Gateway Arch National Park

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We decided to visit our 55th National Park (in our quest to visit all 61 -now 62) in November. After all, at 91 acres with no backcountry, hiking or outdoor activities, it doesn’t really matter if it’s November and cold so we headed to St. Louis to visit Gateway Arch National  Park. We had great reservations about Gateway Arch being designated a National Park before we went and our visit there, although completely enjoyable and pleasant, did nothing to change that viewpoint.

Our feeling is that making Gateway Arch a National Park dilutes the true meaning of the Park Service’s flagship National Parks. According to the definitions set out by the National Park Service, “a National Park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.” Gateway Arch does not meet these criteria at all. There is no significant natural feature, variety of resources or large area.

The National Park Service operates 419 different sites with different designations. Originally this park was Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and meets the National Park Service’s definition of a memorial – “ used for areas that are primarily commemorative. They need not be sites or structures historically associated with their subjects.”  On February 22, 2018, this small, 100% man-made park’s designation was changed to become Gateway Arch National Park. Gateway Arch National Park includes the Arch, an underground visitor center and museum, the Old Courthouse, Mississippi riverfront, and landscaped green space.

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The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial began in 1935 with the idea of a national historic site to commemorate the role of St. Louis in the westward expansion of the United States. Forty blocks of St. Louis’ historic waterfront were demolished in the 1940’s to make room for the memorial. In 1947 a national competition for the design of a memorial was issued and Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch was chosen from 172 entries. Saarinen’s design presented some unique challenges to the engineers and contractors. Nothing like this had ever been built or even attempted. Actual construction of the arch began in February of 1963 and was completed in October of 1965.

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We purchased tickets for the tram ride to the top and the documentary movie Monument to the Dream.

Each tram car is a small pod with seats for five people and would not be good for someone who is claustrophobic (stairs to the top 1,076). The ride takes four minutes to the top of the arch and you are allowed to remain as long as you would like. The shape of the structure and the small windows provide a completely unobstructed view below. The ride back down takes three minutes. It was foggy and rainy the day we were there so we couldn’t see too far but it was still impressive.

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The movie was extremely well-done and well worth the ticket price. The engineering, materials, technology and construction were amazing. The arch is 630 feet in height and 630 feet in width and is designed to sway 18” in a 150 mph wind. The outer skin is stainless steel and it weighs 17,246 tons. When construction began, they expected to lose 13 people in the process and incredibly there was not one life lost. This is particularly surprising as the footage in the movie showed that they worked with no safety harnesses and most didn’t even have hard hats. The Arch is truly an engineering marvel and fascinating.

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The Museum of Westward Expansion houses an extensive collection of artifacts. In a well-designed format, it explores the history of St. Louis from 1764 when Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau selected a site to build a commercial village named St. Louis for King Louis IX of France and located near the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers through the modern day. Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the expansion of the United States and the westward movement are highlighted. We spent several hours in the museum and could have spent more but you can only absorb so much at one time before getting “museum head”.

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The Old Courthouse is also a part of this national park and was really interesting. The Dred Scott case was heard there. Dred Scott sued for his freedom after having been taken, as a slave, to live in free states. The case was decided in the Scott family’s favor but was later overturned by the Supreme Court. It took eleven years before the Scotts finally gained their freedom. The displays in the Old Courthouse provided a great deal of insight into the personal trials and political turmoil of the period leading up to the civil war.

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We happened to visit the opening weekend of Winterfest which is held in the park immediately behind the Old Courthouse. The lighted Christmas trees, performers, ice skating pond and free food provided a nice intro to the holiday season.

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For more information: https://www.nps.gov/jeff/index.htm