The company covered the canal and in 1953 sold it for one dollar to city officials. The deed warned of the dangers and included a disclaimer against future liability. An elementary school was built on the perimeter and by 1978 about 800 homes and 240 low-income apartments sprang up around it.
Residents say they were never told about the chemicals -- a brew so deadly it burned through its drums. After the record blizzard of 1977, melting snow raised the water table and toxins began erupting in residents' backyards.
Their school was equally contaminated. Children returned from recess in sludge-covered clothing with blackened burns on their hands. They scoured the grounds for "hot rocks" that, when thrown against a hard playground, sparked and once reportedly caught a child's pants on fire.
One spring after a heavy snow melt, a swimming pool literally popped up from the ground, surrounded by a "sea of chemicals," according to the EPA, and the air had a "faint choking smell."
Early surveys showed 56 percent of the children had a birth defect, and mothers had a 300 percent jump in miscarriages. In one family, a girl was born deaf and with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth and slight retardation. Her brother had an eye defect.
Michelle Brown Skiba, a soft-spoken blond who works as a librarian at Niagara University, remembers playing in the "black muck" at Love Canal. As a child, she developed rheumatoid arthritis and had a growth removed from her knee.
She also never developed her second teeth. "All my friends had the same thing," she told ABCNews.com.
Skiba says her mother had six miscarriages before the family left when she was 12. Both her parents died nine years ago -- two days apart -- one from cancer and the other from a diabetes-related heart condition that was diagnosed at Love Canal.
Now 42 and married, Skiba said she had decided never to have children. "In the back of my mind, I didn't know what the future would bring."
It was Lois Gibbs, then a young mother and president of the homeowners association, who took action. She couldn't understand why her two children had an array of illnesses: epilepsy, asthma and urinary tract infections.
Her neighbor lost a 5-year-old to a kidney disease, and many others, like Retton's and Skiba's mothers, had miscarriages and stillbirths.
A newspaper article tipped her off to the presence of chemical waste and she organized a door-to-door campaign that brought national attention to the disaster. Eventually, she founded the Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ), where she now serves as executive director.
"There should be no more health studies, they've only created anxiety and frustration," said Gibbs, now 60, who wants Love Canal to serve as a "living laboratory" to help clean up 1,400 other Superfund sites across the country.
In 2004, the EPA removed Love Canal from its Superfund list, a list that was created in response to the Love Canal disaster.
"There is a misconception that it's been cleaned up, but there's still 20,000 tons of chemicals and no one has taken a single barrel out," she told ABCNews.com. "The waste that leaked into the soil is still there."
The dump has been capped and two treatment plants were built to catch contaminants, but critics say another big storm could unearth the chemicals anew.