Answer Man: Where did the name 'Chain of Rocks' come from?

News-DemocratSeptember 10, 2013 

Q. Can you tell us where the name "Chain of Rocks" came from? There's a road and some businesses with that same name in the area.

-- S.O., of Hamel

A. As recently as 1950, riverboat captains still were cursing their rocky relationship with the Mississippi near St. Louis.

From St. Paul to New Orleans, they enjoyed smooth sailing, thanks to a 9-foot channel that was maintained for nearly 99 percent of the 1,000-mile trip. The lone obstacle was a 17-mile stretch of rock ledges that became known as the Chain of Rocks Reach. It extended north from about the northern St. Louis city limit.

If you had lived back then, you wouldn't have had to ask how the name originated -- especially if you made your living on the water. During times of low river levels, this long chain of rocks jutting up from the riverbed made navigation impossible. Crews often spent days twiddling their thumbs as they waited for the water to rise.

The unique formations were caused by glaciers, according to Thomas Beveridge in his book "Geologic Wonders and Curiosities of Missouri."

Remember that this area looked radically different millions of years ago, when the entire Midwest was covered by a huge inland ocean. Over the eons, plants and animals died and sank to the bottom, forming a massive layer of bedrock limestone.

After the sea dissipated, the Mississippi began cutting a huge valley into this bedrock. You can still see the force of the water as you drive along the River Road north of Alton and enjoy the limestone cliffs bordering the river.

But for the longest time there was little the shipping companies could do about the rocky riverbed except grin and bear it. And it must have been extra frustrating for them to watch other technologies advance while their boats were parked.

Already in 1865, for example, the area was chosen as the site for the St. Louis waterworks. Construction began in 1887, and the plant opened seven years later. The world's largest water filter plant at the time was added in 1915 with 40 filters stretching some 700 feet in length.

Then, in 1929, private interests banded together to build the Chain of Rocks Bridge that once carried U.S. 66 across the river. More than a mile long (5,353 feet), it featured an unusual 22-degree bend midway across. And, of course, we shouldn't forget the old Chain of Rocks Amusement Park, which kept kids and teens laughing and screaming from 1927 to 1978.

Finally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided it shouldn't leave all those boats between a rock and a hard place, especially with the ever-growing demand for the transportation of goods up and down the river. So in the late 1940s and early '50s, the corps designed an 8.4-mile canal so that boats could bypass this treacherous stretch.

Just below the north end of the canal, the corps built Dam No. 27. It wasn't anything fancy like the Hoover or Grand Coulee. The corps merely dumped tons of rock into the river to create a small elevation in the water that covers 13,000 acres over some 28 miles upstream

Then, near the southern end of the canal, the corps built the Chain of Rocks Lock with its 1,200-foot main lock and 600-foot auxiliary. Together, they are the only locks south of the confluence of Mississippi and Missouri rivers and, thus, handle more cargo than any other similar structure on the river.

Since it opened, the annual tonnage passing through the locks has soared from 8.1 million in 1953 to a high of 85.4 million in 1990. Now, everyone seems to be rockin' on happily -- ships down the canal, cars and trucks over the new Chain of Rocks Bridge and, since 1998, bicyclists and walkers across the old one, which is now part of the Trailnet.org system.

Q. Before he died in 1996, I think I remember George Burns making some records. Are they available anywhere?

-- G.C., formerly of Belleville

A. It's been 17 years since he died two months after his 100th birthday, but George Burns continues to entertain audiences old and new through his records and books.

Perhaps the one you'd be most interested in is "Gracie: A Love Story." You can buy an abridged version with audio cassette for as little as $4.64 or the complete hardcover text from $4 up. You might also check for his nine other books, including "100 Years, 100 Stories" and "All My Best Friends," both from $4.

His distinctive voice also has been preserved on several recordings such as "A Musical Trip with George Burns" (used from $6) and "An Evening With George Burns" (from $5). His album "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again" is probably too pricy for you ($90 used) but you can find the favorite on "Young at Heart" -- or find it free on YouTube.

Just search for George Burns under music and books on amazon.com. You'll have to imagine the arched eyebrow and cigar.

Today's trivia

How did George Burns choose his stage name?

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com

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