Halfway down the mighty Mississippi, a model of engineering greets the world to the Lion of the Valley, the Gateway to the West, St. Louis, Missouri.
Today on America’s National Parks, Gateway Arch National Park, and its namesake architectural wonder that is like no other on earth.
The Gateway Arch has always inspired me. I’m a sucker for structures that make a statement about a city: Seattle’s Space Needle, The Chrysler building, The White House, Independence Hall. I grew up about 7 hours upriver from St. Louis and seeing that silver gleam on our annual trips to one of my favorite cities still gets my heart racing today.
The Gateway Arch is known worldwide; it’s probably only second to the Statue of Liberty But how much do you actually know about its history? It’s wild, and it parallels much of the 20th century.
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In 1933, amidst the pains of the great depression, civic leader Luther Ely Smith looked upon the industrial St. Louis riverfront and envisioned a project that would stimulate the town’s economy — a large memorial to commemorate the people who made the western expansion of the United States possible. People like President Jefferson, his aides Livingston and Monroe, explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark, and the territory’s hunters, trappers, and pioneers. He approached mayor Bernard Dickmann, who brought it up in a meeting with city leaders. They endorsed the idea, and the nonprofit Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association, or “Jenny May” as they called it, was formed. Smith was appointed chairman.
As with most projects of this sort, locals did not approve of exhausting public funds for such a cause. The people of St.Louis would often tell Smith that the city needed more practical things, and he would respond that “spiritual things” were equally important. The crushing yoke of the Great Depression changed a lot of minds. The project was expected to create 5,000 jobs for three to four years. And the association hoped that the federal government would foot three-quarters of the bill for the project, which was budgeted at an astounding $30 million.
The association worked a bill through Congress to authorize the project without any funding appropriated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill into law.
Meanwhile, the association began working on an architectural competition to determine the design of the monument.
Funding was applied for from the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, as well as the State of Missouri. Funding was approved on all counts.
Since the Mississippi River played a crucial role in establishing St. Louis as the Gateway to the west, a memorial commemorating it needed to be near the river. An 82-acre area was set aside, even as some taxpayers filed lawsuits to block the construction.
Following a rigged bond measure to cover the city’s costs—the St. Louis Post-Dispatch counted 46,000 phony ballots, more than enough to tilt the outcome, and denounced the project as “election thievery” — The National Park Service began to acquire the buildings within the historic site in an extremely controversial way. Instead of purchasing the buildings, which were mostly dilapidated factories and slums, they went and had them condemned. There were several legal disputes over the condemnation, but ultimately the United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it legal. A total of $6.2 million was distributed to landowners.
On May 30, 1947, 14 years after Luther Ely Smith looked upon the riverfront and envisioned a project that would stimulate a ravished economy, the design contest officially opened. The competition included two stages—the first to narrow down the designers to five and the second to single out one architect’s design which was to include: An architectural memorial to Jefferson, landscaping, provision of an open-air campfire theater, reproduction of old historic buildings, a Museum interpreting the Westward movement, a vision of greater opportunities for people of all races and creeds; recreational facilities on both sides of the river, parking facilities,placement of an interstate highway, and moving train tracks only recently built on the levee.
After four days of deliberation, the jury narrowed down the 172 submissions to five finalists. A father and son, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, had both entered the competition. Eero was chosen as a finalist, but, officials mistakenly told the father, Eliel, he had made the cut. The family had begun a champagne celebration to toast the senior Saarinen when a telegram came to correct the error. Eliel broke out a second bottle of champagne to toast his son.
Eero Saarinen’s design instantly stood out. It was a massive steel arch, 580 feet high, which he said symbolized “the gateway to the West, the national expansion, and whatnot.”
During the second phase of the competition, the design was refined. It was increased to 630′ in height and width. It was to have carbon steel on the interior, stainless steel on the exterior, and a concrete in-filling. The legs were originally square, but the design changed to an equilateral-triangle-shaped crosssection that tapers from 54′ wide at the base to only 17′ wide at the top.
He wanted the landscape surrounding the Arch to be so densely covered with trees that it would be a forest-like park, a green retreat from the tension of the downtown city.
Saarinen’s design was chosen unanimously.
The design drew mixed responses from the public. While some saw it as an impressive modern display, some likened it to a hairpin or a stainless steel hitching post.
It would be a lot more impressive once it left the bounds of paper drawings.
As preparations began, the train tracks were still a problem. Saarinen proposed a tunnel below Second and First Streets, and further said that if the tracks passed between the memorial and the river, he would withdraw his participation.
Ultimately the tunnel design was too expensive, and a grand staircase that would connect the memorial and the river was designed to cover a 1000′ portion of the tracks.
The federal government, strapped for cash, began to pull back on appropriations and was unwilling to foot a large bill for moving the railroad tracks. It was now the 1950s, and the Korean War, in particular, was a drain on the government coffers. The association resorted to approaching the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations for $10 million. The foundations denied the request because their function as private foundations did not include funding national memorials. In 1956, Congress appropriated $2.64 million to be used to move the railroad tracks. The remainder of the original authorized appropriation was requested via six congressional bills, increasing federal funds by $12.25 million.
Moving the railroad tracks was the first stage of the project. 10:30 a.m. on June 23, 1959, 12 years after Saarinen won the competition, the groundbreaking ceremony occurred. In 1961, the foundation of the structure was laid, and construction of the Arch itself began on February 12, 1963.
