While planning our trip to the Southwestern U.S., we knew the journey was to be enjoyed. It seemed like the logical thing was to drive rather quickly to St. Louis and then meander our way west. We had already visited all the states east of the Mississippi in our Roadtrek, now was the time to visit the west. We thought following old Route 66 to the Grand Canyon would be a great adventure.
So we started researching the route – which today is a variety of minor roads and frontage roads near the interstate highways that replaced it. Many places it has “Historic Route 66 signs.” The route changed over the years, especially in the St. Louis area. One of the St. Louis realignments was over a bridge named the Chain of Rocks Bridge. This bridge was unique because it had a 22-degree bend in the middle of it. It was built in 1929 and saw its last car in 1970. But it was reborn in 1998 as a pedestrian and bicycle bridge and now is part of a network of bike trails in the St. Louis area. As bicyclists, we thought that riding across the Mississippi would be a wonderful start to our Route 66 adventure. At 5,353 feet it may be the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge in the world.
The name “chain of rocks” comes from a long series of underwater ledges in the Mississippi River that made navigation upstream from St Louis quite dangerous. The bend in the bridge is there to allow safe navigation. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a canal and lock was built to bypass the “chain of rocks” area of the Mississippi. And a low dam just below the Chain of Rocks Bridge keeps the water high enough that the “chain of rocks” upstream is not visible unless the water level is very low.
St. Louis drew its drinking water from the Mississippi River. The city grew larger and the new metropolis constructed two water intakes just below the Chain of Rocks Bridge. For the 1904 Exposition the city advertised: crystal clear drinking water. Today, however, the water is muddy brown from the silt laden Missouri River whose confluence with the Mississippi is about two miles upstream from the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The water intakes are two interesting castle like structures in the river.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge was 24-feet wide by one mile long, made of structural steel. A toll of five cents let you drive across, later increasing to twenty-five cents. Cars had to stop if a truck was part way in the opposite lane at a 22° bend in the middle. It was in the late 1930s that the bridge became part of the Route 66 bypass of downtown St Louis. The McKinley Bridge still carried Route 66 traffic into downtown.
Today travelers heading west can reach the Chain of Rocks hike/bike bridge by turning north from I-70 on I-270. The Madison exit leads to Chain Of Rocks Road, past several “road closed; except for local traffic” barricade, and crosses a one-lane bridge over the big Chain of Rocks Canal where towboats and barges churn, and dead ends at a parking lot just before the east end of the bike bridge. Here we unloaded our bikes from our front rack of our Roadtrek. Several historical plaques tell the story of the bridge. You ride west climbing to the level span. You see the Chain of Rocks low dam clearly stretching across the river as a falls. Two water intakes are like tiny quaint castles off the left side of the bridge. Breathtaking views are on both sides, up and down the Mississippi. You can just see the top of the St. Louis Arch looking south.
In the middle of the second span after the bend is an old Route 66 exhibit of old signs. The span heads down grade to the Missouri bank. The parking lot there has been barricaded except for special events due to vandalism, so it is better to start your bike trip on the Illinois end of the bridge. A weatherproof outdoor historic photo gallery is on the Missouri side. We met a cyclist who bikes 10 miles most days on a vast set of paved bicycle trails on both sides of the river. You don’t need to be a cyclist to enjoy the Chain of Rocks Bridge — we saw half-a-dozen walkers who were admiring the views, the history, and the exercise.