The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

St Louis

The Insider’s Tour of St. Louis: on the River


“Though it is St. Louis's greatest natural resource, and the original reason for the city's existence, the Mississippi River largely remains a hidden world - out of sight and, more often than not, inaccessible to the public.” (Built St. Louis)


That is, inaccessible to the public - except us paddlers! Canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders: you are now perched on the edge of one of the most fascinating “insider views” of the guts of modern America available anywhere (except for maybe a thousand miles downstream when you reach the port of New Orleans). I should note that peddlers, that is bicycle peddlers, enjoy some of the same view you do. As you come into St. Louis you will be accompanied by a parade of bicyclers, walkers, hikers, fishermen, and homeless people, on top of the muddy right bank descending, the St. Louis Riverfront Trail. This is an amazing paved bike path that mostly runs atop the levees that keep the Mississippi River out of the industrial lowland of north St. Louis. It runs past transfer points, junk yards, ruins, and numerous active industries.


As you paddle below Mosenthein Island and past the lower end of the Chain of Rocks Canal, you are leaving Mike Clark’s “Big Muddy Wild and Scenic River.”   But don’t be sad. The Mississippi rewards its paddlers at every turn with new scenery. As you paddle out of the wilderness you are simultaneously entering the best possible view of St. Louis, here presented through its geography, culture and economy -- as viewed from the river. The river is of course the reason for St. Louis, a fact that today’s inhabitants seem to have forgotten. This is not surprising since they almost never experience the river save for a few glimpses speeding across one of the bridges, or in the few stories on the evening news, which are either flood stories, drought stories, or drownings. But you are about to be delighted with a ride better than anything Disney World could dream of. In this one short section of river you will experience the newest bridge on the river followed by the oldest (the Stan Musial followed by the Ead’s Bridge), a thriving hobo’s camp, sea-wall graffiti, giant stormwater pipes, industrial dumps, conveyor belts, gargantuan shovels and cranes, interesting brickwork and metal trusses, and glimpses into some fishermen’s favorite riverside holes. Over the wave of neighborhoods the urban fabric is punctuated with tall church steeples, water towers, downtown buildings, stadiums, warehouses and blocky brick factories and of course the arch. St. Louis wears the Great Arch like a wedding band on the hand of steelworker or shoe maker, the tattered city scenery punctuated with this lonely silvery smooth elaboration and wonder of architecture.


The mighty river still fascinates. Even after a century of engineering, it remains an untamed force. Flabbergasting volumes of barge traffic ply the river, carrying bulk cargos in both directions. Strange worlds of industry reveal themselves when one looks close. Because of the seasonal fluctuations in river depth, any built structure at the riverfront must be able to float, or withstand being inundated. It also must be anchored firmly, able to rise and fall with the water, and still be safely accessible at all water levels. It also has to be tough enough to not be destroyed if it gets hit by a runaway barge, or breaks away itself and hits a bridge pier, a boat, or the shore. On top of the physical difficulties, the financial incentives for building on the river don't seem that great. The Mississippi is not some sylvan backwater, nor does it flow through spectacular canyons or rock formations. It is a heavily industrialized working river, jam packed with huge barge tows and lined with processing plants and transfer points. The river today is a superhighway of industry. Where it hasn't been built up, its banks are by and large left to nature. Much of the ground is floodplain, and simply isn't suitable for construction. Thus, there are forests and wetlands directly across the river from downtown St. Louis. (Built St. Louis).


Viewing the Great Arch from the River

Get your first views of the Arch from the Hwy 66 Bridge.  I like watching the play of light and changing angles of the Arch as you approach downtown St. Lou.  At the bottom of Mosenthein Island you are looking from behind the Arch, at an oblique angle, as someone would standing north of the old capitol building.  In winter mornings it appears silhouetted, but in summer evenings it shines silvery against the haze.  As you paddle down past the Chain of Rocks the angle steepens and as the ends of the Arch tighten together, and then become one, and then open up again in the opposite angle as you now float under all of the various bridges and then under the Eads bridge. Here the perfect symmetry is achieved. The very best view is from the water, and the further eastward towards the Illinois side of the river you go, the better it gets, partly due to the fact that you see more reflection, with the rest of St. Louis rising behind.


As you paddle past the Budweiser Brewery, or make landing on Arsenal Island, the sides tighten together and then become one. You get your last view if you look upstream as you paddle past the Bellerive bluffs near the River des Pere, and then you are once again looking from behind the Arch, this time back towards the bulging bend of the river you just paddled through upstream.


183.2 Merchants Railroad Bridge

Welcome to the Industrial Harbor! The Merchants Railroad Bridge marks the beginning of the trials and tribulations. Stay towards right bank descending and watch carefully for chevrons. Also work boats and small tows might be encountered servicing larger tows. Stay away from bridge abutments, piers, also wharves and docks. Anything stationary is a hazard to paddlers in this normally swift flowing stretch of river. This is Second Bridge to be built across the Mississippi in St. Louis, the Eads Bridge being the first.

182.6 RBD Dignity Harbor

In May 2012 a colorful riverbank hobo community known as Dignity Harbor was dismantled at this location, one of the few places on the Middle Mississippi people lived right on the banks of the river, like the river rat days of old. Dignity Harbor was the middle of three homeless villages here, the others known as Sparta and Hopeville. The city of St. Louis took it all away with a bulldozer. A moving documentary film about Dignity Harbor can be found on YouTube. (Besty Tribble)


182.6 RBD Artica

Recently a few local artists have installed quite a spectacular mural across the facade of the Cotton Belt Building, and it has become the home base for an annual autumnal event called “Artica.”   The industrial riverfront: a place where hawks soar through long forgotten structures, wild flowers emerge from time worn rubble, ancestral ghosts keep watch over the land and the people of St. Louis gather once a year to summon the spirits of creative community. Artica is a multi-disciplinary and participatory art festival and parade that is held each year on the banks of the north Mississippi river front in St. Louis. Artica founders Hap Phillips and Nita Turnage were living in a warehouse space in St. Louis, near the north Mississippi river front, on the edge of what is now known to many simply as “Artica”. The site was a dumping ground and consisted mostly of vast fields of rubble, vacant warehouses, neglected industrial properties, a few small active business, absentee landlords and the homes of the homeless. Throughout St. Louis’ rich history, this area had been, among many things, the site of several earthen Indian mounds, a common field area, a stop on the under ground railroad and a hub for transportation and industry. (From Artica website)


182.6 RBD Bob Cassilly Sculpture/City Museum

Above the riverbank and behind the seawall you might be surprised to see a series of cement dinosaur sculptures. Bob Cassilly Sculpture, the genius artist behind the City Museum is responsible for these, and other monuments along the waterfront. If you take out at the arch for any length of time, be sure to visit the City Museum, which is probably the best fun to be had in St. Louis after the Great Arch and Mosenthein Island.


182.5 McKinley Bridge

The steel truss McKinley Bridge connects St. Louis with Venice, Illinois. It opened in 1910 and was taken out of service in 2001and then reopened in 2007 for pedestrians and bicyclists.