Park Hills, Missouri History

European Settlement

The early settlement of the entire region centers around the discovery and recovery of metals in the eastern Ozark Mountains.

European exploration of the Flat River area revealed surface deposits of galena crystal lead much like that found at nearby Big River. Surface galena was found immediately north of the intersection of West Main and Marty Drive, also designated as Missouri Highway 8 and State Road Z.

French miners worked shallow pits in the area beginning after 1720. Surface mining for lead continued throughout the region followed by augering and shaft digging by 1830. St. Joseph Mineral began operations in 1864. Shallow underground mining operations here began around 1870. Columbia Lead, National Lead, ASARCO, and the Guggenheim family's Federal Lead operated mining and milling works through the years.

The Local Civil War

The story of the local fight for control of lead ore during the Civil War includes tales about James Craig, Joseph McGahan, and John Firmin McIlvaine and their contacts with guerrilla, Sam Hildebrand. Hildebrand is buried in Park Hills near a memorial to veterans of all wars. Craig’s short-lived Big River militia group or Vigilance Committee pursued Hildebrand. It was not tied to an authorized military organization. McGahan was the first lieutenant of the group. Members were mostly from St. Francois and Washington counties. McIlvaine was especially intriguing as he was the second man Hildebrand claimed to have killed. Hildebrand took a dislike to McIlvaine and stalked him a few days before shooting him. Canisius was supposedly the first man Hildebrand killed. He was a Union man whom Hildebrand believed had reported his whereabouts to McIlvaine. Canisius’ brother was an associate of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many local streets have been named after members or their families. In the roster are last names like Murrill, Norwine, Hill, Fite, and Rongey. Norwine, Hill, and Fite are still street names in Park Hills.

A New Union For Progress

By: Roger W. Forsythe 

In a new union for progress, the City of Park Hills has forged the best of four separate communities - Flat River, Esther, Elvins, and Rivermines - into a historic, precedent-setting move to consolidation.

Nowhere else in America had as many distinct cities successfully merged four government bodies and geographic jurisdictions.

Missouri State Statutes had to be changed so the innovative action could take place. Missouri's newest community officially began operations on January 1, 1994, at 12:01 a.m.

Park Hills: Four Histories

Park Hills is nestled in the heart of St. Francois County's Lead Belt, a region also known as the Mineral Area - and with just cause.

In the early 1700s, vast deposits of high-grade ore were found in the rolling hills of mid-southeast Missouri. Shortly after the first deep mining shafts were dug in May 1891, numerous settlements and towns sprang up near the shafts, often in very close proximity to each other. These separate towns were governed either by their inhabitants or by the different mining companies that owned, or more precisely, dominated them. This early diversity of control set the pattern for the fragmented governmental situation that continued for over a century.

The lead ore became depleted in 1972, but not before 260 miles of underground rail and 15 shafts had become consolidated under St. Joe Mineral Corp.

As time went on, efforts were initiated to pool together the duplicated resources of each of these small communities. The idea of a centralized government, however, drew heated responses both on and off the ballot. By the time the St. Joe Lead Company closed the mines in October 1972, some residents already were hard at work creating something that was at once bigger and better than that which had existed before.

In a report dated February 1971 submitted to the Area Betterment Corporation by Harland Bartholomew and Associates, Associate Partner Malcolm C. Drummond wrote: "the consolidation would be favorable to the residents of the area from the standpoint of services, taxation and future growth and development of the area."

Although this ground-breaking "Unicity" issue was soundly defeated at the polls, it loosened the ground for what would in time become, a series of mutual aid agreements among the Mineral Area's fire and police departments. An area-wide sewer and water department, as well as the establishment of central dispatching, also paved the way for future economic development, as did the successful mid-60's consolidation of the Central R-III School District. As students from Esther and Elvins became friends with their counterparts from Rivermines and Flat River, the nation's mobile society spun to life. This, in turn, led to the blurring of emotional boundaries. Young couples moved from one small town to the next, the only real separation that remained was the one that stood firmly posted on a large number of city limit signs.

Flat River received national recognition as the birthplace of Sgt. Darrell S. Cole and as a five-star All-American city. A booming economy kept residents prosperous and unwilling to face substantial change. But then a recession hit and the economy sagged.

Park Hills: Making The Dream Come True

Although it always had remained a top priority, economic development became more important than ever in the mid-1980s. Too many young people were having to leave the area just to find work. Businesses closed their doors and moved elsewhere; it became clear that something had to be done.

In March 1991, the Flat River Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of Flat River hired Anna Kleiner to serve as the Mineral Area Economic Development Coordinator. She quickly established an Economic Development Steering Committee and, in November 1991, launched a series of four multi-town meetings at nearby Mineral Area College.

