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For Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, A Fascinating Past And A Hopeful Future

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Elizabeth Simons of Great Rivers Greenway points toward the bend along the Old Chain Of Rocks Bridge, located about 10 miles north of downtown St. Louis.

Sharon Smith has probably spent more time than most people imagining cars and trucks narrowly zipping past each other as they crossed the Mississippi River on the narrow bridge known as Old Chain of Rocks.

Now part of the Mississippi Greenway, the bridge today is limited to cyclist and pedestrian traffic. In its heyday, though, it was part of Route 66 — and became a particular point of interest for Smith. Curator of civic and personal identity for the Missouri Historical Society, Smith organized the Missouri History Museum’s 2016 Route 66 exhibit.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Recently announced federal grant funding will allow Great Rivers Greenway to make major enhancements to the grounds just west of the bridge over the course of the next year.

“The thing that fascinated me when I was first doing the research and got to walk on that bridge was that huge curve in the middle of it,” Smith told St. Louis on the Air.

“Curve” is putting it mildly: Partway across the Big Muddy, the bridge makes an abrupt bend — an unusual construction feature that various stakeholders pushed for at the time of the bridge’s completion in the late 1920s. For the drivers who navigated its skinny two lanes for decades, that pivot proved to be a challenge. Crashes were common along the bridge, which Smith estimates to be about 24 feet wide.

While that width might not have been a problem in the early days of automobiles, by the middle of the 20th century, vehicles were bigger — and faster.

“There’s a lot more tractor-trailers, there’s camping vehicles, all of those things,” Smith explained in conversation with host Sarah Fenske. “There’s a great story of [how] two vacation-home type vehicles met at the bend. And they both stopped, and they literally stood there and looked at each other and all this other traffic is building up, and a couple [other] motorists got out and literally just helped each one of them inch forward enough. … They had an inch of clearance and got them through. And traffic had backed up for like an hour.”

The bridge led to a popular destination in that era, as Route 66 travelers crossed from Illinois into the Show-Me State.

sharon smith 1 2019.jpg
Missouri Historical Society
Sharon Smith is curator of civic and personal identity for the Missouri Historical Society.

“One of the first things [travelers would see] would have been this amusement park on top of the bluffs,” Smith said.

In 1968, the bridge closed, about a year after the new Chain of Rocks Bridge opened just north, carrying Interstate 270. (The amusement park closed, too, a victim of Six Flags’ entrance to the local scene.) In the 1970s, Old Chain of Rocks was considered for demolition.

But as Great Rivers Greenway’s Elizabeth Simons explained, the price of scrap metal was then so low, the bridge wound up just sitting there instead — until Trailnet, a local bike and pedestrian advocacy organization, began preparing it for its current chapter: a go-to place in St. Louis urban core to enjoy the great outdoors.

And its future is even looking brighter: Great Rivers Greenway was recently awarded a $990,000 grant from a National Park Service program to significantly improve the grounds that sit just west of Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, on its Missouri side.

“People want to connect with each other when they’re here,” Simons, community program manager for Great Rivers, said of the community's priorities for the project. “They want to connect with their natural surroundings. They want to connect with the community at large. We heard that community members really want to focus on safety and security, conserving the natural resources that are here, and providing amenities for both daily use and special events.

“So whether folks want to come over to walk their dog, have a picnic or just come to a large community festival, we want to make sure that this is a great place to do all those things.”

A New Chapter For Old Chain Of Rocks Bridge
Listen as host Sarah Fenske hears from a bridge volunteer and callers as well as representatives from Great Rivers Greenway and the Missouri Historical Society.

Gretchen Meyer was at the bridge late last week, tidying up the Missouri-side entrance ahead of a classic car event that took place there over the weekend. Her family has lived near Old Chain of Rocks for 99 years now, and the bridge has always been special to her.

“I’ve walked this bridge since they reopened it as a trail and observed [it], and it changes every day,” said Meyer, who recently started volunteering as a bridge keeper. “Just watching the river’s sandbars come and go. I watched an eagle teach her young one to fish. I’ve seen a momma and a baby deer swim across that river.

“I had to walk and follow them the whole way to make sure they made it,” she continued, laughing. “I don’t know how I was going to help, other than emotional support. It’s just a really special thing to me, just to be able to watch it. … There isn’t barge traffic, there isn’t industry — you can just look at the river.”

Smith, who has walked the full length of the bridge several times in recent years, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a fantastic space just to clear your head and be with the river in a way that I think people right now — we really need that, right? We really need that so much these days.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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