its peak of last week. (G.D. Fronabarger photo)

Old Problem in Smelterville Up As Water Leaves

Area East of Track in Miserable Shape for People to Live in.

The most disturbing sight in Cape Girardeau for a person to see now is the section of the city called Smelterville. Now emerging from its soaking by the rampaging Mississippi River, it's more than ever an eyesore for the community.

The flooding of Smelterville is not a new thing; it happens every time the river gets up. And when the river returns to its normal stage it leaves a deposit of foul-smelling muck, as now, over the entire area. Such a condition brings about a serious health problem which experience shows little, if any, consideration has ever been given.

The area ordinarily referred to as Smelterville is the north section between the Frisco railroad tracks embankment and the river, an area legally designated as the Village of Girardeau. It is occupied by both white and Negro families. Their homes are shacks, many built of wood scraps and some having no floors. It's the area that causes the most trouble. Admittedly a poor place to live in under normal circumstances, it's even worse after a flood.

Area Under Water

A tour of the district in a motor boat Saturday showed all of the shacks--there are no houses--under water. Except for the places which had been put up on stilts to escape the minor overflows of the river, the shacks were in water up to the tops of the windows.

Water in the lanes that serve as streets was 6 to 8 feet deep even after the river had fallen 18 inches from its peak in the current flood. Some shacks, from their angular position, obviously have been washed from their foundation blocks and others have been overturned. Floating in the muddy water were many raft-like sections of shanties which had been torn apart by the flood's force.

Windows had been knocked out and huge chunks of wood floated inside the rickety buildings.

West of the railroad track embankment, where the overflow water is, to a large degree, trapped and can't run with the river current, the stench from the stagnant water and its silt deposits is unbearable. Houses in that area also show the effects of the flood.

Should Condemn District

A former resident of the area, who moved out after getting tired of repeated floodings, said that the city ought to condemn the entire district and tell the people to get out.

Asked what he expected the residents to do in such a case, he answered, "Well, they got out on their own this time without being hauled out by the Red Cross and Salvation Army and wherever they went they couldn't be any worse off."

Questioned about sanitary facilities in the area under normal circumstances, the man said that east of the tracks there aren't any at all. Apparently the people over there don't believe in privies, he said. On the west side north of Green Row (LaCruz street) the families have privies, and south of Green Row there are connections to the sewer line that runs along Cape LaCroix Creek.

A practical solution, he said, would be for the city to notify those people that fly-proof outdoor toilets are going to be required. That would almost clean out the area.

If the city, he continued, would require the same sanitary conditions in the entire Smelterville area that it requires over the rest of town the problem of filth and squalor would be solved. And most of the people would be better off, he added.

Some Not Returning

In many cases it's apparent that several families forced out by the water would rather stay out if they could find some place else to live.

In the tent community set up temporarily in Houck Woods at the head of tollgate hill, a mother with three children said she dreaded to return to her old place and wouldn't if she could find some other location. Others living there echoed the same opinion and said they knew of many other families now scattered over town who wouldn't go back if they could arrange to remain in their present temporary quarters.

It is likely that a number of the families forced out by the water will not return now that they have had a taste of "life in the sun." The assumption by one resident of the tent community, who said he was through with the place, meaning Smelterville, was that some families will stay where they happen to light. It would be a fine thing if the city would take an interest in the place and keep the others from going back now that everybody's out, he said.

Previous blog:

They Call It Smelterville!


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  • I photographed residents of Smelterville in 1967 and I've been tracking down the families in those photos over the past few years.

    Here's my latest interview, along with links to earlier stories.

    Smelterville was an interesting community that was a total mystery to most of us who lived "up the hill" - in the main part of Cape above Tollgate Hill.


    -- Posted by ksteinhoff on Wed, Jul 16, 2014, at 12:04 AM
  • Cape was an "All-American City" in '67 or '68--Smelterville and Mill Town were still 'going strong'......go figure?!? I seem to remember there was one water faucet for the area to get drinking water?

    -- Posted by skidsteer on Wed, Jul 16, 2014, at 8:12 AM
  • When we started Toybox back in the 70's, we delivered toys to a few families in Smelterville. The houses had no floors; just dirt. I can't imagine how someone could move back into one of these houses after being flooding to the roof with, what was then and maybe now, a river full of St. Louis sewage.

    -- Posted by JungleJim on Wed, Jul 16, 2014, at 10:11 PM