66 Through St. Louis: Chain of Rocks Bridge

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting Route 66 stops of interest through St. Louis. We encourage you to learn more about their history and then check them out in person. Even better, snap some photos and share them with us on Twitter and Instagram by using #ShowMe66 and tagging @mohistorymuseum.

St. Louis was the largest city on Route 66 between its ends in Chicago and Los Angeles, and traveling the highway through it was a different experience than traveling the highway through smaller towns and cities. St. Louis had endless choices, beginning with which Route 66 to take. The highway split into different paths through and around the city, and five different Mississippi River bridges would carry it at various times. The Chain of Rocks Bridge is easily the most well known of the five. It carried Route 66 from 1936 to 1955 and the 66 Bypass from 1955 to 1965.

In 1927 brothers John and Tom Scott chartered a new toll bridge near the Chain of Rocks Waterworks. Two years and more than $2 million later, the Chain of Rocks Bridge opened. The bridge’s most distinctive feature is its “dogleg”—a sharp, 22-degree bend halfway across the river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demanded the bridge’s main span face the river head-on to avoid hindering boat navigation, so it bent to land on the bridge builders’ property on both sides of the river. The Chain of Rocks Bridge opened in July 1929, and the City of Madison, Illinois, quickly made profits from the tolls. Beginning in 1936, when Route 66 was rerouted over the bridge, profits soared.

Sepia-toned photo of the Chain of Rocks BridgeThe Chain of Rocks Bridge in 1929, the year it opened. Missouri Historical Society collections.

The Chain of Rocks crossing took Route 66 travelers on a wide path around the northwest side of St. Louis, entering the city at the bridge and looping around Lambert Airport and the inner suburbs before reconnecting with Watson Road in southwest St. Louis. In addition, a stretch connecting the Chain of Rocks Bridge and downtown was named the 66 City Connector.

Crossing the bridge became a memorable experience for Route 66 travelers. On the Missouri side was a landscaped drive and rest area, but the real draw waited at the top of the cliff overlooking the bridge. Up through the mid-1970s, travelers could stop in at the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park for a penny arcade, carousel, swimming pool, a ride nicknamed the Whip (which flung riders in circles), and the Comet roller coaster.

The bridge posed an enormous safety problem during World War II as civilian city traffic and military trucks clogged its narrow lanes. Its bold red color was also an issue during these nervous years. Desiring the bridge to be less visible in case of airborne attack, the War Department ordered it repainted its now well-known green color.

Photo of the bend in the Chain of Rocks BridgeThe 22-degree bend in the Chain of Rocks Bridge. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After the creation of the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1956, the Chain of Rocks Bridge was one of dozens of bridges on Missouri’s stretch of Route 66 that would soon find itself without much traffic. Ten years later, the new Interstate 270 bridge was finished just upriver, carrying passengers across the Mississippi toll free. Traffic on the Chain of Rocks immediately disappeared, and the bridge closed in 1970. With toll revenue gone and upkeep costs ever growing, it seemed the bridge wouldn’t be around much longer. Its saving grace was the huge expense to tear it down—although the army did briefly consider blowing it up for practice.

But much like Route 66 itself, the Chain of Rocks Bridge found new life. Today, it’s not cars and trucks you find on the bridge but bicycles. That's because Trailnet saw an opportunity to connect hundreds of miles of bike paths on both sides of the Mississippi River, and in 1999 the organization transformed the Chain of Rocks into a bicycle and pedestrian bridge. Six years later the Chain of Rocks Bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

—Andrew Wanko, Public Historian

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