In 1956, a thirty year old Delores Reagin and her friend Dorothy Scholz hit the road from Milwaukee to Santa Ana, California. At least that’s what she says in her memoirs, It’s Raining By the Mound. She calls it a “natural sense of Wanderlust.”
Sadly my Grandma Dolores doesn’t go much into detail about the journey, but knowing her, I imagine there were many hours of sight seeing, periods of amazement at the beauty of our country, and plenty of photo opportunities. Dolores was known for telling stories but one story she never told me was her experience crossing the Chain of Rocks Bridge on Route 66 across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.
The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is hardly the most breathtaking site on Route 66, but I spotted it in my new book “Missouri’s Natural Wonders Guide Book” by Don Kurz and we just had to check it out ourselves. We had tried three times previously to make it to the bridge, but unfortunately the boys had other plans. Once we ended up in Elsah, another it was just too rainy or windy to get the boys out of the car (though never too rainy or windy for a Sunday Drive! In fact, we once almost got stuck in the mud just south of St. Genevieve trying to find a place where Illinois intrudes onto the west side of the river. Turns out that was around Christmas that the 500 year flood started closing all of the roads back into St. Louis County. More on that in another post) and the third time there may have been some vomit involved. (I will let you figure out whose.) After three tries, we finally made it and it did not disappoint.
The entrance to the park has a very long bridge. (This is quite thrilling for Clarence. He was almost more excited about this bridge than the one we came to see.) And after a short drive, a small parking lot with a welcoming sign which plays a recording of that old classic “Route 66” song every time you press the button. (Clarence tested this, and tested it, and tested it once again just to be sure.) At this point I was ready to get walking because I wanted to get on the bridge and see the eagles I had heard nested there in the later winter.
Thanks to our unusually warm winter, the eagles decided not to roost there this year. But had it been a colder day, I’m told we would see lots of fish jumping over the rapids which give this area the name “Chain of Rocks” and these fish attract hundreds of Seagulls and Eagles (and beagles and… wait I can’t think of anything else that rhymes.) There is a shallow ledge (the Chain of Rocks) which stretches north about 12 miles to Alton, IL. This made shipping nearly impossible until they built the Chain of Rocks Canal and later the Low Water River Dam #27 in the 1940s and 1950s.
The bridge is closed to traffic and is now one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world.
They don’t tell you this when you start walking, but the bridge is roughly twice as long as a toddler’s legs will allow him to walk. This leads to a solid mile of carrying an anvil on your shoulders, but an anvil that keeps leaning, wiggling, and making you lose your balance. You probably should bring one along to have the full experience.
About half way through the bridge there is a slight 22 Degree turn. If you look out at this point you find these two structures standing in the middle of the raging river. We thought they looked similar to some of the nice houses near Forest Park in the city. (Kezia and I spent the better part of 20 minutes trying to figure out how one could use AirBnB to rent out a house they built in the middle of the river. Any renters…?)
It turns out, these structures were not nice houses, but instead were water intakes for the dam which provided fresh water to St. Louis as far back as 1894. Which would explain why the architecture resembles houses built around the World’s Fair in 1904.
Finally, we made it to the Missouri Side of the river and discovered that there is a bike trail that connects to the Missouri River Greenway and later the Katy Trail allowing a safe bike path across much of Missouri and Illinois. This is part of a larger ongoing plan that will involve a bike trail that stretches from coast to coast!
The walk back was just as enjoyable and left us with many good memories. (We did threaten to throw Clarence into the trash can at one point. We also discovered that Anders may have outgrown the Ergo Baby Carrier we were using.) Just seeing the scale of the bridge made us wonder what a cross country road trip in the glory days must have been like! Are the stories about stopping to see the world’s largest ball of twine or the world’s best apple pie just another tall tale or did people once really drive for the pleasure of it?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure my grandma did. I can still hear her saying “Imagine what it took!” in childlike awe and wonder.
Of course, I can also still hear her planning on getting appointed Transportation Commissioner and shipping all semi trucks to China so she wouldn’t have to be bothered by them again…
But regardless of whether or not she noticed the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, we thought it was pretty impressive. Next time you’re in the St. Louis Area. Take a page out of Grandma’s memoirs and take Route 66. You won’t be sorry.