Walk Route 66 Over the Mississippi on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
One of the most unique and longest pedestrian bridges in the world can be found just north of downtown St. Louis. This bridge allows you to get your kicks on Route 66 in two different states. The old Chain of Rocks Bridge was completed in 1929 and spans the Mississippi River between Missouri and Illinois. The main feature that sets this bridge apart is that there is 22-degree bend midway across the mile long span.
When construction began on the Missouri side, a suitable bedrock foundation could not be located to match up on the Illinois side. There were also concerns about the bridge impeding navigation on the river as riverboat pilots already had to navigate around two water intake towers in this stretch. The solution for both problems was to make the bridge bend.
The span was named for a series of rock ledges known as the “Chain of Rocks” that created dangerous rapids for navigation in this stretch of river. In the 1950s the Corp of Engineers built a canal to bypass these hazards. This was followed by a construction of a low water dam covering the Chain of Rocks so that they can no longer be seen today.
The bridge opened as a toll bridge but failed to draw much traffic after opening until Route 66 was rerouted to cross over the bridge in 1936. When the newer I-270 bridge opened just north of the bridge in 1967, the old river bridge was soon closed to traffic. For almost 30 years the bridge sat to rust in limbo. Army demolition teams considered blowing up the deteriorating structure just for practice. However, the dropping price of scrap steel ended up saving the bridge. It became too expensive to tear down and not worth the price of scrap.
In 1980, film director John Carpenter used the gritty bridge as a site for the 69th street bridge in his film, Escape from New York. The bridge also became a site for crime and violence. However, when bike trail development started to take hold in the 1980s and 90s, the bridge was able to be brought back to use. A local trails group known as Trailnet, raised funds to restore the bridge and lease it as a connection to the St. Louis Riverfront Trail and Illinois’s Madison County Trail system. In 2006, the bridge was added to the National Historic Register.
Today, the easiest access to the bridge is located at a lot on the Illinois side. At one time 400 elm trees were planted here to beautify the bridge approach. Today, visitors are greeted with a kiosk that provides some history and information on the bridge’s connection to Route 66. Push the button on the kiosk for a little music to enhance your visit.
From the Illinois side, the bridge first passes over a wooded area and some wetlands. Depending on the water level, this area below the bridge may even be flooded.
Soon the river comes into view. Off to your left you can see two historic water intake towers that date to 1894 and 1915. Full time crews worked at the towers through the 1920s. (You can see a rare look inside one of the towers here.) The nearby Chain of Rocks Water Treatment Facility was established in 1894 and remains in use today. It’s may be hard to believe by looking at the muddy Mississippi water source, but St. Louis has won awards for having the best tasting tap water.
Just downstream of the towers, you can may see what looks like a small waterfall in the river. Visible only during low water, this is the location of the low water dam built by the Corps. During the winter months, the rapids are a popular spot for eagles. An Eagle Days festival is even held on the bridge with heated tents, spotting scopes, and other activities.
Soon past the towers, you come to the bend of the bridge. It’s hard to imagine driving across this bridge at night and navigating this curve. Or trying to take the narrow turn with an oncoming truck approaching.
As you get closer to the Missouri side, there is a display of an old gas pump and Route 66 sign plus a couple benches to take a break.
Looking off into the background, you can even spot the Gateway Arch from here.
When you make it over to the Missouri side, there is a rest area with a portable toliet and picnic tables. From here the bike trail continues south along the riverfront all the way past the Arch. At one time, an amusement park even operated on the Missouri side.
Retrace your steps back across the bridge to complete the 2 mile walk. If you want to add on to our walk, various hiking trails can be found on Choteau Island. The trails depart from the same parking area on the Illinois side.
Things to know:
There is a parking area at both bridge approaches, however the Missouri one is closed. Car break-ins were common on the Missouri side due to easy access. The Illinois side seems to fare better, but do not leave valuables in your vehicle.
The Illinois lot is located at 4205 Chain of Rocks Rd, Granite City, IL 62040. You will first drive over the canal bridge which is one way with a stoplight before arriving at the Chain of Rocks lot. Other than the restroom on the Missouri side, there are no facilities.