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St Louis: The Arch and About


The Gateway Arch in St Louis is a soaring modern symbol, and clearly the city's best-known landmark; it draws millions of visitors a year and defines the view from most of downtown St Louis.


Its simple lines, though, give little hint of its complicated story. These days it is simply the Gateway Arch and the centerpiece of Gateway Arch National Park, but its origins lie in the idea of a memorial to America's westward expansion, focusing on Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Lewis and Clark expeditions that followed.

1280px-June_1965_Arch_Construction Kevin William KellyKevin William Kelly/Wikimedia Commons

But, while those events that are part of American history, they also led to taking the land and lives of America's native populations and taking other territory from Mexico; the idea of a monument to 'territorial expansion' has given way to the "Gateway to the West."


The Arch's National Park today includes the arch, the Old Courthouse and the Arch's visitor center and museum; it shares the site with the Basilica of St Louis, King of France, the only building remaining from the original site, near where the city was founded in 1764.


Planning for a waterfront memorial started in 1933 as a way to revive the city's Depression-era economy, but disagreements over funds and planning started almost immediately and continued for years. Even more years went into figuring out how to remove rail lines crossing the site. It was into the late 1940s when a design by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was chosen, and then another 20 years until the arch was dedicated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968.


The Basilica, steps away from the entrance to the arch, was built around 1831; it was the first stone Catholic church in the city and was the first cathedral in U.S. territory west of the Mississippi. It's not, of course, part of the National Park property, but is part of the experience for many visitors.


Even when it's out of sight, the Arch leaves its mark on the scene.


The Old Courthouse is currently under major renovation; built in 1816 as a combined federal and state courthouse, it was the scene of the first trial in which Dred Scott and his wife sued for their freedom when their owner, who had held them in a free state, Illinois, for years returned them to Missouri, a slave state. Their original state court victory was overturned in a famous decision by the Supreme Court that helped lead to the Civil War.


Inside the arch, two complicated tramways lead visitors to a viewing area at the top. Travel on the tram is slow and a bit claustrophobic as the 4-person compartments slowly edge their way up through a complicated series of levels with shifting views of the interior of the arch.


At the top is the viewing area—which was a bit disappointing to someone who is used to observation areas with large windows and expansive views; here the windows are small, narrow, and set back far from the walls.


But, the views of the river and city are sharp and clear...


...and if there were a game on, you'd have a great seat for a baseball game!


The bridges and boats of all kinds, especially barges being pushed and pulled along the river reminded me of how important river traffic still is, even in an age of air cargo and 18-wheelers.


Whatever the inspiration for the Arch and its history, it has clearly made itself a city center and a great place to look down from as well as up to!


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  • 1280px-June_1965_Arch_Construction Kevin William Kelly

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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