Monday, August 28, 2006

Gateway Arch

The Gateway Arch -- the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- is a kind of underground theme park, and on this Sunday – just hours before the Cardinals / Cubs game – the place was packed.

Underground, you say? Though the steel arch rises 630 feet above ground, the facilities for it are all beneath it. It’s here that you come to see the Museum of Westward Expansion, a large format film on the Lewis & Clark expedition, a documentary on the building of the arch, two shops and a ticket center for the tram ride into the arch itself and a nearby riverboat ride.

Taking it all in can consume hours. A cheery young man named Charles (I promised I’d mention him) sold me a combo package of tickets that was really pretty reasonable: For $21 (I’m a National Parks annual pass holder), I got the one-hour river cruise, tram ride up the Arch, museum entry and the documentary film on the Arch’s creation. I saved $3.

The arch itself is a remarkable feat of both architecture and engineering. Land for a memorial marking the westward expansion was set aside in the 1930s, but it would be another 35 years before it was finished. In 1947, architect Eero Saarinen won the design competition for the memorial. Engineers and fabricators then went to work; the triangular steel sections for the arch were built in Pennsylvania, then shipped to St. Louis and installed over a two-year period. It was completed almost 41 years ago, in 1965. The documentary about its construction is well worth seeing, but even if you’re not afraid of heights, it will give you the willies. (No safety harnesses in sight!)

A cranky little tram ride in a five-place circular car – a kind of Ferris wheel in the dark – takes you to an observation deck at the crest of the Arch, and from here you can see the Old Courthouse where the Dred Scott case was heard (it’s actually park of this national park) and the stadium where the Cardinals were batting up.

The river cruise was less of a thrill. In Europe, where land is tight, cities are clustered around waterways, built high on their banks to guard against flooding. The Mississippi is a sad contrast, a brown and barren mess whose few surrounds are industrial and largely rusting. There’s little here to see, and less worth seeing. You’d think we could better.

A terrorism note: In light of the recent thwarted airline attacks, the parks service isn’t allowing any liquids inside, and you have to drink or dump your water before entering. Bags are carefully checked by hand and then X-rayed; any “weapons’’ (such as my pepper spray) are left behind for retrieval when you leave.

Photos: Top, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis; center, the tram car to the top; bottom, The Old Courthouse, seen from the top of the Gateway Arch. Photos by JANE WOOLDRIDGE/MIAMI HERALD.


shaun rhodebeck said...

hi jane this is shaun back in st louis you know the young guy at the top of the arch you met. well i hope u have safe travels out west . i would love to know how to get into the field of work you do in case my other goal doesnt pan out . i would love to travel to places like they do on the travel channel. however besides me saying that. i really enjoyed your company and our talk at the top perhaps we can do it again sometime.thanks for talking to me -shaun

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