The newsletter of AMERICAN TRAILS -- NEW YEARS 1998

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Recycled bridge across the Mississippi is centerpiece of interstate trail network

By Tom Uhlenbrock; ©St. Louis Post Dispatch; reprinted with permission

To most, the old Chain of Rocks bridge is a white elephant turning red with rust&endash;one more bypassed Route 66 landmark. To Ted Curtis, the bridge is the missing link in what he hopes will be a 25-mile, looping recreational trail following the Mississippi River north from the Arch. He heads Gateway Trailnet, which is negotiating a lease for the bridge with its owner, the city of Madison, Ill.

"St. Louis turns its back on the river," Curtis said on a recent visit to the bridge. "But all these little projects have been going on, and suddenly they're coming together. The bridge is the keystone - it's right in the middle."

The North Riverfront Trail now consists of six paved miles. Four more miles, which will take it to the Arch, are scheduled for completion next spring. The northern end of that trail ends just south of the Chain of Rocks bridge. On the Illinois side of the bridge, funding has been approved for the Confluence Parkway trail, which will ride the top of levees south to Eads Bridge, leading back to the Arch.

The Chain of Rocks bridge has been closed since 1968. The entrances are blocked by chain-link fences, although locals trespass to party. Curtis unlocked the gate on the Missouri side for a tour, allowing a few onlookers inside for a preview.

Jim Parker and Genia Weinstein, both of the Central West End, took a spin across the span on in-line skates and were stunned by the view. "It's awesome," said Parker. "The scenery across this thing is incredible." "The trees grow right up to the top of the bridge," said Weinstein. "It's like you're in this big tree house in the jungle."

To the north stands the Interstate 270 bridge and Columbia Bottoms, an undeveloped tract four times the size of Forest Park; the Missouri Conservation Department wants it for an urban wildlife area. The confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers is just beyond.

To the south is a panorama of wooded Mosenthein Island with the Arch and the St. Louis skyline on the horizon. Two castle-like turrets, built near the turn of the century for public water intakes, stand in mid-river.

On this day, a lone fisherman in a johnboat tried his luck on the Mississippi, and three kayakers were playing in the ripples created by the below-water Chain of Rocks dam. The dam stuns fish that pass over, creating fast-food for eagles in winter. "The Conservation Department set up a spotting scope on the bridge last winter," Curtis said. "We had quite a few people out here watching the eagles."

Like a rusting outdoor sculpture, the steel truss bridge is elegant even in neglect. Wild grape vines hang from its girders, and treetops lean over its deck. Beneath on the Illinois side, the bridge offered bird's-eye views of ducks and egrets sunning in backwaters reminiscent of a Louisiana bayou. The concrete deck, in surprisingly good shape, has served as a canvas for graffiti artists.

The bridge was opened in 1929 as a toll bridge to carry Route 66 across the Mississippi. Then they opened Interstate 270. The toll bridge closed, and plans to use it for restaurants and flea markets were pipe dreams. Illini Pipeline did lease the bridge in 1987, but that line also is yet to be built. The company still pays the lease to the city of Madison&emdash;$75,000 over 10 years&emdash;and Gateway Trailnet will pick up that tab if the pipeline idea is dropped.

Gateway Trailnet hopes to develop the bridge in phases, with the first phase costing $820,000. That would pay for critical structural repairs, childproof railings, deck work, and iron gates and security lights at the entrances. The state of Illinois has put up $245,000 and Missouri pledged $45,000, both in matching grants, for the project.

Curtis said Waste Management, which operates a landfill on the Illinois side of the bridge, has pledged $100,000. So has the Edward D. Jones brokerage, a financial backer of the Katy Trail in Missouri. Money also will be raised through the sale of water bottles at area cycle shops. "It's not a done deal yet," Curtis said. "We're negotiating leases, raising money. But we'd like to secure the lease this fall and start construction next summer. It could be opened by early 1998."

In the long term, Gateway Trailnet would like to raise $3.4 million to complete major structural repairs and turn the bridge into a showpiece. "We'd light it and add parking lots at both ends, rest areas and other amenities&emdash; make it like a park," he said. He compared it to what the city of Chattanooga, Tenn., did with the Walnut Street Bridge, a $4.5 million addition to its Riverwalk greenway.

Gateway Trailnet is at 7185 Manchester Rd., St. Louis MO 63143. Their Web site is located at: www.trailnet.org/index.html