The steel triangle legs, which narrowed as they increased in height, were prefabricated in sections. The stainless steel pieces of the Arch were shipped in via train from Pennsylvania and had to be assembled on site. Once in place, each section had its double-walled skin filled with concrete. In order to keep the partially completed legs steady, a scissor truss was placed between them.
Welders had to work especially carefully to ensure their measurements were precise—the margin of error allowed was less than half a millimeter. If the sections didn’t line up correctly, the top of the Arch would not fit.
Many people speculated that the Arch would fail when the trestle was removed.
The construction itself was a tourist attraction. Contractor MacDonald Construction Company built a 30-foot tower for spectators. In 1963, a million people went to observe the progress, and by 1964, local radio stations began to broadcast when large slabs of steel were to be raised into place.
However, construction of the Arch was often delayed by safety checks, funding uncertainties, and legal disputes.
Civil rights activists regarded the construction of the Arch as a token of racial discrimination, as the unions had barred skilled Black workers from involvement. On July 14, 1964, protesters climbed 125 feet up the north leg of the Arch to draw attention to the discrimination, demanding that at least 10% of the skilled jobs go to African Americans. Four hours later, they dismounted from the Arch and were arrested. But they were successful in getting the United States Department of Justice to file the first pattern or practice case against the AFL–CIO under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; unfortunately, the department later called off the charges.
The unions halted construction regularly to ascertain if the work site was safe. But even though the insurance company for the project predicted that 13 workers would die during construction as workers were hundreds of feet in the air with no safety nets, no one died during the project.
The ceremony date was reset to October 17, 1965, and workers strained to meet the deadline, taking double shifts, but failing.
On October 28th, a time capsule containing the signatures of 762,000 students was welded into the keystone before the final piece was set in place. The Arch was completed as Vice President Hubert Humphrey observed from a helicopter. A Catholic priest and a rabbi prayed over the keystone, which is a 9-ton eight-foot-long section. It was slated to be inserted at 10:00 a.m. but was done 30 minutes early as thermal expansion had constricted the 8.5-foot gap at the top by 5 inches. Workers used fire hoses to spray water on the surface of the south leg to cool it down and make it contract. The keystone was inserted in 13 minutes.
The Gateway Arch was expected to open to the public by 1964, but in 1967 the public relations agency stopped forecasting the opening date. The Arch’s visitor center didn’t open until June 10, 1967, and the tram inside that takes people to the top opened two weeks later.
The Arch was officially dedicated by Humphrey on May 25, 1968, who declared the arch “a soaring curve in the sky that links the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow” and brings a “new purpose” and a “new sense of urgency to wipe out every slum.”
The project did not provide 5,000 jobs as expected— in fact; workers numbered fewer than 100. The project did, however, spawn another $150 million in riverfront restoration efforts, including a 50,000-seat sports stadium, a 30-story hotel, several office towers, four parking garages, and an apartment complex. One estimate found that since the 1960s, the Arch has incited almost $503 million worth of construction.
In June of 1976, the memorial was finalized. The statue of Thomas Jefferson was unveiled, the Museum of Westward Expansion was previewed, a theater under the Arch was dedicated and a curving staircase from the Arch down to the levee was built.
In 1974, the Arch ranked fourth on a list of “most-visited man-made attraction[s]. It’s now one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, with over four million visitors annually, of which around one million travel to the top.
Three years after the monument’s opening, the St. Louis phone directory contained 65 corporations with “Gateway” in their title and 17 with “Arch.” Arches also appeared over gas stations and drive-in restaurants. In the 1970s, a local sports team adopted the name “Fighting Arches”
Robert S. Chandler, an NPS superintendent, said, that most visitors are awed by the size and scale of the Arch, but they don’t understand what it’s all about … Too many people see it as just a symbol of the city of St. Louis.
Eero Saantarin went on to design Washington Dulles International Airport, the TWA terminal at JFK International Airport in New York and a celebrated line of high modern furniture, but died of a brain tumor at 51, fourteen years after he dreamed up the Arch and four years before it was finished.
Over the last decade, a massive revitalization project was undertaken to revive the Arch, it’s museum, and the grounds. A highway passed between the Arch and downtown, which included the historic Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott decision was tried. The courthouse is also a symbol of St Louis, framed perfectly by the Arch, linking our Nation’s original sin with the optimism of a brighter day. Now, there’s a physical connection between the two, as a massive lawn has ben built over the highway, finally linking the Arch closely with the downtown area. The entrance has been moved from near the Arch’s legs to a stunning central slit in the lawn that leads to a modern museum. To culminate the project, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, as it’s been called for decades, has been rechristened Gateway Arch National Park — the 60th to receive the congressional designation and the smallest.
Just as many objected to the Arch’s construction, putting the “National Park” brand on modern construction has drawn the ire of many national park lovers. But consider this: The park is a multifaceted connection between our past, present, and future. It’s a park, for the Nation. And it’s certainly not the first humanized area to become a National Park.
I think we should be a little less precious with the National Park designation. Let’s have hundreds more National Parks. Places where people can come together to experience our country in many different ways.
The America’s National Parks Podcast is hosted by Jason Epperson and Abigail Trabue, produced by Lotus Theatricals, LLC and sponsored by L.L.Bean. Follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.