The Meramec River forms the western boundary of Sunset Hills. This was formerly a clean, fast-flowing river full of fish and mussels. Along its eastern banks were several sandy beaches. Sylvan Beach, north of Interstate 44, was a shallow sandy swimming hole that was safe for swimmers because the main channel of the river ran west of a little island visible during low-water times. The river could be forded close to this point. The land rises abruptly to the south of I-44 to bluffs of approximately 500 feet. These bluffs run for a mile or 2 down river until the land slopes gradually to form river plain. At flood times in some years the Meramec has completely covered the bottom land. Older residents say the water had come as high as Weber Hill Road before the present levee was built. Just to the south of the high ridge, Mr. Griesedieck named Rock Alva, lies another beach called Rock Alva Beach. There are some river cottages in this complex. Minnie Ha Ha Beach may be reached from old Gravois Road and is just south of New Gravois and the new bridge. This is also the spot where the ferry crossed to Fenton. New Gravois Road has been built high above the river plain so that it can be used even during flood stage. The Meramec rises rapidly. Flooding occurs in our area not only from water rushing downhill but also from water backing up from the Mississippi River.
Flat, rich river bottom land is to be found in the southwestern part of the city. The land rises to form steeply sloping hills and small valleys throughout the great bulk of land area. To the east, along Lindbergh Boulevard, the land levels out with gently sloping terrain.
Creeks & Creeklets
There are 11 or so little creeks and creeklets, many of them fed by springs. They flow to the Meramec and the Mississippi. The Mississippi watershed runs along Lindbergh Boulevard, west through Ronnie's Acres on the east side of Matthews Lane and back along Lindbergh. Anything draining east of this runs into the Mississippi; anything flowing west of this line is in the Meramec watershed and drains to the river west. The underlying rock structure is perfect for springs, caves, sink holes, and underground creeks. During and after heavy rains water can be seen pouring into the creeks from spots low on the hill, fed by sinkholes on the top and sides of the hill.
Springs, both fresh water and mineral water, were of great importance to our area. The mineral springs, especially, drew animals and people from a great distance. Salt was the preservative for food as well as necessary for tanning hides. The salt springs were on both sides of the river; Gabriel Cerre owned the 1 on the east as early as 1779, but it was used many, many hundreds of years before that by Mound Builders. The flow had been almost stopped in the early 1900's, and can only be identified today by 1 who remembers where it had been. The property is now owned by the Bilmeier family. Two other springs fed the Twin Lakes Golf Course lakes. Highway 270 covered 1 of the springs; the spring house for the other spring still sits at the base of the highway fill just west of the right-of-way, south of Rott and Maple Drive. Red Bud Springs was named by Mr. Griesedieck who built a lovely little spring house at the site when he owned the property, now part of Laumeier County Park. North of Interstate 44 was a big spring called Windsor Spring. This had a great flow of pure water, bottled and sold in large quantities throughout the area of St. Louis.
The underlying rock structure of Sunset Hills is basically limestone, deposited when the area was part of the great inland sea eons ago. The limestone is part of a rich fossil bed known as the Meramec Basin. The fossil hunter can find the more common varieties in abundance; the knowledgeable can find the elusive Archimede's Screw along Cragwold Drive. Minerals are found with the limestone. At 1 time rock crystal (quartz) was sold for radio production; the supply of this mineral was too scattered and tore up the land too much for it to be a profitable venture. Limestone quarries were profitable for a while. Powder Valley, west of Balmagoun Lane, had a quarry; Murphys or Chamberlains had a quarry on what is now City Park land. There may have been others we don't know about. Much quartz, mozarkite, and chert is found among the limestone. Caves provide many kinds of quartz. At the eastern base of Indian Hill there was flint in such abundance that the Indians had a spear-manufacturing plant located there. The river supplies large amounts of sand and gravel. This sand has been especially helpful to St. Louis because it contains no lignite and can be used to make mortar. Mississippi sand was not desirable in the 1800's.
The soil of Sunset Hills is either good or poor, depending on where you live. The flood plain area is alluvial, deposited by flooding and washing down from the hills. The steeper slopes have a more cherty rock material, easily eroded, and covered with very little top soil of a silt-loam combination, no more than 32% clay. Along the more gently sloping terrain there is less material deposited by wind. The farming is good along the valleys and flood plain where the land is level and has a greater depth of top-soil.
The steeply sloping hills that give the city its name are covered with climax forest. Big trees of predominately hickory, oak, and ash form a crown for the smaller trees of red bud, dogwood, choke cherry, sassafras, wild pear, persimmon, etc. Wild flowers and grasses are sheltered on the hillsides under such excellent cover.
We live along the Mississippi flyway. This means you may see more varieties of birds spring and fall than the rest of the country. Many live here year-round and if you want to start bird watching it is best begun in winter when there are fewer varieties to identify. The Audobon Society of St. Louis says there are at least 75 varieties to be seen in spring and fall.
The 4-legged variety of mammal is more abundant in Sunset Hills than many imagine. Of course the larger species of deer, bobcat, and wolf are gone. Occasionally you might spot a visiting fox. Living right in the backyards of humans you will find raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, squirrels, and rabbits as well as pesty gophers, muskrats, chipmunks and moles. Little field mice find their way into homes if given the opportunity.
There is something like 600 species of insect, at times you would think they all live here. Night time you can hear the Nature Chorus, if you listen closely. Katydids and cicadas sing the loudest with the tree cricket singing a soft soprano. They are all joined by tree toads, frogs along the creek and riverbanks, and night birds calling, "Whipporwill", "Poorwill", "Bob-white," and "Whoo". Sometimes the screech owl calls with such a scream you are certain the bobcats have returned. If you have lived in the region for awhile, the night sounds are hardly noticeable; but to people from other sections of the country, it becomes cacophonous. Others find it beautiful in its own way.
Reptiles like the area too. Copperheads, rattlers, and water moccasins are the poisonous varieties of snake. These are found close to the river and along creeks. Since Interstate 270 has been cut through the hills, there haven't been nearly as many snakes to the east of the highway. Milk snakes, garter snakes, blue racers, ring snakes, and big king snakes are still around in the woods but keep to themselves, as always. Lizards, salamanders, frogs, toads, tortoises, and newts all move about through the woods.
Nature Within the City Limits
The city has not encroached on nature in this area to the extent of destruction. You may still find much wild life if you have the patience and know-how. Boy Scouts passing their nature merit badge don't have to leave the city to find all the trees, birds, mammals, insects, and rocks necessary for the merit badge. Science students in the 7th grade can make an "A" easily on their insect and leaf collections by walking the roads and paths of Sunset Hills. Wildflowers and shrubs abound on the hillsides. The beauty of nature is right here if you only have eyes for seeing.