Chain of Rocks Bridge: Crossing the Mississippi on Route 66

Chain of Rocks Bridge

Cruising along the infamous Route 66, you would expect a smooth crossing over the Mississippi on the Chain of Rocks Bridge. But, for over 30 years, drivers had the pleasure of navigating a 30-degree bend halfway across and 60 feet above the mighty Mississippi, which made this one of the most impressive bridges in America and a significant landmark along Route 66. Now, it is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world at 5,353 feet.

How did the Chain of Rocks Bridge get its NameRocky Rapids of the Mississippi River

The name for the bridge came from the 17-mile part of the Mississippi River that contains a series of rocky ledges that made this section of the river extremely dangerous to navigate through. After 1940, there was only one impediment preventing boat captains from safely navigating from St. Paul, Minnesota, to New Orleans. This was the Chain of Rocks. At the end of the 1940s to the beginning of the 1950s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a canal (8.4 miles) to bypass this section of the river. And in the 1960s, the Corp of Engineers built a low-water dam to cover the Chain of Rocks. So, the rapids you see today are minimal of what it was like back in 1929. The Illinois scenic view point for the Chain of Rocks Bridge and Mississippi River

History of Chain of Rocks BridgeChain of Rocks Bridge spanning the Mississippi River

The one-mile bridge was supposed to be a straight shot across the river with five trusses, creating ten spans, 40-ft wide connecting Madison, Illinois, with the north portion of St. Louis, Missouri. But, protests from the riverboat captains detailing the treacherous conditions navigating the massive concrete piers and the water intake towers made them change the plans, and the bridge was to bend. Construction finished late (was supposed to be Jan 1929) due to the river flooding, and the private toll bridge opened in July 1929.

Route 66 was officially designated to go over this bridge in 1936. During World War II, the toll was raised to 35 cents per car and with an additional five cents per passenger. This money was to pay for the painting of the red sections to green to make them less visible from the air and to offset the costs due to wartime rationing of gas, which reduced traffic. Even though driving over the bridge was a highlight of drivers going to St. Louis, they had to pay a toll to cross it until 1966.

The Chain of Rocks Bridge crossing was a milestone for long-distance travelers. Four hundred Elm trees lined the approach to the bridge on the Illinois side. And there were brightly lit restaurants and motels that sprang up along the river bank to welcome the weary and hungry travelers. Plus, on the Missouri side, there was the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park for the families to stop and visit.

One thing I always noticed when I crossed the Mississippi River is the beautiful towers by the bridge in the water. I didn’t know at the time that they were water intake towers for the Chain of Rocks pumping station. One of them is reminiscent of Gothic Revival architecture, and the other looks like it has Roman and German influences.

Water intake near Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Decline of Route 66 over the Chain of RocksWelcome to Route 66 Illinois Sign

As in everything, the world updates around you, and this was no exception. Over the 50 year history, Route 66 had five different locations that crossed the Mississippi River. And with increasing traffic, this forced the highway to larger bridges for safety and convenience. A new-bridge for highway I-270 was created only 2,000 feet north of the old one in 1967, which led to the closure of the original the year after. For three decades, the future of the bridge has been in limbo. It was once set to be destroyed by the Army, but costs were too high for demolition. It was also deemed too expensive to tear down, too narrow and outdated to carry modern vehicles. The only thing left for the abandoned bridge was to be taken up by a group that promotes trails and pedestrian walkways.

In the 1980s, Trailnet began cleanup and restoration of the bridge to link it to over 300 trails on both sides of the bridge. Trailnet received the lease for the bridge in 1998. And the bridge re-opened as part of the Route 66 Bikeway in 1999. Now, as there is a resurgence for a green lifestyle, the bridge has a new life for pedestrian and cycling use.

How to Get to Chain of Rocks BridgeEntrance to Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

I have driven over the new bridge for years and saw the old one and forever wondered how to get over there from the Illinois side. I would see vehicles parked on the side of the bridge and people fishing, but couldn’t fathom how they got there. On one of my trips to St. Louis to see family, I had some extra time and decided to figure out the mystery.

When crossing over the new bridge on I-270, I took the first exit IL-3 and went south. You will need to make a right onto West Chain of Rocks road. Now, this is where it gets confusing. You have to cross over the one-lane bridge that goes over the canal, but you have to wait for the signal. The trick, though, is to creep up close to the signal to get it to activate. I sat there like a dummy for a while until someone pulled up behind me and got out and told me what to do. Keep taking that road until you see the parking lot for the bridge. There is a parking lot on the Missouri side as well, but I haven’t tried that yet.

Note: The National Park Service recommends for you not to leave valuables in your car as there has been vandalism in the past. I did not have any issue leaving my car in the lot during the time it took to explore the bridge and the scenic area.Man fishing by the Mississippi River

SummaryThe 30-degree bend in the Chain of Rocks Bridge

If you enjoy road trips as much as I do, the Chain of Rocks Bridge should be on your list to stop and check it out. There are some fantastic views of the Mississippi River, and you can even see the Arch downstream, all while appreciating early-20th-century bridge construction. Plus, the Chain of Rocks Bridge became registered on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. Sometimes all it takes is a little detour to a new area, and you can find some incredible scenery!

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Further Reading

If you are coming to the U.S. midwest for a visit, check out these posts for further travel inspiration:

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