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Without millions in repairs, Old Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge could further drop weight limit

The Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Granite City.
Brent Jones
St. Louis Public Radio
The Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge on August 17 in Madison The bridge between Chouteau Island and Madison used to be a part of historic Route 66.

The Old Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge, the only connection for vehicles to Choteau Island and Gabaret Island in the middle of the Mississippi River, currently stands in jeopardy and is the subject of a lawsuit.

The aging bridge owned by the city of Madison, Illinois, needs repairs — $4 million for a band-aid fix and $26-28 million for full repairs — or farmers, utility companies and government agencies may not be able to get anything heavier than a car across.

“There's a lot of reasons we really need to have that bridge open,” said John Hamm, Madison’s mayor for the last 25 years.


But Madison, population 3,171, doesn’t have the cash or tax base to fund either option, Hamm said. That’s led the city to look for a solution from state or federal grant money or possible financial support from some of the entities that own land or do business on the island.

Both Illinois’ Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Transportation denied the city grants to help fund the project. The government transportation agencies cited a small amount of traffic on the bridge, the mayor said.

The bridge’s state has created a situation where those who need access to the island have turned to creative — but sometimes expensive — alternatives, like barges, that may need to become normal and unpredictable if a solution isn’t found.

“You’re at Mother Nature’s mercy,” Hamm said of using barges. “The river is up. The river is down. Where do you get off?”

For some land owners, like Keller Farms based in Collinsville, the need to fix the bridge can’t be understated. When the city dropped the weight capacity from 23 to 7 tons last year, that kept owner Craig Keller from taking any heavy farm equipment over the bridge.

“We had it all planted to find out that we weren’t allowed to go back out there to harvest,” Keller said.

It’s gotten bad enough that Keller filed a lawsuit against the city earlier this year along with a family of Granite City farmers. In the original complaint filed in Madison County Circuit Court this February, the Cionkos of Granite City alleged Madison’s negligence led to the city dropping the weight limit.

For the Cionkos, they couldn’t harvest and sell their soybean crop last year. They want Madison to give them $50,000 in damages, cover court costs and any other money the court deems relevant, according to the complaint.

Keller, who rotates his fields between corn, soybeans, wheat and horseradish on the island, tried hiring barges last fall to transport his equipment, but the water level of the Mississippi River was too low, he said.

This spring, his solution was to come through the New Chain of Rocks Bridge to the north. Keller got permission from the construction company doing repairs to the I-270 bridge and used a ramp to get his equipment on the island.

That’s how he planted again this spring. Keller said he’s now using drones to fertilize the 200 acres he owns and another 100 he leases on the island. Overall, the whole ordeal hasn’t been cheap for Keller or easy to navigate.

“It’s harmful to us,” Keller said. “But what are you going to do? You can’t fight the government.”

Madison took control of the bridge from the Illinois Department of Transportation in 2002, according to the mayor. Along with the bridge, IDOT gave the city $4.45 million for upkeep.

Three or four years ago, the engineering firm hired by the city found deterioration in the bridge’s steel structure that led them to drop the weight limit, Hamm said. Eventually, the engineers dropped the weight capacity to 7 tons.

Exactly how much work the city has done to repair the bridge is unclear. Madison’s engineering firm, Juneau Associates Inc. based in Granite City, declined to comment for this story, citing the advice of legal counsel. When asked for further comment, Hamm declined to provide additional details.

In a previous interview, Hamm said Juneau Associates’ engineers inspected the bridge again this month. The outcome of the inspection is unknown.

What does this mean for others on the island?

Aging steel on the Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023 in Madison.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Aging steel on the Chain of Rocks Canal Bridge on August 17 in Madison.

Illinois American Water, a publicly traded utility company, operates an intake facility on the northwest corner of the island. The company takes water from the river and pumps it to its Granite City’s treatment plant and some to the East St. Louis’ facility, said Terry Mackin, a company spokesman.

“It is essential to water service that our employees, contractors, vendors and equipment companies have access to our water intake and pumping stations on Chouteau Island,” Mackin said.

The fear of Illinois American Water — that’s shared by others — is what happens if the weight limit drops further to 3.5 tons. That could mean even fewer vehicles would be allowed onto the island.

If the bridge isn’t repaired, Mackin said the utility company doesn’t anticipate it would affect daily service. However, it too would need to use barges to transport any heavy equipment needed on the island.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources owns 2,000 acres of land that’s used for hunting and conservation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns and maintains levees on either side of the canal. The only way to work on either island with heavy equipment will require a barge and more people, said spokesman George Stringham.

“Without using the bridge, it would cost more and is more inconvenient to load, transfer and unload the equipment to Chouteau and Gabaret islands,” Stringham said.

St. Louis Pipeline Operating LLC. sends jet fuel to St. Louis Lambert International airport via a pipeline that runs across the island. The company could not be reached for comment.

Hamm said he will continue to keep his eye out for any grant opportunities. The city has also engaged with state and federal lawmakers to discuss funding opportunities. Mackin, with Illinois American Water, said the company is also working with the city to find the needed money.

For Keller, the farmer, he said doesn’t care how it gets done. He just wants a solution sooner rather than later.

“Just get me over the bridge,” Keller said. “Political guys, do what you got to do. Give me access to what I rightfully had that they took away from me.”

Will Bauer is the Metro East reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.