How does an old bridge, obsolete and at one time abandoned for 30 years, manage to draw 40,000 visitors every year? For some, it’s the allure of history. For others, it’s about nature. And still others — cycling, running, and walking.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, which closed to automobile traffic in 1970, is part of Route 66, crossing the Mississippi River about 12 miles north of downtown St. Louis. It’s now under the management of Great Rivers Greenway, which plans to make several upgrades to the grounds during 2023 to improve safety and allow more events.
No doubt the changes will be appreciated. The bridge lures Route 66 fans from all over the world wanting to glimpse a piece of Americana that harkens back to the early days of car travel, before interstates were built to bypass small towns.
Locals enjoy the mile-long bridge, too. Families flock there to watch eagles soar and dive for fish during winter migration. Cyclists pedal and runners pace the Riverfront Trail, using the bridge to connect to the Madison County Transit trails system in Illinois. Car enthusiasts come for classic car shows.
None of this would be possible were it not for the nonprofit Trailnet partnering with the City of St. Louis and others in the 1990s on the planning and construction of the Riverfront Trail. Planners realized that the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge could provide cyclists and pedestrians a safe, traffic-free crossing over the Mississippi.
Trailnet raised $5 million to restore the bridge and make it safe for use. The bridge reopened in 1999, and the organization managed it under a long-term lease from the City of Madison, Illinois. In 2014, Trailnet transferred the lease to Great Rivers Greenway.
Improvements on the Way
With funding from sales tax revenue, donations, and grants — including $990,000 from the National Park Service — Great Rivers Greenway will be adding two ADA-accessible Porta Potties, drinking fountains, and a picnic pavilion. A paved parking lot, fencing, a gated entrance with staff on site during peak hours, lighting, and surveillance cameras will be added.
The safety measures are being taken to reduce an ongoing problem of car vandalism.
The group is also restoring wetlands and woodlands in the 16-acre park for wildlife including migratory birds. Artwork reflecting the Mississippi bird flyway and river geology will be installed.
On its website, the National Park Service calls the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge “one of the more interesting bridges in America. It’s hard to forget a 30-degree turn midway across a mile-long bridge more than 60 feet above the mighty Mississippi.”
It’s actually a 22-degree bend, but still, pretty unique.
The bridge is named for a series of rock ledges just under the water’s surface that made this stretch of the Mississippi dangerous for barge and boat traffic. In 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers built a canal to allow boat operators to bypass the “chain of rocks.” In 1964, it added a low-water dam to raise the water level to allow boats to travel through.
No longer an overpass with no purpose, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is now a much-loved part of Route 66 that serves tourists, birders, bikers, and more. By 2024, it will offer an even better experience, thanks to Great Rivers Greenway and its numerous partners behind the renovation project.
NOTE: The parking lot on the Missouri side of the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge will remain closed during renovation, but access to the bridge is available from Illinois. To get to the bridge, take I-270 and exit at IL Route 3, go south to Chain of Rocks Road and follow it west to the bridge entrance parking area.
Fun Facts About the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge
- The movie “Escape from New York” featuring Kurt Russell was filmed here in 1980. The abandoned bridge and crumbling, vacant lots perfectly represented a post-apocalyptic Manhattan.
- Volunteer “bridge keepers” unlock the gates on both sides of the bridge every morning, and Madison, Illinois, employees lock them every evening.
- An amusement park opened next to the bridge in the 1930s and drew tourists as well as local families and school picnics. It closed in 1977.
- In the 1970s, the Army planned to blow up the bridge for tactical practice and sell the scrap metal, but the market plummeted, and the plan was canceled.
- During the winter eagle watching season, visitors to the bridge can spot dozens of eagles in nearby trees and in flight.
Author: Terri Waters is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.