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At a Glance

Gateway Arch

11 North 4th Street
Saint Louis, MO 63102

Tickets: 877-982-1410 (Monday – Friday 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. CST)

Gateway Arch Website

Museum of Westward Expansion

11 North 4th Street
Saint Louis, MO 63102


Museum Website

For most of the year, the Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward Expansion are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (winter hours). They are closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.

Click here for extended hours on Thanksgiving weekend, November 26 and 27.

The remainder of the year from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward Expansion are open from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m (summer hours).

Security Note:
Due to security measures at the Gateway Arch, all visitors to the Arch must pass through a security checkpoint. No weapons—including knives—are allowed. If you have pre-purchased your tram ticket, plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before your tram departure time.



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Gateway to Fascination

Fun Places to Visit, Little-Known History

The Gateway Arch — Its History and Architecture (St. Louis, Missouri)

By Richard Grigonis — April 9, 2011

“An arch consists of two weaknesses which, leaning one against the other, make a strength.”—Leonardo Da Vinci

Note: For a tourist's impressions and review of the Gateway Arch, see Phil Dotree's article.

The Gateway Arch, or “Gateway to the West,” is the principal component of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, an extraordinary monument built on the west bank of the Mississippi River in St. Louis, Missouri, “the oldest European city in the Midwest.” The Gateway Arch is the tallest man-made monument in the United States (630 feet, or 192 meters) and the second tallest freestanding monument in the world after the Eiffel Tower.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Gateway Arch, centerpiece of the Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri, as seen from the park. (Photo: © Atalu |

The “father” of the Memorial is St. Louis attorney and civic leader Luther Ely Smith (1873–1951) who in the 1920s had been appointed by his Amherst schoolmate, Calvin Coolidge, to build the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes, Indiana. Ten years later, the U.S. government desired to build a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, which finally materialized as the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.—even so, Smith later said that while returning by train to St. Louis from a meeting concerning the Clark memorial, he looked out at St. Louis and happened upon the idea that the Jefferson memorial should be placed on historic property in St. Louis where the expansion to the west started, an area that had now, ironically, become a drab waterfront. Essentially, Smith had been so inspired by what Vincennes, Indiana had done in its tribute to George Rogers Clark of Revolutionary War fame, that he decided to try the same thing in St. Louis.

Smith approached St. Louis Mayor Bernard Dickmann with the idea. Both men then pitched the idea again to civic leaders. Smith was appointed to chair a committee to explore the idea in greater detail the idea of renovating the waterfront area in St. Louis by turning it into a park and establishing a national expansion memorial. This committee became the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association and was formally chartered in April 1934. Luther Ely Smith served as its chairman until 1949 following selection of the Memorial’s final design.

St. Louis Gateway Arch as seen from riverfront.

St. Louis Gateway Arch as seen from the riverfront, looking west. Note the dome of the old court house in the background and, in the foreground, the grand staircase and the three flags of the USA, Missouri and St_Louis. (Photo: © Jiong Dai |

The federal government became interested in the park proposal, and on June 15, 1934, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill instituting the United States Territorial Expansion Memorial Commission to develop plans for a national memorial commemorating Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase, and westward national expansion.

On April 10, 1935, the governor of Missouri signed an enabling act authorizing cities of 400,000 or more inhabitants to issue bonds in aid of federal historic projects, and on September 10 St. Louis voted a bond issue of $7,500,000 of which $2,250,000 was made available soon thereafter.

High aerial photo of the 91-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, including the Gateway Arch.

aerial photo (taken from a commercial airliner) of the 91-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. View is looking Northeast. Note busch stadium to the left of the memorial. (Photo: © Mitch Aunger |

On December 21, 1935, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7253 establishing the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The park would be created to commemorate St. Louis’ role in the westward expansion of the United States, specifically mentioning the site as the location of the following historically important items:

  • The Spanish Colonial office where, during the administration of Thomas Jefferson the Upper Louisiana Purchase was transferred to the United States.
  • The Government House at which, on March 9, 1804, Capt. Amos Stoddard of the United States Army took formal possession of the Louisiana Purchase and raised the American flag.
  • The old French Cathedral of St. Louis, earliest home of religion on the western bank of the Mississippi.
  • The place where Laclede and Chouteau established the first civil government west of the Mississippi.
  • The place where Lafayette was received by a grateful people.
  • The places where the Santa Fe, the Oregon, and other trails originated.
  • The place where Lewis and Clark prepared for their trip of discovery and exploration.
  • The Court House in which the Dred Scott case was tried.

The Park Service was designated as the bureau to develop the memorial and $6,750,000 in Federal funds were allocated to the project to be used with the $2,250,000 from St. Louis for the acquisition, preservation, and development of the area.

Another aerial fiew of St. Louis Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Reverse aerial view (looking down and southwest) of the jefferson national expansion memorial on the mississippi riverfront. note the dome of the old court house to the right (west) and busch stadium near the top of the photo. (Photo: © Mitch Aunger |

In June 1936 the National Park Service created an office in St. Louis to develop the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, naming John L. Nagle superintendent. Under Nagle’s tenure the park proceeded with the acquisition of land for the memorial and conducted considerable research into the history of the area and early St. Louis history. Plans were made for a museum to tell the history of the American West. During this time the inclusion of the Old Court House in the memorial was first considered. On July 1, 1937 the Mayor approved Ordinance 41,142 authorizing the Mayor and Comptroller to deed the Old Courthouse to the U.S. Government. The railroad tracks next to the riverfront were then scrutinized and the Park Service proposed a tunnel as a way to conceal the tracks.

