Mystery surrounds 'the park that's not a park'

The Works Progress Administration built this bathroom and a pavilion with two fireplaces at River Bluffs Park sometime in the 1930s. The structures were not finished, and the park has largely been forgotten.

High atop the bluffs that overlook the Missouri River, the trees have reclaimed the remnants of an unfulfilled dream — St. Joseph’s great park that never was.

Two chimneys reach into the leaves at each end of a limestone shelter house. No roof covers the structure, yet no beams or evidence of a collapse litter the ground, leaving visitors to wonder if workers ever completed their job.

A few beer cans rest in one fireplace as proof the park has not been completely forgotten. A single, outdated pull-tab from a much older can still sits on the trail outside the building, showing foot traffic has been light.

A few yards to the north sits a smaller, square, stone building, also without a roof. With doors at each end leading to separate rooms and a line of holes cut in the floor along each wall, stray hikers can easily discern the building’s original purpose as a restroom, but no evidence of toilets, sinks or pipes remains.

A piece of graffiti raises the question: “What if?”

A hopeful start

The ruins sit on land the city refers to as the “River Bluffs tract,” one of several parcels the city owns east of Waterworks Road on the bluffs between Highland Avenue and the abandoned water plant.

Ask Parks Director Bill McKinney about the apparently forgotten, unmaintained structures, and he knows just the spot.

“You’re talking about the park that’s not a park,” Mr. McKinney said.

The story of the park’s hopeful start and eventual demise predate Mr. McKinney, a St. Joseph native who grew up in the city’s North Side in the 1940s and 1950s. Even so, the long-time parks director has picked up enough information to tell the general story.

Not long after the turn of the 20th century, St. Joseph voters approved funding for what was to be known as Prospect Hill Park.

“It was going to go north from Wyeth Hill and then wrap around to the east into the back side of Krug Park,” Mr. McKinney said. “Then some jack-leg lawyer stepped in.”

The city found out after the election it could not fulfill its plans, because the majority of the land was outside the city limits. After a lengthy courtroom battle, the city was able to complete only what is now known as Huston Wyeth Park, which extends north to what was then St. Joseph’s northern border at Highland Avenue.

WPA gets involved

Scant records exist showing exactly what happened on the land that was to link Wyeth Hill to Krug Park.

Sharon Ritchie, event coordinator for the parks department, keeps a file of old newspaper clippings and city ordinances related to Prospect Hill Park and the River Bluffs tract. While not a complete history, the files fill gaps in the history. The earliest clipping, from Feb. 18, 1904, talks of a civic movement to build a boulevard along the “waterworks hills.” The next mention came on Feb. 11, 1909, when leaders touted the planned road as “One of the most magnificent driveways of the West.” On Jan. 23, 1911, the newspaper said the City Council and board of park commissioners would soon decide the fate of the park.

With the dream seemingly lost, the public tried a new idea more than a decade later, as the city began efforts in 1925 to establish a state park on the land, an idea that also fell short.

Activity resumed in December 1934, when 150 workers from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration — which became the Works Progress Administration in 1935 — arrived to construct a parkway bridle path and Prospect Hill Road. Though no mention is made of the shelter house and bathrooms, the stone construction of both structures resembles the style of those built by workers from the WPA and other New Deal-era organizations.

The 35th Tank Company of the Missouri State Guard camped in the area on November and December of 1939. In 1942, the federal government took over the site and established Camp Petree. Records show the entire camp was deconstructed in 1944-45 so the supplies could be used for the war effort — a likely explanation for the lack of roofs or fixtures in the two remaining buildings.

Future potential?

In the decades since, the city has reacquired the land, which now lies within the city limits. With Interstate 229 on the land’s east border and private property on the west, the city cannot access the land for development of a conventional park. However, last year’s campaign to raise the hotel/motel tax listed the park as a potential riverfront development project.

Mr. McKinney has taken teens from Sunday school classes on the long walk to the abandoned park, and said he sees the potential in the area.

“There’s nothing in the immediate works,” Mr. McKinney said. “But if we could make it a hiking or camping area, that would just be neater than the devil.”

Clinton Thomas can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPThomas.

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