The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
179.2 Poplar Street Bridge
Some paddlers put in at the Arch and start their journey paddling under the Poplar Street Bridge and continuing on downstream. If you are starting here in the Rivergator, jump back to Safe Paddling through the St. Louis Harbor for tips on how to safely make your run through this most dangerous stretch of river.
Paddling Route Downstream of Arch
Leaving the Arch the river is lined with miles of fleeted barges, and so you have no choice but stay out in the middle of the navigation channel. Sure, you can paddle off to one side or the other. You will still have plenty of room to get out of the way of tows and any other commercial traffic in the middle of the main channel. But it’s a balance act. But don’t stray too close to fleeted barges on either side. They are anchored and hence sitting still. But the force of water against their topside will easily flip you over. Besides fleeting, you will also encounter a thick concentration of docks, piers, terminals, wharves, and dry-docks. How far down? Sometimes you will have to stay middle channel from the Arch all the way down below the mouth of the River Des Peres, almost ten miles down. Mike Clark, the expert guide and paddler from St. Louis, calls this section “The Gauntlet.” “If you make it through the gauntlet,” he says, “you will be good to go down the rest of the river.” Ten miles downstream, after you pass the last of fleeted barges and endless wharfing, you can wander back towards shoreline on one side or the other. Past Arsenal Island (175.5-173.5 LBD) most river flow goes RBD towards the bluffs. If you are trying to make some distance before the end of the day, follow the fast water and do the same. On the other hand, if you are in no particular rush, and intend to make a stop on the first island (Carroll) downstream of the JB Bridge, stay LBD in the slow water.
Running “The Gauntlet”
Running The St. Louis Harbor downstream of the Arch follows the dictionary definition for “Running The Gauntlet:” 1. To go through an intimidating or dangerous crowd, place, or experience in order to reach a goal. 2. To undergo the punishment of receiving blows while running between two rows of men with sticks. On the river you have to paddle ten miles through towboats, workboats, wharves, docks, buoys, anchors, steel cables, choppy waves, weird currents, and many other challenges which might be exacerbated by wind, darkness and your state of mind. The waves slap you from side to side as they ricochet back and forth between passing tows and fleeted barges. Hard steel edges make for bigger choppier waves. You, the lonely paddler amidst the industrial megalith must do your best to stay upright amongst the waves. The goal: the other side of the JB Bridge, the open free-flowing “Wild Miles” found beyond the harbor. As always, impatience is your worst enemy on the river. Stay on shore at the Arch if any of the following conditions apply: a) If the wind is blowing 15mph or higher from any southerly quadrants, or 20mph or higher from any other quadrant; b) if you have three hours or less before sunset; or c) if you are not feeling good about things (sailor’s sixth sense).
179 Douglas McArthur Bridge (Railroad)
The long-contentious MacArthur Bridge opened in 1917 as the Municipal Free Bridge (as it was the only one which did not charge a toll), and was renamed in 1942 for the World War II general. For several years it carried Route 66 – the main drag through the western half of the country – into Missouri and St. Louis. The bridge was built by the city of St. Louis itself, a bid to break the Eads Bridge’s monopoly on road traffic crossing the river. The bridge itself was ready for service in 1912, but money shortages meant that the lengthy approach ramps (several miles’ worth of rail and road on the Illinois side) were not completed for another five years. The bridge finally opened for rail traffic in 1928, but the major railroads – all members of the competing Terminal Railroad Association – would not use it for another twenty years. The MacArthur remained a popular and heavily used road route across the river, carrying the city of Route 66 into Missouri. Even a toll of ten cents, instituted in the early years of the Depression, did little to reduce its popularity.
