Top 5 Sights on Route 66 Through St. Louis

Both St. Louis and Route 66 hit their peak in the 1950s and began a sharp decline soon after. Today, they’re re-emerging on the tourist radar thanks to strong efforts in preservation and restoration. St. Louis’s history is tied closely with industry, and its top five sights encompass all that entails: dedication, creativity, and unswerving aim for a better future.

Old Chain of Rocks Bridge on Route 66
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge in Illinois. Photo © Tony Hisgett, licensed CC BY.

Chain of Rocks Bridge

Route 66 originally entered Missouri via the McKinley Bridge, but it was rerouted in 1936 to the Chain of Rocks Bridge (Chain of Rocks Rd. near Schillinger Rd., 314/416-9930, free). The bridge was built from 1927 to 1929 to bypass downtown and alleviate traffic in heart of St. Louis; this became the preferred road for Route 66 travelers because it was faster than driving through downtown.

The Illinois side was lined with 400 elm trees, and the Chain of Rocks Amusement Park was alongside the river. The steel long-span truss bridge stands 60 feet above the Mississippi River with a sharp turn in the middle. The Chain of Rocks Bridge is named after a 17-mile granite rocky outcrop that formed treacherous rapids and caused huge problems for boaters navigating the river. The bridge was originally designed to be straight, but boatmen protested because the placement of the bridge was going to make river travel even more difficult.

The other issue was that the bedrock was not sufficient to support the 10-span bridge that cantilevered over massive concrete piers. The only solution was to incorporate a 30-degree bend. The designer assured officials that the turn wouldn’t be a problem, but it caused a bottleneck that frustrated Route 66 travelers well into the 1960s. As cars got longer and bigger and the interstate systems called for new wider roads, a new Chain of Rocks Bridge opened less than 2,000 feet upstream in 1967.

Fewer people drove the 1929 bridge, and the city could no longer afford to maintain it, so it closed in 1968 and was slated for demolition in 1975. When the value of steel fell in 1976, it became too expensive to tear it down, so it sat for another 20 years. It was filmed in “Escape from New York,” but the bridge otherwise sat abandoned until a nonprofit decided to turn it into a bicycle and pedestrian bridge in 1989. Now spared from the wrecking ball, this is one of the best-preserved remnants of large-scale bridge construction from the 1920s.

Getting There

It’s best to see the bridge on your way into St. Louis, because there’s no safe parking on the west side. To get there from Route 66, head west on Chain of Rocks Rd. As it curves south, enter I-270 westbound. You’re taking 270 just to cross the railroad tracks, so stay in the right-hand lane and immediately exit on Old Alton Rd. Turn right (southwest), cross under 270, and then turn right (northwest) onto West Chain of Rocks Rd. Drive west for about 2 miles to the Chain of Rocks bridge. Once you arrive, park in the Illinois Parking Area on Chain of Rocks Road. If you don’t have time to walk across and just want a great view of the bridge, turn left (south) on West Chain of Rocks Rd. to the Chouteau Island Fishing Area. If you do park and walk across the bridge, don’t leave any valuables visible in the car and bring your wallet and cell phone with you.

Back on 66

To leave the Chain of Rocks, drive east on West Chain of Rocks Road to Highway 3 (Lewis and Clark Blvd.) and turn right (south). Drive about 7 miles, and then when Highway 3 splits off onto 4th Street, follow Cedar Street instead, which will take you to the McKinley Bridge heading west across the Mississippi River. Take Exit 34 and turn left (south) on Riverview Drive.

City Museum

What can talented, innovative artists do with scrapped pieces of America’s infrastructure? See for yourself at the City Museum (750 N. 15th St., 314/231-2489, 9am-5pm Mon.-Thurs., 9am-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11am-5pm Sun., $12), where the 600,000-square-foot former International Shoe Company has been transformed into a surreal labyrinth of steel and concrete artworks made from salvaged bridges, construction cranes, chimneys, and two abandoned airplanes.

The City Museum is the brainchild of the late sculptor Bob Cassilly, who died in 2011. Cassilly said, “The point is not to learn every fact, but to say, ‘wow, that’s wonderful.’ And if it’s wonderful, it’s worth preserving.” These powerful words are alive in huge wire-mesh walkways, tile-encrusted floors and columns, a 10-story circular slide, and a human-sized slinky. An entire wall is made from industrial kitchen food pans. This is much more than a museum—it’s an industrial playground that will bring out the kid in you.

During spring and summer, a Ferris Wheel ($5) operates on the roof, where there are more tunnels and slides. Also on-site is a shoelace factory that shows how bootstraps were made for U.S. soldiers during WWII and a gift shop (until 11pm Fri.-Sat.) selling unique handmade gifts by local artists. There are five food venues serving sandwiches, pastries, pizza, tacos, hotdogs, floats, cotton candy, and more. There is also a full bar in the Cabin Inn; for entertainment, DJs spin dope beats on the weekend.

