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Curious Louis Answers: Does Castlewood State Park Have A Hidden History?

A group of summertime visitors take a break from swimming in the Meramec River to pose for a photo. The area now home to Castlewood State Park was once a bustling summer resort destination in the early 1900s.
Castlewood State Park
A group of summertime visitors take a break from swimming in the Meramec River to pose for a photo. The area now home to Castlewood State Park was once a bustling summer resort destination in the early 1900s.

If you look closely, you’ll notice something odd tucked into the hills of Castlewood State Park: crumbling concrete ruins.

Listener Joel Verhagen had an inkling that the area might have an interesting past, so he decided to ask our Curious Louis series: What was Castlewood State Park before it was a park?

That’s how the two of us end up hiking along a gravel path at Castlewood on a blazing hot afternoon. We're making our way along the bluff overlooking the Meramec River when we spot something hidden in plain sight — a moss-covered staircase to nowhere.

Visitors once climbed this concrete staircase built into the hillside to reach clubhouses along the bluff. Hikers now descend a set of wooden stairs to a trail along the Meramec.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The staircase hasn’t been used in years, but why is it here in the first place?

To find the answer, one needs only look at the black-and-white photos lining the walls of Park Superintendent Jeff Bonney’s office.

Lincoln Beach was a main attraction in the Castlewood area. The sandy, manmade beach, which no longer exists, was created by dredging the bottom of the Meramec.
Castlewood State Park

The photos, many of which were taken in the 1920s and ‘30s, document the park’s former life as a bustling summer resort area. 

“There were a couple hundred buildings here, ranging from clubhouses to dance halls to general stores,” Bonney said. “A place to get a haircut, a place to get ice cream, and a place to get some whiskey.”

Visitors traveled to the Castlewood area on the Missouri Pacific Railroad and disembarked at a train station near the tracks.
Castlewood State Park

Thousands of people visited the area each weekend, said Bonney, usually traveling by train from St. Louis and beyond. 

Visitors climbed the concrete steps to clubhouses along the bluff, or stayed in one of several large inns. Across the Meramec, they sunbathed on Lincoln Beach, a man-made beach created by dredging the river’s sandy bottom.

Castlewood State Park Superintendent Jeff Bonney describes a photo of Lincoln Beach on July 15, 2019. The walls of the park office are lined with photos of the Castlewood resort area before it became a park.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

In the evenings, they danced outdoors under strings of electric lights hung from the trees.

“I can imagine being at an outdoor dance hall, looking at the stars in the moonlight,” Bonney said. “I’m sure it was beautiful.” 

A hundred years later, not much remains.

Listener Joel Verhagen, shown here on July 12, 2019, asked Curious Louis to investigate the history of the park, which was once home to a bustling summer resort area.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

The forest has reclaimed the land — and even the stone foundations have been erased, likely buried under years of sand and sediment from frequent flooding along the Meramec River.

But the old buildings have left a few clues behind.

Whenever crews work on the water lines in the park, Bonney said, they discover old pipes crisscrossing underground, including “branches that go nowhere.”

An old train tunnel dated to 1930 at Castlewood State Park. Tourists once visited the area by train in the early 1900s, which became a park in 1974.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio

Alice Young Mertz, 81, is too young to remember the resort in its heyday. 

But she said many of the buildings — including the old inns and clubs — were still standing in the late 1940s, when her parents moved the family from the city to a one-room clubhouse near the Meramec.

“We grew up in the age of, ‘When the rent was due, you moved,’” said Mertz, who lives in Ballwin. “We lived a decent life, but we’re weren’t bombarded with money.”

Pete Young and Alice Mertz Young grew up in the area that is now Castlewood State Park. Their parents moved the family into a one-bedroom clubhouse in the late 1940s.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

After spending their early years as “city mice,” Mertz and her siblings ran wild through the forest, exploring its nooks and crannies.

But there was one place they weren’t allowed to go: an old speakeasy called the Lone Wolf.

“You had to belong to it somehow,” Mertz said. “You couldn’t walk in there. We never even got to go into the parking lot.”

The Lone Wolf, which stood on the edge of what is now Castlewood State Park, served alcohol during Prohibition from the 1920s through the early 1930s. 

The Lone Wolf Club, shown here, was a speakeasy during Prohibition. The club, which stood at the edge of what is now Castlewood State Park, later became a private tavern.
Castlewood State Park

Pete Young, Mertz’s younger brother, remembered the Lone Wolf as the “classiest-looking joint in Castlewood.”

“It was a huge stone mansion with pillars and gates,” said Young, adding that the club remained closed to the public even after Prohibition ended. 

According to local lore, the Lone Wolf once had a network of underground tunnels used to ferry alcohol from the river to the club’s basement.

The ruins of the Lone Wolf Club, a former speakeasy during Prohibition, stand on the property of the Wildlife Rescue Center in Ballwin.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

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Mertz and Young said their father was a bootlegger during this time — and later owned a series of taverns in the city. 

Although the Lone Wolf was demolished in the early 2000s, its stone foundation and curved archway remain standing on the grounds of the Wildlife Rescue Center in Ballwin.

The old clubs and speakeasies are gone, but for Young and Mertz, the stories of Castlewood’s wild past are woven into its history.

A century later, those stories — along with a handful of old photos — are all that’s left. 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @ShahlaFarzan

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