The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
194.2 LBD Chain of Rocks Canal (Entrance)
After passing the confluence and opposite Maple Island on the left bank descending you might notice a giant US Army Corps sign with an huge red arrow pointing left sign with the stern warning:
You have reached the legendary fork in the roads of the Mississippi River Trail. All paddlers must make a choice: to take the Canal or the Chain of Rocks. Please know that any paddler can take the free-flowing waters of the Chain at any water level and make the short portage if necessary (if the river is below 16SLG). But keep reading, you won’t have to portage if certain conditions are met. If you are an expert paddler who can handle Class III waves and some hydraulics including boils, eddies and whirlpools, and it’s at least medium water (above 16SLG), the choice is easy: take the Chain! As stated above, if you are moderate paddler, you can still take the free-flowing Chain route, and portage. You will have plenty time to make a calculated approach to the take-out point and portage over. If its med-high water or higher (above 20 on the St Louis Gage SLG), the choice is easy: take the Chain! Unless you just want to torture yourself with a nine-mile slog sharing a boring rip-rap canal with diesel belching tows and ornery pilots and facetious crewmen, it would be senseless not to go with the free-flowing waters and enjoy the only tow-boat free stretch of river on the entire length of the Mississippi. Anyone can safely paddle the Chain in higher water levels. However if it’s below these levels, the choices get more complicated. Keep reading below why, and how to make the best choice (and when to call in the experts for assistance or guidance).
When I first came down the river in the fall of 1982 my raft-mate and I were misled by the the bad advice of well-intentioned people that we would die if we ignored the entrance to the Canal and went over the chain. The river that fall was high and we could have slipped over the chain easily and without any danger. In fact, as high as it was (around 35 SLG) we wouldn’t have even noticed the Chain as we passed over it. But we followed the bad advice given us upstream and entered the canal. Our raft was very slow to move. The long sweep oars proved ineffectual in the canal. We ended up dragging it manually by ropes down the boring mind numbing nine-mile length of the canal. It required 2 days of hard labor. 2 days of cordelling a raft slipping and tripping over the rip-rap of the hellish Canal made us made as hornets. When we finally got to the lock it was dark so we tied up to the rip rap lining the steep walls and fell into an uneasy slumber. Sometime during the night a tow flushed out the edges of the canal as it powered out of the lock chamber making the water level drop several feet. One edge of our raft was caught on the rip-rap and as the water dropped the whole raft tilted at an angle and we both slid into the cold water along with all of our loose gear on the raft, much of which we lost into the oily backwater. The memory still disgusts me. This was the first and last time I will ever go down this canal, or any canal if I can help it. When it comes to deciding between the Chain Canal or the Chain of Rocks make your own choice of course. But personally I would much rather make one short portage than paddle nine miles of flat water with a required lock passage.
194 RBD Canoe & Kayak Access (Columbia Bottoms State Conservation Area)
Access to parking lot and gravel road via 100 yard long trail. This would be a good picnic place, or end place for a daytrip from either Maple Island Access on the Upper Mississippi or the Columbia Bottoms Boat Ramp on the Missouri. No camping, but at low and medium water levels the overhanging willows make for beautiful shade. In high water you could paddle right up to the parking lot for easy access. Otherwise portage up trail. Luxuriant bottomland forests overflow with flowering herbs and edible greens like mustard weed and stinging nettle in the spring.
195 – 184 Big Muddy Wild & Scenic Section
Big Muddy Mike Clark unofficially designated the stretch of free-flowing river between Duck island and the bottom of Gabaret Island as the “Big Muddy Wild & Scenic Section” (i.e.: the river channel not going through the Chain of Rocks Canal). Paddling this wild stretch involves negotiating the notorious Chain of Rocks. So proceed wisely, and read all of the descriptions below for when you can run the Chain of Rocks and when you should portage. Here is Big Muddy’s description: “The reach from the Confluence to the Arch includes the only 11 non-commercially navigable waters of the entire River between Minneapolis/St. Paul and the Gulf. Two pristine islands punctuate this reach, Duck Island and Mosenthien Island. And its very reason for being non-commercially navigable sits just a bit more than midway down, the Chain of Rocks low water dam. This is the Big Muddy Wild and Scenic reach in the heart of the St. Louis metropolitan area.”
