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Chain of Rocks Bridge
Chain of Rocks Bridge is 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. For more than three decades, the bridge was a significant landmark for travelers driving Route 66.
The bridge’s colorful name came from a 17-mile shoal, or series of rocky rapids, called the Chain of Rocks beginning just north of St. Louis. Multiple rock ledges just under the surface made this stretch of the Mississippi River extremely dangerous to navigate. In the 1960s, the Corps of Engineers built a low-water dam covering the Chain of Rocks. That’s why you can’t see them today. Back in 1929, at the time of the construction of the bridge, the Chain was a serious concern for boatmen.
A massive undertaking in its day, the Chain of Rocks Bridge had a projected cost of $1,250,000. The bridge was to be a straight, 40-foot wide roadway with five trusses forming 10 spans. Massive concrete piers standing 55 feet above the high-water mark were to support the structure. Plans called for a four-mile fill along the road leading to the bridge’s north end.
Construction started on both sides of the river simultaneously in 1927, and the piers were complete by August of 1928. A grand opening was planned for New Year’s Day 1929. The Mississippi River had other plans. Floods and ice slowed the work, and the Chain of Rocks Bridge finally opened to traffic in July of 1929.
Then, as now, actual expenditures for construction often exceed projected costs. Chain of Rocks Bridge cost just over $2.5 million--twice its original estimate. Fortunately, the public got its money’s worth. The bridge had beautifully landscaped approaches. A park-like setting around a pool and a large, ornate toll booth anchored the Missouri end. On the Illinois side, 400 elm trees lined the approach. The bridge brought travelers into St. Louis by way of the picturesque Chain of Rocks amusement park on the Missouri hills overlooking the river. On a clear day, crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge was a real pleasure. That pleasure became an official part of the Route 66 experience in 1936, when the highway was rerouted over the bridge.
During World War II, Chain of Rock’s colorful red sections had to be painted green to make the bridge less visible from the air. At the same time, wartime gas rationing reduced traffic. To offset these costs, the City of Madison increased bridge tolls to 35 cents per car, with an additional five cents per passenger—a fee structure that sets on its head today’s system of special high-speed lanes reserved for cars carrying more, not fewer, people.
Today you might say that the Chain of Rocks Bridge has completed a historic cycle. Built at the beginning of America’s love affair with the automobile, it is now a reflection of America’s desire not to ride in cars so often. During the 1980s, greenways and pedestrian corridors became increasingly popular, and a group called Trailnet began cleanup and restoration of the bridge. Linked to more than 300 miles of trails on both sides of the river, the old Chain of Rocks Bridge reopened to the public as part of the Route 66 Bikeway in 1999.
Because the bridge has not been significantly altered over the years, a visit there today conveys a strong sense of time and place, an appreciation for early-20th-century bridge construction, and outstanding views of the wide Mississippi River. The Chain of Rocks Bridge was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.