The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
190.4 Intake Towers
Several hundred feet downstream of the Highway 66 “Chain of Rocks” Bridge two beautiful stone towers rise out of the middle of the river that appear to be small medieval castles at first glance. Both are intake towers for the nearby Water Treatment Plant City of St. Louis (190.3 RBD) and serve as important landmarks for paddlers attempting to run the Chain of Rocks. You will want to stay a little to the right of these when the river is above 16SLG. Below 16SLG you will need to go left bank and make landing to initiate a portage. Above 20SLG your best route is to “make a touchdown” in between the two towers and go over the Chain directly below.
190.4 Intake Tower #1
This is the more westerly of the two towers, and the one closer to the lip of the Chain of Rocks towards the Missouri shore. Built by William S. Eames in 1894, Tower #1 is Romanesque in style. Originally reached via a dike, the turbulent waters at its base render it inaccessible today. It feeds the water plant on the shore via a 7 foot pipe.
190.4 Intake Tower #2
Located in the middle of the river, Tower #2 sits a little upstream of Tower #1, approximately 100 yards above the edge of the Chain of Rocks. Built by Roth & Study, 1915. Intake Tower #2, like its predecessor, was built to draw in Mississippi River water for refinement and use by the city’s water department. The towers’ foundations reach down almost 100 feet to bedrock below the silty bottom of the river. The tower is styled after a Roman villa; it contained living quarters for the crews who manned the gates and control equipment housed within.
190.3 Chain of Rocks
You’ve heard about it, you’ve been reading stories about it, you’ve been warned about it, maybe you’re hearing it in your dreams. The awful roaring over the river. The man-eating waves. The canoe-crusher. The towboat toppler. Now you’re here. The wild whitewater feature in the middle of the city. You’ve decided not to take the canal. You’ve come under the I-270 Bridge, and then the US66 Bridge, and now you are approaching the lip of the beast, the single most dangerous drop on the entire Mississippi River. If it is high water, above 24SLG, you might be dismayed. It’s nothing more interesting than any other series of boils and big river commotions you might find at the head of a back channel or passing over a submerged dike.
But if you’re approaching the Chain in low water you will surely be impressed by the sight: the whole river disappears into a frothy crescendo of white foam and roaring waves! At low water orca-sized waves leap in frothy explosions of foamy water, like a half-mile wide school of killer whales all leaping upstream. You might think you’ve reached the ends of the earth. The oceans spilling over the end of the world. As the waters flow towards the edge the current picks up. Laminar flow becomes striated by vertical ridges, and then undulates into smooth pearling contortions as it encounters the top of the ledge with rocks, steel and concrete hidden beneath the beauty, and the collapses into a chaotic crescendo with hydraulic keepers below and alternating wave trains and violent ripping eddies full of exploding boils and whirlpools in between. The escaping water concentrates into razor sharp tongues of standing crashing waves that fold in on themselves and leap upwards of ten feet when the conditions are right, and are picturesquely referred to as the “Trolls” or the “Humpbacks” by local paddlers.
Your line of sight downstream is the smooth surface of the river extending under the pylons of the US66 Bridge, and a broken horizon where it suddenly the river is gone. When you carefully stand up in your canoe you can see beyond and you discover that it didn’t really disappear, it just fell over a ledge — or something. That “something” is the Chain of Rocks! You see splashes of white water leaping playfully beyond the edge, and long white-capping rollers behind. It’s so wide that you cannot see it all in one view once you pass below the US66 Bridge. It’s a half-mile wide waterfall. It sounds like Niagara Falls, and it’s almost as dangerous. At low/mdium water (anything below 16SLG) you should go bank left and portage at the Chouteau island Fishing Access, LBD 190.3 where you see all the white rip-rap piled up along the bank.
Big Muddy Mike describes it at low water, when a portage is required “At seven feet gauge height in St. Louis, the Chain of Rocks is a thundering obstacle course created by the mass of Mississippi River water (200,000 cfs at 7SLG) flowing to a precipitous point, a ledge stretching the entire width of the river with massive boulders, rocks and assorted river detritus (refrigerators, car parts, anything that has come from flooded zones far away) layered through the entire river channel. The entire river is rushing, falling and tumbling in a labyrinth of boiling, churning and standing waves, with a washer machine hydraulic effect mashing and mixing the water. There have been deaths here.”
16 is the cutoff level at the Chain of Rocks. Below 16SLG you should portage. Above 16SLG you can stay middle and run the big tongue over the rollers. At 18SLG there are many places to run. At 24SLG you could paddle over almost any stretch of the Chain and be okay, but you will still encounter big waves in the lines of travel along either bank and the unsuspecting novice paddler might suffer a flipover amidst the chaos. In wintertime wear wetsuit or drysuit and be prepared for the worst.
As always, if you get a chance, stop and scout first. “When in doubt, stop and scout” is the paddler’s refrain. Your best visual advantage is from the Highway 66 Bridge which crosses the river just above the Chain. To get there from the river requires a long bushwhack through deep woods. Best bet: before getting on the river (as you drive to St. Louis for your put-in) make a quick side trip to the US66 Bridge, access off of Riverview Drive (State Hwy H). Set aside an hour for this detour. There is parking at the base of the bridge on either side. The enjoyable hour you spend walking up the bridge and inspecting the Chain would be time very well spent. Carry your camera and binoculars. Besides getting the best possible visual of the Chain, you will also be rewarded with wonderful views of Mosenthein Island, Gabaret Island, and all the bridges and buildings of downtown St. Louis and surrounding neighborhoods.
On the other hand, if you don’t get this opportunity, as you paddle downstream stay bank left under the I-270 Bridge and US66 Bridge, and make a landing at the Chouteau Island Fish Access and scout from there. If things don’t look good: portage!