Old Bridges and Roadways

Saturday – my eighth full day on the road and my body is starting (?) to rebel. I have a touch of helmet rash (or a zit – at this point I can’t tell the difference); a constant ache between my shoulders, but primarily just inside and below my left shoulder blade; and some chafed areas on the backs of my upper thighs where my (very sweaty!) jeans have rubbed the skin raw. Plus the several-days-old exhaust pipe burn on my right pinkie. Amazingly enough, my lower back does *not* hurt – I have good back support from my stack of dry bags and my Camelbak backpack, I guess. And my feet are fine. Even my hands are getting tired of holding the handlebars all the time.

I started an hour earlier than usual (9 instead of 10), knowing that it would be a long day and also that I wanted to spend some time at The Old Chain Of Rocks (OCOR) Bridge. This bridge crosses the Mississippi just south of where the current I-270 bridge crosses, and in fact you can see one from the other very easily. The OCOR is generally closed to vehicular traffic these days (you can get special permission, I guess, for rallies or parades or somesuch), but it’s open to bicyclists and walkers. So I walked across it.

The Illinois approach to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Illinois approach to the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The “Chain of Rocks” itself is a series (?) of underwater rock ledges in the Mississippi. These ledges can cause some serious eddy currents and navigation problems, I guess. Anyway, there’s now a canal on the Illinois side that allows river traffic to bypass the Rocks and both the old and new bridges.

The OCOR itself is a mile long, and makes a 22-degree turn in the middle. Nowadays, a bridge would be built with a gentle curve on more of the span, but this was built with a “kink” in between two straight spans. The signage on the Missouri side explains that the bend was so the bridge footings could be anchored to solid rock.

It’s also very narrow. I guesstimated the roadway at 20 feet wide (10 feet per lane), but the signs say the whole thing is only 24 feet wide – I’m assuming that’s outside-to-outside of the whole structure. Since it looks as though the structure and the curb take 3 feet off either side, that would make the roadway 18 feet wide, or 9 feet per lane. Not a whole lot of room to spare. There’s an old fire engine sitting on the bridge to give some perspective to the roadway’s width.


Just downstream from the OCOR are two structures whose purpose isn’t readily identifiable. I thought they were some sort of navigational aids, but actually they are (or were; the sign didn’t say whether they’re still in use) water-system intakes for the City of St. Louis.


This is the bend in the bridge. Imagine trying to get around it in heavy traffic!


A description of the OCOR and some of its history

A description of the OCOR and some of its history

I spent way too much time at the bridge, but it was such an integral part of the original Route 66 experience that I wanted to see as much of it as I could, so I walked the whole mile-long bridge to Missouri and back. Then it was time to leave.

As I rode north on Old 66, I found lots of different historical clues. I found old concrete pavement:


I found some brick roadway:


I found a lot of abandoned roadway, too. Before I-55 was built, US 66 was four-laned in a lot of places. After the Interstate was put through, some of the old roadway disappeared under the freeway, or under the interchange ramps, or whatever, and the rest was simply abandoned. When the road was four-laned, the original two lanes became the south- or westbound direction, and the new lanes became the north- or eastbound direction. The older side was cut off from the world and left to decay – which it is doing very slowly. I found one town that is repurposing the abandoned roadway into a multi-use bike / jogging trail, much like is done with abandoned railroad rights-of-way (which I thought this was, at first).


This is what much of the rest of the abandoned roadway looks like. The part in the foreground is actually (sort of) maintained as a pullout for tourists to stop and see what the older roadway looked like; the part in the background has been let go for…40? 50? years – ever since this part of I-55 was built.


Tonight I was reminded that I wanted to see what Google Earth showed. So I fired it up and started with Lexington, IL, where the multi-use path is. I think it’s fascinating that you can see where the road used to be, even though it hasn’t been there for many many years. This screen capture shows an area south of town, where I-55 veers away. The lowest straight line in the picture (lower left to upper right) is a railroad line. Next to that is the current frontage-road-Historic-66 alignment; the two curved roadways are I-55. When the straight road gets far enough away from the curves, you can see another roadway suddenly begin – that’s the abandoned part of Old 66. If you follow this roadway north, through Lexington, you can see the surface change where they’ve paved it for the multi-use path. The abandoned roadway continues for many miles, past Pontiac and towns north of there. If you follow the route through some of the smaller towns, you can see the even-older alignment of 66 when it went through the town, before it was 4-laned and realigned to go around the town.

Google Earth view of I-55 and Old 66 south of Lexington, IL

Google Earth view of I-55 and Old 66 south of Lexington, IL

I finally found a place to stay last night (Saturday, July 18) in Joliet. It wasn’t the best place in the world (in fact, it merits its own blog entry, which I’ll get to one of these days), but as usual I was tired and just needed a bed for the night. It was another long day of riding, and I wanted to be rested for the final 30 – 40 miles.

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