Gateway Arch: Monument to the Past, Beacon for the Future

Gateway Arch in St. Louis

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, MO, stands on the banks of the Mississippi River as a monument to Thomas Jefferson and the past explorers and pioneers who saw the westward movement as a beacon of hope for the future. It is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and is maintained by the National Park Service. The arch, also known as the St. Louis Arch and the Gateway to the West, is a national historic landmark symbolizing westward expansion.

During Jefferson’s presidency (1801-1809), the United States doubled in size as a result of the Louisiana Purchase. The nation’s western border that had been the Mississippi River was extended to the Rockies after the addition of an 828,000-squre-mile area known as the Louisiana Territory. The U.S. purchased the entire area from France for $15 million in 1803.

Jefferson commissioned an expedition made up of U.S. Army volunteers led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across the newly acquired territory. The Corps of Discovery Expedition, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, began the journey May 14, 1804. They followed the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, mapping and documenting everything from types of terrain, wildlife, plants and Native American tribes. With the help of Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who was their guide and interpreter, they reached the starting point of the Missouri in Montana and continued west through the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast. They returned to St. Louis, September 1806.

In the 1930s, civic leaders discussed having a commemorative site on the riverfront that corresponded to the original location of the French colonial town of St. Louis. It was also to honor the significance of Jefferson, Lewis and Clark and the pioneers who followed. The goal was to create a memorial that would make this history familiar to the public. The proposed project was approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. State and federal agencies contributed to the funding and the National Park Service got the dilapidated buildings within the designated area condemned and demolished.

Gateway Arch in St. Louis
Eero Saarinen and his Gateway Arch design

The Jefferson Expansion National Memorial Association (JENMA) sponsored an architectural competition to select a winning design for the memorial. The contest opened in 1947. Architects were judged on the physical structure as well as the surrounding landscape. Eero Saarinen was the winner out of 172 entries. The judges unanimously felt that his Gateway Arch design reflected a monument that paid tribute to the past and served as a beacon for the future.

Before any construction could begin on the arch, five sets of railroad tracks had to be relocated. The groundbreaking was in 1959 and the 60-foot-deep concrete foundation laid in 1961. Work on the arch began February 12, 1963, and the “topping out” was October 28, 1965. The outside is stainless steel and the inside is structural steel. Work continued on the inside with the north leg opening to the public in 1967 and the south leg in 1968. The arch cost $13 million to build. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was the guest speaker at the dedication ceremony on May 25, 1968.

At 630 feet tall, it is the tallest man-made monument in the United States. Visitors reach the observation deck by a tram that travels approximately 3.86 miles per hour. Viewing distance from the top is up to 30 miles. Underneath the arch is the Museum of Westward Expansion where the history of the Louisiana Purchase and of St. Louis sets the scene for this national park.

The Gateway Arch is just one part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. For more information about visiting this monument that symbolizes the past and hope for the future, the links are provided below.

By Cynthia Collins


Gateway Arch – Schedule

Gateway Arch – Facts and FAQs

National Park Service – Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

U.S. Department of State – Louisiana Purchase

Lewis and Clark’s Historic Trail

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