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A Monument To Westward Bound Pioneers

Updated on July 13, 2011
A Western panoramic reconstruction from several images taken by Kevin L Neff.
A Western panoramic reconstruction from several images taken by Kevin L Neff.

“The Gateway Arch.”

Since its’ beginning in 1764, St. Louis, MO had been a spring board for westward bound pioneers. It was a beacon for early explorers, fur traders and those seeking a better life were able to stock up on supplies before continuing their trek west. These facts made St. Louis a logical site for a monument commemorating those brave souls. That monument was to be “The Gateway Arch.”

The park where the monument is located is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s pivotal role in opening the West and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse there. Dred Scott was an African American slave who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom in the infamous Dred Scott versus Sanford case of 1857.

The Gateway Arch is also known as the Gateway to the West. It’s part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and has become a St. Louis Icon. It is 630 feet wide at its base and stands 630 feet tall, making it the tallest man-made monument in the United States.

630 Feet Tall

The Arch’s design was the brain child of Eero Saarinen who won a nationwide competition for the honor. His design would make the Arch’s towering 630 feet the tallest memorial in the country. However, he never saw his vision come to completion. He died of a brain tumor before construction began in 1962.

But, before the 43,000 could be built the structures’ foundation would have to be laid on bedrock. Bedrock was at 30 feet below ground level. Workers blasted another 30 feet down and the concrete footings were poured.

The structure would be hollow with 142 triangular sections covered with stainless steel. The first triangular section was put in place in February of 1963. The Arch is hollow to accommodate the elevator tram system that brings visitors to an observation deck having 32 windows at the top, 16 on each side.

The tram is an egg-shaped "elevator". Passengers enter an egg-shaped compartment containing five seats and a flat floor. Because of the shape, the elevator compartment has sloped ceilings. So, taller riders have to lean slightly forward while seated. The car doors have narrow windows, so passengers can see the interior stairways and structure of the Arch during the trip.

From the visitor center, one can enter the tramway from either end of the structure. The trip to the top takes four minutes and the trip down three. Near the top of the arch, passengers exit the tram and climb a slight grade to enter the observation area. From this vantage point, impressive scenic views across the Mississippi River and southern Illinois can be seen.

On a clear day tourists can see up to thirty miles. There are also two sets of emergency stairs for use in emergencies.

Construction began February 12, 1963 and completed October 28, 1965 at a cost of $13 million, about $90 million in today’s currency. The monument was opened to the public in July of 1967.

However, cranes could only lift the sections to a height of 72 feet. From that point,” creeper derricks” secured to each leg on vertical tracks completed the task. During construction, tolerances had to be painstakingly more than 1/64th of an inch. Any measurement errors at the bottom would be tremendously magnified at the top. Therefore, measurements were taken at night, when temperatures were cooler and would minimize any heat expansion. When tolerances were exact another section was raised and welded on. Gradually, the structure began taking shape.

On October 28, 1965, only a single section of the arch remained to be put into place. The last section fit "like a key in a lock.” A time capsule containing the signatures of 762,000 St. Louis area students was welded into the keystone before being set in place. St. Louis had their popular tourist attraction.

More than 6,000 tourists are able to visit the observation chamber in a single day. Thousands more tour the underground museum between the two legs. The Gateway Arch has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world and attracts more than 4 million visitors every year.

In 2010, the National Park Service was required to screen visitors as a counter terrorist measure. There are also barriers around the grounds to keep vehicles out.


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