Route 66: Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

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What better place to begin a road trip down historic Route 66, than at the bridge where the Mother Road crossed the Mississippi?  Okay, Chicago would be better, since that’s where the Route officially started.  But I didn’t have time to drive 66 end to end, so I had instead opted to take a big chunk out of the middle, beginning in St. Louis.  As soon as I arrived, I headed here, to officially begin the Old 66 tour.

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is just south of the modern I-270 bridge over the Mississippi.  You can access the bridge from either the Missouri or Illinois side.  On the Missouri side, take exit 34 (Riverview Drive) and head south.  On the Illinois side, take exit 3A, then take the first right onto Chain of Rocks Road (signed as Historic 66 Spur, if I remember correctly). 

I first tried to access the Chain of Rocks Bridge from the Missouri side, but barricades blocked the entrance to the parking lot.  A guide at the nearby rest area/welcome center said the parking lot had been closed due to vandalism. (Trailnet, the organization that maintains the bridge, reports that the Illinois parking lot is open on select weekends.)  So, I headed into Illinois to access the bridge’s eastern side.

As you drive Chain of Rocks Road, you cross another old bridge (cut down to one lane, plus a bicycle lane) which crosses the navigational channel that allows ships to pass by the “chain of rocks” that form some rapids on the Mississippi.  Then, the road runs for a couple more miles over Chouteau Island (mostly uninhabited).  If you’re starting your own Route 66 adventure here, this will be your first taste of the old road’s old surface.

The Chain of Rocks Bridge is 5,353 feet long, making it one of the world’s longest pedestrian and bicycle bridges.

After locking my car, then double- and triple-checking to make sure it really was locked, I set off across the bridge.  This would be a good place for car thieves or vandals to strike, since no one else is around, and it’s fairly obvious that you won’t be back quickly.  On this cold March day, I was all alone out here, so I hoped for the best, and started walking.

The bridge is a real treat.  As you begin, the bridge crosses a swampy forest, then breaks free of the trees, and you’re standing over Big Muddy. (This Historic Missouri 66 sign was improperly placed on the Illinois side, for some reason.)

Technically, it was Bypass 66 that crossed the Mississippi River using the Chain of Rocks Bridge (from 1936 until 1967, when the I-270 bridge was completed).  City 66 crossed the river over the MacArthur Bridge (which is now only used for rail traffic).

When you reach the middle of the bridge, there’s a creatively designed bicycle rack marking the dividing line between states…

… complete with US 66 road sign cutouts…

… and a Missouri 66 shield painted on the concrete.  This is the only place I saw a 66 shield painted on the road surface in Missouri (the next place I saw one was at the Kansas state line).

For some reason, there’s an antique fire truck parked in the middle of the bridge.  It appeared to, at one time, have some switches to possibly sound a horn or turn on the lights, but these have been vandalized.  The old truck still makes for a good picture, though.

Just beyond, you reach the point that makes the Chain of Rocks Bridge famous: it’s 22-degree bend.  The abrupt turn was apparently necessary for river navigation.  It’s hard to imagine cars navigating the turn successfully, especially since the curved portion isn’t any wider than the rest of the road.

Just south of the bridge, you’ll notice a couple of intake towers in the middle of the river, and in the distance, the skyline of St. Louis (including a view of the Arch, which is not quite visible in this picture, but you can see it in person).

Most of the graffiti and vandalism on the bridge appears to come from the days before the bridge was used as a walking/bike trail.  In fact, some of the old markings left behind are downright quirky, in a historic kind of way.  For example, I don’t know any modern-day gang member who would tag a bridge with the word “Drugs”.  How corny!  Other historic etchings included “Beer”, “Satan”, and “Fleetwood Mac”.  You’d take a beating in any self-respecting modern-day gang for leaving such lame tags.

Marvin from Joplin writes: Some of that graffiti is from the filming of the Kurt Russell movie “Escape From New York”. Many of the bridge scenes in that movie were shot on the bridge.

During the decades between the bridge’s decommission for traffic, and its new life as a pedestrian bridge, the bridge was home to much bigger miscreants than mere graffiti-marking punks.  In 1991, two sisters were raped, then pushed off the bridge.  Both died–one of their bodies was never found. 

I’m pleased to say that my car was safe and sound when I arrived back at the parking area, on the Illinois side of the bridge.

Driving back into civilization along Chain of Rocks Road, I saw the first of many, many old, rusting, broken neon signs that are a trademark of old Route 66.  The Twin Oaks gas station may be long gone…

… but a nearby motel (complete with TV!) is still hanging in there, although it looked a bit funky from the outside.

Before hitting St. Louis and heading west on 66, I had a couple more things to see in Illinois.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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