The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail
109.9 Chester Bridge
The shiny steel Chester Bridge glistens in the sunlight as you come around Beaver and Kaskaskia Islands from upstream. It is advantageously placed in a natural narrows where the Missouri bottomland comes close to the Pawnee Hills at Chester. It is the first highway crossing below Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, 60 miles upstream. The next crossing found downstream is in Cape Girardeau. Tragedy struck the bridge on a stormy night in July, 1944 when a windstorm of tornadic force caused two 670-foot spans to collapse into the river. Reconstruction took two years and on August 24, 1946, the bridge was reopened to traffic. This became Chester’s second toll bridge for many years. It is still the only bridge between St. Louis and Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
Chester is the home town of Elzie Crisler Segar, the cartoonist who created ‘Popeye The Sailor Man’. There is a small park on the Illinois side of the crossing to remember Segar, which includes a life-sized statue of Popeye. The city celebrates Segar in the annual Popeye Festival held each labor day weekend.
The village of Kaskaskia is located on the west side of the Mississippi River just upriver of Chester. Kaskaskia was a commercial and transportation hub in the 1800s. In fact, it was the first capital of Illinois until 1820. The Mississippi River shifted course to the east side of Kaskaskia in the middle and late 1800s. As a result, the village is now located on the west side of the Mississippi River. But since the state line follows the historic path of the Mississippi River, Kaskaskia remains a part of the state of Illinois. The fortunes of Kaskaskia started to wane following the shifting of the river. Its population steadily declined throughout the 1900s with only 9 people remaining in 2000. (From the City of Chester Illinois and the John Weeks websites).
109.5 LBD Chester Boat Ramp
Chester Boat Ramp is a good quality concrete boat situated directly below the high bluff of downtown Chester. You will have a long but rewarding walk to climb to the top of the hill to access downtown, one route is up the famous Chester Staircase. Enjoy the exercise with this leg workout — your upper body needs the break! Practice defensive landings and protect your belongings at this and all Mississippi River Landings. Don’t leave your vessel unattended for more than an hour or two. If longer, portage or hide, and lock up to a tree or telephone pole or etc.
Chester proudly holds position on top of a tall bluff below the mouth of the Kaskaskia River and opposite the broad Missouri floodplain below Ste Genevieve. Chester sits in the middle of the Middle Mississippi River, and makes the ideal end location or push-off place for paddlers. (You could also resupply here, but be ready for long walks to reach conveniences in town)
Chester is a little less than halfway down to Cairo from St. Louis, and marks the beginning of a mostly wild stretch with the river bouncing back and forth between big protected sandbar islands, with long wild stretches interrupted with pockets of industry. These are in fact biggest and wildest islands on the Middle Mississippi, with the longest back channels to follow when the water is high enough. Extensive forests line the river. Even bigger forests are found in the bluffs at the edge of the five-mile wide floodplain, protected by State Parks and Conservations Areas, and in Illinois by the Shawnee National Forest, and adjoining protected areas. The Southern Illinois Pawnee Hills between Chester and Horseshoe Lake are the healthiest remaining forests along the entire Middle Mississippi. Otherwise the land is mostly denuded by agricultural interests. The Mississippi does not see such extensive forests again until below Vicksburg where it returns to bluff country, this time the Mississippi Loess Bluffs.
The river leaves the Missouri bluffs above Ste Gen for the first time since the cliffs above Alton and grinds against the Illinois Pawnee bluffs (past the Kaskaskia), and then bounces back to the Missouri Bluffs at Seventy-Six and Red Rock Conservation Areas, and then back to the Pawnee Hills to make its way through the fantastic archipelago of bluffs created by Fountain Bluff, Grand Tower, Tower Rock, the Devil’s Bake Oven and Devil’s Backbone. If anywhere is the heart of the wild Middle Mississippi, this is it. As with all natural landscapes of the Mississippi you have to work hard and paddle long distances between the highlights. It’s not Zion National Park where the spectacular scenery leaps out at you around every turn. On the Mississippi it generally leaps out once every two or three miles. If you find a spectacular natural occurrence every couple of miles or so then you are in the thick of it. The highlights are made more beautiful by the long paddling you do in between. This is the voyageur style that long rivers like the Mississippi demand. Paddling becomes a meditation on long rivers, much as walking does on long trails. The meditation clears the junk out of your mind so that you when you happen upon the spectacular places they are all that more striking and meaningful. In this way, considering the sum of the pieces, from the chain of conservation areas, wildlife refuges, state parks and state forests, to the big islands and long meandering back channels, to the grey limestone towers, the yellow/red/orange ridges, and the highly sculptured cliff faces intricately carved by the wind and the rain, this is indeed the most spectacular stretch.
Bluffs from both states squeeze the river through a narrow channel in between the end of the Mississippi Hills around Altenburg on the west and Fountain Bluff to the east, the only place on the entire Middle Mississippi where these steep bluffs with layers of limestone and big boulders line both sides of the river. After trail of Tears, and the final Ozark outcropping at Cape Girardeau, the river curves around Marquette Island and proceeds to plow due east into Illinois as if intent on breaking through to make a shortcut to the Ohio. Instead it busts through a five mile thick peninsula of the Pawnees at Thebes, the last bluffs on the Middle Miss, and exits them at Commerce. Near Commerce is the oldest pictograph map from the east side of America, and not surprisingly, it’s a map of the curvy Mississippi. When the river leaves the rocky Pawnee hills for good below Thebes it enters the great floodplain of the Lower Mississippi River, one of the largest and richest floodplains in the world, here making its start in a land known as the Missouri Bootheel. The river is now freed from the static encumbrances of the rocks and ridges as it modulates into the meandering muddy mess it is made so famous for. The unchained river ceases its long straight line runs and instead revolves around mind warping bends that circumnavigate the compass, here at Brown’s Point and then Fancy Point, in two giant 180 degree bends that make the winds shift, the stars spin, and turn the paddler’s sense of direction into a tizzy.
The steep wooded bluffs are full of oaks, gumtrees, maples, beeches, and ashes, with paw-paws, persimmons and rhododendron n the understory. Some of the highlights along the way include The Middle Mississippi Wildlife Refuge at Rockwood and Horse Island, Turkey Bluff Conservation Area, Little Grand Canyon (Shawnee National Forest), Seventy-Six and Red Rock Conservation Areas, Fountain Bluff, Grand Tower, Tower Rock Natural Area, the Devil’s Bake Oven and Devil’s Backbone Park. Significant tributaries worthy of further exploration are the Kaskaskia River, Mary’s River, Apple River, Indian Creek, Saline River and Big Muddy River. The Big Muddy Levee is highlighted with the “River to River Trail” which runs to the Mississippi. For rewarding sidetrips, exit the main channel wherever you see a neat-looking ravine tumbling off the bluff (or out of the forested floodplain) and go exploring!