By Raymond Castile
Photos by Jason Pettus
Some buildings are alive, bustling with activity and purpose. Others are dead, deteriorating and empty.
But the "Equadome" was a zombie a living dead building that stood vacant 50 years while devilish deeds stirred within it decaying walls.
If St. Charles County had a "bad place," it was the concrete husk that stood off Highway 94 on what is now a firing range for the sheriff's department. Its name, when it was alive, was Water Treatment Plant No. 2. The main structures included an office building, two lime storage towers, and a water tower. The federal government began building the plant in 1941 to purify water used to make TNT at the Weldon Spring Ordnance Works. The plant was "born" upon its completion in October, 1942. It pumped between 20 and 38 million gallons of water per day throughout World War II. The plant "died" when the government shut it down in 1946.
But it did not stay dead. The plant became a legendary hangout for young people. Rumors spread that Satanic cults performed occult rituals and animal sacrifices within its cavernous chambers. The lure of mystery and danger attracted more thrill-seeking teens year after year. Some dubbed the plant the "Echo Dome." Others called it the "Aqua Dome." In time, the nicknames merged into one the Equadome.
Novelist and photographer Jason Pettus, 34, grew up in St. Charles before moving to Chicago. Pettus said he remembers hearing stories in high school about Satanic cults circulating in the county.
"One of these persistent urban legends was that there was a Satanic cult that met at the Equadome on weekends, and would cut off the heads of live chickens on the top floor of the biggest tower," Pettus said. "The stories originated in the way they always do in high school excited whispers among classmates, a supposed `yeah, dude, I was there and saw the whole thing,' even though details could never be provided."
Pettus did not visit the Equadome until he was an adult, but as a teen he talked to friends who did explore the structure. Most of the stories stressed how dangerous it was.
"You could easily fall and break a leg if you weren't paying attention, or get attacked by people if you went on the wrong night," he said.
Pettus' friends were not exaggerating.
"We had a couple of deaths, where kids fell while climbing around on this thing," said Lt. Craig McGuire of the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department. "We had a teen who fell through a manhole and was impaled on a steel spike. I think he survived. There were numerous crawl spaces and sewer lids missing, no electricity, so there were a lot of accidental injuries."
Not all of the mayhem was accidental. Police arrested about 20 people each year for trespassing, but occasionally found people engaged in more serious crimes, McGuire said.
Pettus said his peers often spoke of the "weird things you could find at the Equadome," including burnt candles, pentagrams, and strange splashes of dark red on the floors.
"No one was quite sure if it was blood or not," Pettus said.
McGuire said police during the 1980s and early 1990s found a lot of "Satanic scribbling" on the graffiti-covered walls, including "666" and phrases praising Satan.
"We found some remains of animals that may have been used in some type of ritual, but for the most part we believe this was basically kids trying to imitate Satanic rituals," McGuire said.
According to a Dec. 23, 1988 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, sheriff's deputies arrested three armed men who said they were searching for cultists who intended to offer a human sacrifice at the water plant. The men claimed to be former devil worshippers.
But McGuire said the Satanic cult stories have been blown out of proportion.
"Most of the cult activity we saw in St. Charles County was a fad that teens were doing, just like it was later the `in thing' to act like you were in a gang," McGuire said.
The Rev. Ronald E. Beery, 40, said he sensed something very real during the five times he explored the Equadome between 1983 and 1995.
"I got horrible vibes from that place," said Beery, of St. Charles. "The first time I stepped foot in the place, I got nauseous. I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. Every hair on my body stood on end like I'd walked into an electrical field. I got goose bumps all over. It was a very unsettling feeling."
Beery is a nondenominational minister through the Universal Life Church in California. He has performed several building "exorcisms," ridding a home or business of what seems to be a troublesome spirit. Beery said he did not try to cast any spirits from the Equadome, but he did try to "fill the place up with positive energy."
"It's a huge task," he said. "It left me drained on many occasions because it was just so negative there. There was something out there and it was scary."
"I saw a dead cat who had been mutilated lying on top of a square pillar. There was melted wax on top of the pillar like it had been used as an altar with candles burning on top," Beery said. "When I saw that, that was the last time I ever went out there."
Pettus visited the Equadome for his first and only time when he was 22 years old.
"It was announced that the government would finally be bulldozing the compound, so I thought it was important to go out there and see it at least once before it was gone," Pettus said.
"It was a much more complex structure than I was expecting multiple buildings with multiple floors, many subbasements, all of them miraculously standing even after all these years," he said. "The most immediate feeling I got was simply a remembrance of how hard it is to find places to call you own when you're a teen, of how young people have been seeking out places like this since the beginning of time."
Pettus constructed a Web page about his Equadome visit, at www.jasonpettus.com/photos/equa.htm.
Retired engineer Karl Daubel visited the Equadome for the fist time in 1988. Daubel worked at the ordnance site from then until 1999 as part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to decontaminate the area.
"It was evident when I arrived for the cleanup project that there was activity down there," Daubel said. "From what I could tell, most of it was just spray painting. There were paintings all over the place of automobiles, crazy line markings, zigzag patterns, squares, people's names. I may have seen stuff and not realized what it was."
Today, Daubel works at the U.S. Department of Energy's Interpretive Center, educating visitors about the history of the ordnance works and the adjacent uranium processing plant. He was on hand in 1998, when the Corps hired a contractor to demolish the water plant.
"They just moved over about a foot and set back down. The lime towers were well built, with enforcing rods and thick concrete. One tower took three blasts to topple over."
Like a movie monster, the undead structure absorbed hit after hit, withstanding explosions that would have toppled any normal building. According to news reports at the time, one tower stood even after its bottom was blown out. Finally, the Equadome's remaining structure fell over and died. In its place, the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department built its Law Enforcement Training Center.
But the sinister water plant still lingers in those who explored its dark corridors or grew up with the even darker urban mythology surrounding it.
"It was quite a strange building, not like anything else you're used to seeing," McGuire said. "We are glad that place is gone."
This story was originally published in the Suburban Journals of St. Charles County, Oct. 29, 2003. Used with permission.