Where is it?
Gateway Arch National Park is in downtown St. Louis, Missouri on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Park highlights include:
- Visitor center
- Theater and introductory film
- Gift shop
- Tram rides to the top of the arch – advance reservations recommended
- Riverboat Cruises – advance reservations recommended
- Historic Old Courthouse (projected to be closed for renovations until sometime in 2023)
Link to the park’s website here.
Why is the park significant?
Gateway Arch National Park, originally the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, commemorates the western expansion of the United States. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the land stretching west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and south from the border of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The $15 million acquisition from France became known as the Louisiana Purchase, and it doubled the size of the United States. One year later, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a two-year expedition to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River. The expedition party, known as the Corps of Discovery, included about 45 men, most of whom were in their mid-twenties and single. Their journey began 34 miles north of present-day Gateway Arch National Park at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
The Old Courthouse
A significant portion of the park is the old St. Louis County Courthouse, now generally known as the Old Courthouse. It was there in 1847 that Dred Scott, an enslaved man, and his wife, Harriet, sued their owner, Irene Sandford, for the right to be free. The trial was dismissed on a technicality, and the case was retried in 1850. Although the Scotts were awarded their freedom in the second trial, their emancipation was short lived. In 1852, Irene Sandford appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court and won, making Dred, Harriet, and their children enslaved to her once more.
Scott appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1856, but in March of 1857, he lost his quest for freedom once again. In what became known as the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote that all people of African descent, whether enslaved or free, had no right to sue in federal court because they were not citizens of the United States. He also stated that the Fifth Amendment protected slave owners’ rights because slaves were their legal property. The Scotts were eventually freed in 1857 by a man who had purchased them from Irene and her second husband. Sadly, Dred died of tuberculosis just sixteen months later in September of 1858.
Trivia: In an ironic twist, it was Justice Roger Taney who swore in Abraham Lincoln as President in 1861.
History of the Park
In 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt designated a 62-acre tract of land on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis for a national park site. The site would later become the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. While workers began clearing the land to make way for the memorial, it was decided that the Old Courthouse would also become part of the park. In 1948 architect Eero Saarinen won a national competition with his design for a stainless-steel arch. Construction on the arch began in 1963, and it was completed in 1965. The north and south trams would not be completed until 1967 and 1968.
Visiting the Park
Upon entering the visitor center, visitors will find the ticket counters where they can pay the entry fee ($3.00). Tickets for the tram, riverboat cruise, and “Monument to the Dream” film, may be purchased at the same time. Advance reservations are highly recommended, however, as they frequently sell out, especially the tram to the top of the arch. Purchase tickets online and see options for package deals on all three of the paid attractions here. Visitors must pass through an airport-style security area before entering the section of the facility where the museum, cafe, trams, theater, and gift shop are located. The Old Courthouse, park grounds, riverfront trail, and museum are free for everyone to enjoy. Free parking may be found on the streets and along the riverfront near the park, however, most visitors take advantage of paid parking garages. Click here to see the park’s recommended parking options.
Ride to the Top of the Arch
The arch features a north tram and a south tram which both end up in the same place at the top of the arch. Built similarly to a Ferris wheel, tram pods have to shift with the curve of the arch in order to keep passengers upright. Each pod holds five people, and the ride to the top takes about four minutes. The floor of the observation deck arcs upward with the curve of the arch.
At the top there are sixteen windows on each side allowing views east toward the river or west toward downtown St. Louis. Visitors spend about 8 minutes at the top before reboarding their pod and taking the ride back down.
The museum features six galleries:
- Colonial St. Louis
- Jefferson’s Vision
- Manifest Destiny
- The Riverfront Era
- New Frontiers
- Building the Arch
Note in the above photo that the last piece at the top is missing and there are contraptions attached to the incomplete arch. In order to set the last section into place, engineers had to jack the legs of the arch apart. If the measurements had been off as much as 1/64th of an inch, the final piece would not have fit. Gateway Arch is truly an amazing feat of engineering. Perhaps even more amazing is that no lives were lost during its construction.
The Missouri Fur Company was established in St. Louis in 1809 by a group of fur traders and businessmen from Missouri and Illinois. Over the next twenty years, the company’s expeditions explored the upper Missouri River and began trading with Native American tribes. With the navigable Mississippi River on its doorstep and the ability to ship furs north to trade for manufactured goods, Missouri Fur Company was instrumental in the establishment of St. Louis as an important trading center.
With Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and access to riverways to explore the country’s newest lands, St. Louis became known as the “gateway to the west.”
In 1817, the first steamboat arrived in St. Louis. By 1840, riverboats began rolling into St. Louis’ port daily. The city had grown into an important distribution center for imported goods from foreign countries as well as other parts of the U.S.
Gateway Arch National Park is home to two riverboats, the Tom Sawyer and the Becky Thatcher which were brought to the park in 1964 so interested onlookers could watch the construction of the arch. Since that time thousands of park visitors have enjoyed the boats, and it doesn’t look like Tom and Becky are going to retire anytime soon.
Basic cruises last approximately one hour, but the park offers several other options, including dinner and specialty cruises. Visitors will learn about the points of interest along St. Louis’ waterfront as well as the history of some of the interesting bridges that cross the Mississippi River near the park.
The image above shows the Martin Luther King bridge (foreground), Eads Bridge (middle) and MacArthur Bridge (back). Here are some interesting facts about the three bridges:
- Martin Luther King Bridge was named Veterans Bridge when it opened in 1951. Though after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the name was changed to honor the slain civil rights leader.
- Historic Eads Bridge opened in 1874 as the world’s first steel arch bridge. Eads Bridge is a combined road and railroad bridge.
- Originally named St. Louis Municipal Bridge, MacArthur Bridge opened in 1917. Built as a double-deck bridge, one for automobiles and the other for trains, the bridge once carried Route 66 across the Mississippi River. Although the road deck was closed to vehicles in 1981 and eventually removed, railroads continue to use the bridge today.
Thanks so much for visiting Gateway Arch National Park with us!
While you’re here, check out these other great national parks:
Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
10 Amazing Things to See and Do at Big Bend National Park
Happy, safe travels, y’all!
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) We aren’t paid for our recommendations, and we only recommend our own tried and true vendors and venues. Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.