Johnson Shut-Ins – Then and Now

View of Taum Sauk Mountain Reservoir
on the Campground to Visitor Center Trail

It happened in 2005, and for awhile it was called the worst state park disaster in our nation’s history. I’m talking about the breach of the Taum Sauk Mountain reservoir which destroyed Johnson Shut-Ins, a Missouri state park. I’ve lived in Missouri my whole life, and I had visited Johnson Shut-Ins growing up and grown up. So, for me, it was personal, and I remember it well. For those from Missouri and those who are not, do you remember?

Dan and I have recently returned from Johnson Shut-Ins state park, our last camping trip of 2020. This was our first time to visit the park since it reopened in 2009. But before I write the post about all the activities we enjoyed there, I just have to reflect a bit on how it was and how it is now.

When the reservoir broke in 2005, in happened in December, so the campground was empty. Only the park ranger, his wife and children were on the grounds, and amazingly, all survived. Had the breach occurred during camping season, this disaster would have been so much more tragic.

Only three years before the breach, we camped there. My twin boys, Zachary and Michael, were 13, and we were there with a group of families. I remember the layout of the park at the time. It was the campground, then a parking lot, and then a trail which led down into the shut-ins area.

One night, we all took blankets or sleeping bags, and laid down in the empty parking lot and looked up at the stars. Another night, after dark, we all walked down to the shut-ins. I am not a rule breaker; and while going to the shut-ins after dark was prohibited, I went along with the group. First, we heard the water rushing over the rocks. Then we saw the white rushing water lit up by the moonlight under a clear night sky . It was a beautiful, beautiful sight. I have to think we weren’t the only campers who had this idea. But no more.

The campground has been moved out of the valley and is far removed from the shut-ins area. It’s a beautiful campground with gravel walking trails throughout the five loops. There is a paved, concrete trail from the campground to the day use area and then onto the shut-ins area. Some bicyclists we saw rode the path. They told us from their campsite to the bike rack at the “entrance” to the shut-ins was 3.74 miles. Also, along that concrete path, there are a number of gates where areas, including the shut-ins, can be closed off. It’s a good thing – putting safety first. But I have to say, that moonlit view of one of Missouri’s natural treasures, will always be a treasure in my mind.

Black River Visitor Center

Besides the new campground and trails, a new Visitor’s Center was built. It’s beautiful and contains a number of interesting displays. One movie shown in the center discusses the breach and the park’s recovery. The movie showed some of the clean up after the disaster. A large “vacuum”, housed in a truck, was brought in. This “vacuum” was used to suck up six inches of silt over nine acres in the park. The vacuum hose was a large tube held by four men with one of them guiding the front end while going about this tedious task. And we thought vacuuming our home was a chore.

Picture of Dan by large boulder.
Sign - The Power of Water.  On Dec. 14, 2005, this granite boulder was torn from its resting place high atop Proffit Mountain during the Ameren upper reservoir breach.  Approximately 1.3 billion gallons of water carried this rock 1 1/2 miles, dropping it here. There was not a scratch on it.

In front of the Visitor’s Center is a large boulder field. Here, I’m told, is where the original campground was located. Like a home remodel, one can barely imagine how it used to be. However, while I can hardly resist to remember how it was, I congratulate, admire and above all appreciate all the Missouri workers who brought back this amazing state park. While some aspects of the park are likely lost forever, what was recovered and restored is a wonderful, natural gift for all those who visit. And God willing, I hope we will return to Johnson Shut-Ins again and again. There’s lots to do and see and explore there which I will feature in an upcoming post.

Johnson Shut-Ins
Missouri State Park


    • Yes, it was. When I filled out my post-camping survey, I suggested ranger led night hikes to the shut-ins. Nights with a full moon would be awesome.
      It would likely have to be after covid. I bet it would be a very popular activity. So, I have a hope maybe it could happen again for others and maybe for us, too. Nature is healing, right? 🙂 Thanks for reading, and enjoy your day!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Very interesting. Another piece of history I knew nothing about and now do. Thanks so very much. Hats off to the state for restoring the park. Many would have probably just written it off.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, one thing I neglected to mention, Ameren UE, utility company which owns the reservoir, had to pay $180 million settlement with $52 million going to Johnson Shut-Ins state park. Johnson Shut-Ins has always been a very popular state park in Missouri. The best part is no one died when the reservoir broke.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Johnson Shut-Ins is a great place. I went there as a kid, too. The campground is wonderful now – which was redone after that tragedy. It was very special to see the shut-ins on a night with a full moon. I am so glad we walked down there. Couldn’t happen now – unless it was a ranger led hike, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

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