The City Museum is open until midnight on weekends. If you’d rather not compete with the kids for turf, plan your visit after 5pm on Friday or Saturday. The sharp metal objects are large with lots of rough edges, so bring kneepads and a flashlight and wear long pants and closed-toe shoes. There are no lockers—leave your flip-flops, sandals, skirts, and purses in the car. All limbs must be free and clear to play with ease! The museum is located about a mile west of the Gateway Arch.

Black and white historical photo of Union Station with its tall tower visible.
St. Louis’s Union Station in 1946. Photo courtesy of the Missouri History Museum, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Union Station

The iconic Union Station (1820 Market St., 314/421-6655, 10am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun., Mar.-Oct.; 11am-7:30pm Mon.-Sat., 11am-6pm Sun. Nov.-Feb., free) sits on 11 acres in downtown St. Louis. When it opened in 1894, it was reportedly the largest, most beautiful train station in the United States.

Modeled after a medieval city in southern France, it has sweeping Roman archways, fresco and gold leaf detailing, mosaics, stunning stained-glass windows, and a 65-foot, barrel-vaulted ceiling. The midway area features a light steel-trussed roof of glass and iron. The train shed was one of the largest single platforms ever built—at 140-feet tall, 700-feet long, and 600-feet wide, it spans 42 tracks over 11.5 acres. Each night (hourly 5pm-10pm) in the Grand Hall Lounge, there’s a dynamic 3D light show that looks like it came straight out of Vegas, with vibrant video animations of flying birds, sea creatures, flowers, and trains that move across the 65-foot ceiling.

In the 1940s, Union Station served more than 100,000 people, but after World War II, train travel dwindled. In 1976, the station was designated a National Historical Landmark; two years later, the last train pulled out of the station. It was eventually purchased for $5.5 million and given a $150 million dollar restoration, making it the largest adaptive re-use project in America.

The Whispering Arch (in the grand entrance on the north side of the building) is an architectural sonic phenomenon. Stand facing the wall at the base of the arch and speak in a normal volume; your voice will be carried along the arch to a person on the other side—they can hear you perfectly. (Make sure to speak directly at the wall, and don’t look up at the arch as you talk.)

Inside Union Station, the Memories Museum (second level, 314/421-6655, 10am-9pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-6pm Sun., free) celebrates the history of Union Station and the romance of train travel.

Although there are about 20 specialty shops, restaurants, and a hotel operating in Union Station today, it’s not the lively place it once was. Today it feels more like a tarnished relic compared to its glamorous, illustrious history, but it’s still worth strolling through this cavernous monument, which will transport you back in time. Union Station is about a mile west of the Gateway Arch and less than mile southwest of the City Museum.

African American Baptist Church

Unsung American hero John Berry Meachum was born to slave parents. Meachum learned carpentry and cabinetmaking, which allowed him to earn enough money to purchase his family’s freedom. After he moved to Missouri, he founded the first African American Baptist Church (3100 Bell Ave. 314/533-8003, free) in St. Louis and became part of a group of local African American aristocrats.

Meachum owned two Mississippi steamers and a barrel factory; he purchased slaves in order to teach them a trade working in his barrel factory until they could make a living on their own. When St. Louis enacted a law banning the education of black people, Meachum was forced to shut down his school.

In 1847, Meachum circumvented the law by anchoring his steamboat in the middle of the Mississippi River and taught classes on the boat. Since it was no longer on Missouri land, it was not subject to state law. He called it the Floating Freedom School.

The African American Baptist Church is less than two miles northwest of Union Station. From Market Street near Union Station, turn right (north) on North Jefferson Avenue and then left (west) on Delmar. Drive five blocks and turn right (north) on North Cardinal Avenue. The church is on the left (west) side.

Fox Theatre
The Fox hosts a wide range of acts—from Broadway plays like Wicked to music acts like the Alabama Shakes and Beck. Photo © Paul Sableman, licensed CC BY.

Fox Theatre

When the Fox Theatre (527 N. Grand Blvd., 314/534-1678, tours 10:30am Tues., Thurs., and Sat. $8-10; performances $25-70) opened in 1929 it was the second-largest theater in the United States. This opulent performance arts center is decorated in a Byzantine style inspired by East Indian design; the entrance features bronze and glass doors with a terra-cotta facade that references Thailand’s Vat Anong Temple and India’s Adina Mosque. The Fox was the first theater in the United States to be built with full “talkie” equipment and attracted people from all walks of life. For the price of a ticket, folks of modest means could rub elbows with the elite and forget about their troubles for the evening.

The Fox went bankrupt in 1936; one year later, shares were given away as souvenirs because the stockholders believed the Fox had no value. From the late 1930s until 1978, it was leased by Harry Arthur and featured performances by Benny Goodman, Mae West, and Frank Zappa. Today, the Fox hosts a wide range of acts—from Broadway plays like Wicked to music acts like the Alabama Shakes and Beck.

The Fox Theatre is located less than a mile west of Meachum’s church. From Market Street, head west to turn right (north) on South Jefferson Avenue. Take a left (west) on Olive Street and turn right (north) on North Grand Boulevard.

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