Along with the traffic came a steady stream of accidents, as faster cars and faster driving speeds made it increasingly difficult to negotiate the sudden jogs where the car deck veers to join up with the trusses of the bridge. Enough cars crashed through the rails and plummeted a hundred feet or more to the ground that a newspaper article dubbed the roadway “Death’s diving board”. However, it was not danger which proved to be the roadway’s undoing, but the coming of the Interstate system. The massive Poplar Street Bridge opened in 1967, and immediately drew away nearly all of the MacArthur’s car traffic; soon the tolls were not even covering the tolltakers’ payroll. The aging car deck was also badly deteriorated after decades of traffic and weather. It was closed to cars in 1981, and the MacArthur has been a rail-only bridge ever since. In 1989, the Terminal Railroad Association assumed ownership of the bridge, trading it for the Eads Bridge, which had become unworkable for freight rail traffic. TRA is reported to be adamantly opposed to re-opening the car deck. A section of the east approach was removed in 1989 to discourage those attempting to enter the bridge. A more comprehensive demolition campaign destroyed a good half-mile of the Illinois-side road approaches in 2003, further decreasing the likelihood that this spectacular bridge will ever see upper-deck traffic again. The MacArthur’s enormous steel trusses and stone piers form a presence that is astonishing to stand beneath, the most powerful and awe-inspiring of the city’s bridges. Though not graceful, it commands respect through its sheer size and height (equivalent to a fourteen story building.) It is the product of an age that believed in the promise of infinitely bigger and more powerful machines. Appropriately, lumbering freight trains still run regularly on its lower deck today. The bridge seems strangely detached from the life of the city around it; even the space beneath it – one of the most humbling in the city – is little more than a hobo camp and fisherman’s site at the south end of the Arch grounds. (Built St. Louis)
178.8 RBD USS Inaugural
200 yards south of the MacArthur Bridge on the right bank descending lies the forlorn wreckage of the minesweeper ship Inaugural. You can see it on google earth, near an inlet created by a small concrete factory. This once-proud World War 2 ship was launched in 1944 and served the remainder of the war. It was mothballed in 1946 after the war’s end, and eventually turned over to St. Louis as a floating museum in 1968. It was on display below the Arch until 1993. But then it broke loose during the Great Flood, capsized, and eventually wound up aground on the river bank. After almost two decades in the water, every inch of the ship is covered in rust. With salvage proving unworkable, plans to scrap the ship have never been carried out. The Inaugural lies alongside one of the innumerable industrial sites that lines the river. A concrete flood wall protects the city from this point southward. Though most of St. Louis sits on higher bluffs, the riverfront industries would have been inundated in 1993 without the flood wall. For several years, the flood wall was the canvas for an invited graffiti event. A crowd of graffiti artists convened on the city and tagged the wall, turning the purely functional construct into a vibrant piece of art. Spectacular tags and murals remain in place today, some of which you can enjoy as you paddle by. (Built St. Louis)
178.9 LBD Small Sandbar below Rocky Point
Good protection from North wind, East wind or SE wind. Look for unusual rocky bluff outcropping less than 100 feet below the Illinois side of the MacArthur Bridge. Below the rocks a protected bar is tucked into the bank. This small sandbar is usable at all river levels up to high water 25 SLG, and then becomes a possible emergency stop or camp up to FS 30SLG. You might have company here in the form of fishermen, river rats, and other riff-raff. Never leave your gear or camp unattended. Small drainage south of bar runs with rusty-colored water and caustic aromas. Be careful paddling amongst fleeted barges. Tows often make unexpected appearances and power through unusually close to shore, making tight steep waves that crash strongly against shoreline. Always pull completely out of water when landing for any duration. Never leave your vessel in the water here. Crashing waves will possibly lead to flip and capsize and loss of all goods. A short walk over the levee will bring you to some all-night hard rock/electronica clubs of ill-repute. Unless you’re itching for a fight and a place to lose all your money, avoid.
178.4 LBD Small Sandbar above old Cahokia Power Plant
Emergency stops only. Tentative location below active industrial site (old power plant now used for drydocking/warehousing). Good protection in emergency situations from Southerly winds and/or storms.