The St Louis Arch: Gateway to the West

The Gateway Arch in St Louis, Missouri, is a part of the Thomas Jefferson Western Expansion Memorial, commemorating the pioneers and settlers who moved into the new Louisiana Purchase and began the western expansion of the United States. The stainless steel monument is the tallest arch in the world, and is one of the primary tourist attractions in the city of St Louis.

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The Gateway Arch

In the early colonial days, North America was divided between the French and British. Britain had 13 colonies ranged along the east coast, from Massachusetts to Georgia, while in the interior, France controlled the territory along the Mississippi River. The French and British were also global rivals and fought a number of wars with each other, including the Seven Years War in 1754. In North America, the French allied with a number of Native American tribes to fight the English and their colonists, and the conflict was known as the “French and Indian War”. When it was over, the British held Canada and the eastern part of the Mississippi River valley.

The year after the French and Indian War ended, a group of French fur traders formed a settlement on the western bank of the Mississippi, calling it “St Louis”. From 1764 to 1802, St Louis remained a sleepy little trading town. Then, in 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling its size. Over the next few decades, settlers poured into the new territory, new states were formed, and St Louis, strategically located on the Mississippi River, became a growing port town By 1890, St Louis had almost half a million residents, and in 1894 the city became even more important when the Union Railroad Station opened. Within two years, over 950 railroad passenger cars were arriving in St Louis from the east each day. Many of these continued west, and St Louis soon became known as the “Gateway to the West”.

As St Louis became a railroad hub and an industrial city, however, the historic riverfront area became neglected and fell into squalor. In 1933, during the Great Depression, city officials proposed a number of projects to revitalize the riverfront and provide jobs to city residents, but none of them ever went anywhere. Then a local lawyer named Luther Ely Smith proposed that a monument be built along the river celebrating Jefferson’s purchase of Louisiana and the subsequent expansion of the US westward. The federal government became involved, and the National Park Service was placed in charge of the new planned national monument.

A tract of land was obtained along the riverbank by appropriating 40 square blocks of (mostly African-American) neighborhood. There was at the time much resentment over this–St Louis had a checkered past when it came to race relations. The infamous Dred Scott court decision had been issued here in the St Louis Federal Courthouse, and just a few years before the monument project began, East St Louis had experienced one of the bloodiest race riots in US history. Other residents also objected to the project, declaring it a waste of money and a “boondoggle”: a number of local residents filed lawsuits to try to stop the project. But in the end, the city issued a bond to raise money, the Federal government assigned money under the WPA, and Congress made an appropriation to finance it. The total cost was planned at $30 million.

The outbreak of World War Two put the project on hold, but in 1947 a design competition was held, and the design submitted by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen was selected. Saarinen’s design was for a gleaming steel arch, 630 feet high, symbolizing the western gateway. The arch would be hollow and would allow visitors to enter and view the city from the top. The memorial complex also included the Old Courthouse, two city blocks away from the Arch, where the Dred Scott case was first heard, and would also house a park, an underground Visitors Center, and a Museum of Western Expansion. Saarinen drew up the plans for all of these. Sadly, he died in 1961, a year before construction on the Arch began.

There was still some opposition to the project. Accusations were made that Saarinen had cribbed the design for the project from a “triumphal arch” planned by Mussolini in Italy, which Saarinen dismissed as “preposterous”. As part of the project, the designers wanted an uninterrupted view of the nearby Mississippi River, and it took some time to persuade the local railroad companies to replace their elevated railway tracks with underground tunnels. Some in Congress opposed the appropriations for the project, calling it a waste of money. The original design had also called for a Museum of Architecture, a Tea Garden, a long covered walkway, and a reconstructed French colonial living history village. All of these were dropped for budgetary reasons. During construction, protesters from the Congress of Racial Equality climbed onto the structure to demonstrate against the lack of African-American tradesmen and contractors in the construction companies.

The construction design of the Arch is unique. There is no frame holding up the stainless-steel skin: rather, the skin itself is the structural element. The Arch consists of two layers, both made of sheet steel. At the bottom one-half, the space between the two skins is filled with concrete to give support. Both sides were built simultaneously, so it was vital that all of the measurements be absolutely accurate so they would meet cleanly at the top: to avoid inaccuracies caused by sunlight expanding the steel, the engineers made all their measurements at night. Because the Arch is so tall, no crane could reach the top, and two specially-designed “creepers” were built that crawled along the outside of the structure to carry materials to the top as it was built. Inside the inner skin is a hollow space, which was fitted with a small tram system containing passenger cars, which travel to the observation area at the top of the Arch to give a view of the surrounding city and the Mississippi River. In typical winds, the top of the Arch sways about an inch from side to side. It was designed to swing about 18 inches in the event of a tornado or storm.

Construction of the Arch was finished in 1965, and the Visitors Center was completed a year later. The tramway to the observation deck was finished in 1969, and the Museum of Western Expansion opened in 1976. The Museum houses a collection of historical artifacts and exhibits, covering the original Native American inhabitants of the area, the French settlers, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the history of St Louis. About 4 million people visit the Arch each year, with about 25% of those traveling to the observation windows at the top.

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One thought on “The St Louis Arch: Gateway to the West”

  1. They should update it to express something of modern U.S. culture by turning it into a double arch, painted yellow… 🙂

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