194 – 184 RBD Chouteau/Gabaret Island
Ten mile tall Chouteau Island separates the Chain of Rocks Canal from the flowing waters of the Mississippi, but is predominantly cleared and leveled for field crops. Some lines of trees border the river along its entire length with scattered forests, edged with small stands of willows and cottonwoods towards its bottom end.
190.7 Interstate 270 Highway Bridge
No land access either side of bridge. (Although in emergency situation you could make RBD landing and bushwhack up the Missouri bank to reach North Riverview Drive). Steady East-West highway traffic roars across the ugly I-270 bridge connecting Indianapolis and Kansas City as you slide underneath towards the much more elegant Hwy 66 Bridge below.
190.5 Highway 66 “Chain of Rocks” Bridge
Your best visual advantage of the Chain of Rocks waterfall is from the Highway 66 Bridge, which crosses the river at just above the Chain, and makes an abrupt 22 degree angle halfway across the river. Make time before you get on the river to walk up the bridge for scouting the Chain. You can access bridge from either side. In Missouri, park in turnout off of Riverview Drive (State Hwy H). In Illinois access is at the end of Chain of Rocks Road (from Hwy 3). This tall narrow bridge has been converted into a pedestrian-only walkway which yields not only a complete sweeping view of the Chain, but long views over Mosenthein Island and on downstream. An unusual perspective of downtown St. Lou here seen rising over the forests of Choteau Island. The Arch is presented edgewise. The Busch Stadium is visible surrounded by tall office buildings. Some church spires slice through the lines of trees. Cell towers and radio towers rise highest of all.
The St. Louis geology is dolomite and limestone of the Mississippian Epoch, becoming karst towards the south side of town. St. Louis has its own limestone named after it, the “St. Louis limestone,” which is used as dimension stone and rubble for construction. Coal, brick clay and millerite ore were once mined here. As you look across the city, you will notice that almost all the neighborhoods slope downward from west to east. St. Louis sprawls over rolling 100-200 foot tall bluffs that attain their greatest heights along the Missouri River (The Missouri River bluffs seen at Chesterfield, Bellefontaine, Maryland Heights, Hazelwood and Florissant ) and gently undulate eastward as they drop in elevation towards the Mississippi River. Most of the caves in the city have been sealed, but many springs are visible along the riverfront, and you will see them at the base of the exposed cliffs here and elsewhere downstream, particularly in low water.
The Chain of Rocks Bridge opened in 1929, carrying the Route 66 bypass route around St. Louis. It is named for the rocky outcrop which creates a section of rapids in the river. The shoals were a severe navigational hazard, to the point that they were eventually bypassed entirely with the 9-mile-long Chain of Rocks Canal.
The bridge’s famous 22-degree bend is the result of a confluence of several problems. According to one source, the bridge’s builders owned parcels of land that were not directly across the river from each other. The Army Corps of Engineers would not allow them to build the bridge on a diagonal path across the river; therefore the bridge crosses the navigable portion of the river on a perpendicular path, then changes direction in the middle to touch down on the right parcel on the Illinois side.A second source states that a straight bridge would either not have had foundations on solid bedrock, or else would have blocked river traffic from aligning with the river current, risking boat-bridge collisions.
Set in a rather isolated spot, the mile-long bridge was never a money maker, and the bridge company went bankrupt in 1931. Ownership passed to the town of Madison. The bridge was superseded by the nearby I-274 bridges in 1965. Stripped of its tolls by Federal mandate, the bridge was closed in 1968.
Chain of Rocks Bridge was nearly demolished in 1975, until a sharp drop in the price of scrap meant that the demolition would not pay for itself. Abandoned and left to rot, it served as a set for the 1981 thriller Escape From New York. It also became a hangout for teens and hoodlums, and gained notoriety after a double murder in 1991.
Regional bicycle group TrailNet successfully lobbied to have the bridge converted to a bike and walking path; it reopened in 1999 with lighting, observation bump-outs, and various other amenities. It remains a popular recreation spot, as well as a viewing platform for observing bald eagles. It also offers an excellent view of the city’s two water intake structures. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006. (From Built St. Louis)