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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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