Out of these visionary meetings grew the Mineral Area Consolidation Committee, chaired by John Clark. This organization successfully lobbied the Missouri General Assembly to amend the state statutes governing consolidation so that the adjoining, but not contiguous, communities could merge and so no single community could stop the consolidation of those cities voting in favor of the action.

Because of its size and location at the center of the area proposed in the consolidation, it also was stipulated that Flat River voters must endorse the November 1992 measure for any consolidation to take place. This, they did in some precincts by a three-to-one margin. Esther, Elvins, and Rivermines also approved the measure. Only two communities rejected the ballot issue.

The Park Hills Package

Building on this upswelling of a grassroots momentum, the 12-member Consolidation Charter Commission - chaired by Mark McFarland - prepared the Park Hills government and tax package that was enthusiastically approved by area residents in April 1993.

Once area residents had made it clear that consolidation was to be made a dream come true, each of the four existing cities appointed three representatives to serve on the ad hoc Consolidation Charter Commission. This ensured that no single city dominated the merger. After much research, a mayor-council form of government was selected for the new city. An addendum was placed on the ballot, however, strongly recommending that a city administrator was appointed and employed immediately.

Based on a combined total population of 7,866, the new city was divided into four wards with two councilmen to be elected from each ward. The Southeast Missouri Regional Planning Commission then was hired to help the charter commissioners map the temporary ward boundary lines to be used in the August municipal election. By contrast, the permanent ward boundaries were to be set in place, after the election results have been certified, by the Park Hills City Council.

In an effort to dispel fear and rumors, the ballot package made it clear that all employees of the four cities on November 3, 1992, and who remain in good standing on December 31, 1993, would be retained as employees for the new City of Park Hills. All appointments such as police chief, city attorney, street commissioner, municipal judge, assessor, treasurer, and city collector were made by the new city officials prior to the January 1 change-over date.

Compromises were made so that the tax rate for the new City of Park Hills did not exceed the rates currently paid in all four communities. For example, while the .91 cents per $100 assessed valuation on real property remains substantially higher than Rivermines' 30-cent rate or Esther's 61-cent levy, both Elvins and Flat River showed 1992 tax rated higher than Park Hills - $1.18 and $1.17, respectively. Other concessions were figured into the tax plan, including the elimination of a personal property tax and the city sticker.

All this hard work paid off. In April, this first, and only, consolidation package passed by a nearly seven-to-one margin in some precincts. Had the issue failed, a second package would have been presented to the voters. If at that point both measures had been rejected by the voters, the one to have received the greatest number of votes would have been considered as having passed. But clearly, this was not necessary.

The name itself, Park Hills, originated with long-time resident Mildred Lee and was accepted by the Consolidation Charter Commission. The name to receive the second greatest number of votes was Heritage Hills while many community members favored Central City in tribute to the local school district. Other names had to be changed as well. With four cities combining services of all sorts, it was discovered that three Walnut Streets existed in the consolidated area and that this was just the beginning of the duplicate street names. Between the April and August elections, an ad hoc committee was established to change the many street names mapped in more than two of the four cities. Through this consortium, the city representatives agreed to retain those street names that affected the most residents, as well as those that posed a great deal of historical significance. Compromises were again made and non-duplicate names were approved by each of the four existing city councils.

Park Hills Progress

After the formal passage of the Park Hills government and tax package, the Esther, Flat River, and Elvins Volunteer Fire Departments accomplished the equally complicated transition process that led to the chartering of the new Park Hills Volunteer Fire Department.

For a year, all three fire chiefs met on a regular basis to make sure that the fire equipment was inventoried and stored in the same manner on all the trucks; that all paperwork was filled out according to like guidelines; and that all three stations remain as cooperative auxiliaries of the united whole.

Even before the ink was dry on the approved consolidation package, Elvins and Flat River city officials took their law enforcement mutual aid agreements one step further by signing into effect a landmark agreement that authorized the two police departments to work together, share resources and operate as one force under the new Park Hills badge.

Two libraries also were involved in the consolidation: Flat River and Elvins. Like their counterparts with the fire and police departments, both librarians went through the process of organizing shared materials and resources. A formal decision on the usage of the two existing buildings was made by the new Park Hills City Council.

Likewise, the rich, lead-mining heritage that lies at the root of the new City of Park Hills was expected to be preserved in a special section to be dedicated as part of the expanded library. Beyond the doors leading into city hall, both the business community and local residents began to eagerly accept the new government and the new name. At the former Flat River Area Chamber of Commerce, letters began to be addressed under the new name, and likewise, businesses accepted the moniker as part of their corporate letterhead. The four-city consolidation brought with it a rebirth of optimism and community pride.