Work on clearing the area (demolition of the buildings and carting away the rubble) began on October 9, 1939 and in May 1940 President Roosevelt approved including the Old Court House in the Memorial, but the preservation and development work as well as the construction of the memorial itself was not completed until the 1960s. Furthermore, despite the designation by President Roosevelt in 1935 the national historic site was not officially authorized until May 17, 1954.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

View from the observation Room at the top of the 630-foot St. Louis Gateway Arch, looking west as the arch's shadow is cast across the grounds of the jefferson National Expansion Memorial and toward the dome of the Old Court house. note the basilica of st. louis (now a museum) to the left and busch stadium at upper left. (Photo: © Steve Geer |

In any case, the city and the Commission had firmly decided to build a monument to the explorers who had pushed the boundaries of the American frontier, including Lewis and Clark, who started their journey in St. Louis, and Thomas Jefferson. The site was the most appropriate: the original village of St. Louis on the west bank of the Mississippi River, where in 1803 Lewis and Clark had departed from a little frontier outpost to explore the vast Louisiana Purchase, acquired by President Jefferson from Napoleonic France.

There Goes the Neighborhood…

Those nearly 91 acres of the central riverfront, before the monument and park replaced them, was something of an urban sprawl: a tenement and a warehouse district that distributed various and sundry goods throughout the U.S. Companies in the neighborhood included Columbia Incandescent Lamp, Globe Pickle, Mound City Wood Novelties, St. Louis Candy, and the Trask Fish company. Dr. Joseph Lawrence invented the antiseptic Listerine in the west end of this neighborhood, at what used to be 307 Locust Street. At 1104 Locust (two blocks south of the Old Post Office), now a parking lot, there stood the furniture store of William Prufrock, who inspired T.S. Eliot to write “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1915.

St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Basilica of St. Louis, also known as the Old Cathedral.

One building that was spared demolition during the construction of the Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial was the Basilica of St. Louis, also known locally as the Old Cathedral. completed in 1834, It is the oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi river. (Photo: © Maunger |

The buildings at this new historic site were acquired not through purchase, but the more expedient process of condemnation. By September 1938, the process was complete, and demolition on the buildings took place from October 10, 1939 until May 1942. Nearly 40 blocks were obliterated, with the exception of a couple of historic structures. The most important of these was the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, known in the area simply as the Old Cathedral, at 209 Walnut Street. It’s the oldest cathedral west of the Mississippi River (completed in 1834). Indeed, it is said to be the only land in St. Louis that has been used for the same purpose since the city’s founding. From 1826 to 1843, the St. Louis diocese, headquartered at the Old Cathedral, covered nearly half of America, from Louisiana north to Michigan and from Kentucky west to Oregon. In 1845 the St. Vincent de Paul Society in America was founded at the cathedral.

Gateway Arch as seen from the Basilica of St. Louis, also known as the Old Cathedral.

Gateway Arch as seen from the basilica of st. louis. (Photo: © Mwaits |

And the Winner Is…

Following World War II, it was thought that an architectural competition should be held to find the best design for a memorial to symbolize and celebrate St. Louis’ role as the gateway to the West. In 1945 Luther Ely Smith and James L. Ford began raising $225,000 for such an architecture contest, with Smith investing $40,000 of his own money. A distinguished panel of architect judges was eventually assembled, including the director of the Philadelphia Museum, the dean of architecture at M.I.T, Louis Labeaume, and Charles Nagel of the St. Louis Art Museum.

In the resulting 1947–48 Jefferson National Expansion Memorial design competition, Eero Saarinen (1910–1961), a Finnish-American architect who designed the United Nations building in New York, Dulles International Airport near Washington, D. C., the General Motors Technical Center near Detroit, and the famous futuristic TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, beat out 172 competing entries—including his own architect father, the noted and respected Eliel Saarinen —with his design for a 630 foot-high arch.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

the Gateway Arch and the st. louis skyline are reflected in a serene Mississippi River. (Photo: © Kolby Henrie Geer |

One reason the competition’s judges liked the Gateway Arch design because it was compatible with the historical Old Court House on the St. Louis Riverfront, which is across two major streets to the west of the Arch. They noted that Saarinen’s design, “by its very form is sympathetic with the Court House dome,” which lines up on an east-west axis with the Arch.

Built during the period 1839–1861 in the classical Greek Revival style preferred by Thomas Jefferson, the Old Court House had in its day been the tallest structure in St. Louis; the sight of its bronze dome was used by steamboat captains to navigate up and down the Mississippi River. Long a forum for public speakers and events, Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782–1858) of Missouri (nicknamed “Old Bullion”) a champion of both Jeffersonian democracy and the westward expansion of the United States, gave one of his greatest (and longest) speeches at a mass gathering in the St. Louis Court House in 1849 championing the construction of a transcontinental railroad.

Looking east across the Kiener Plaza to the Old Courthouse and St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Looking east, the Kiener Plaza and the Morton D. May Memorial Amphitheater command a dramatic view of the Old Court House (where dred scott sued to obtain his freedom in 1846) and the Gateway Arch. The park’s centerpiece is a pool and fountain containing a statue known as “The Runner” by sculptor William Zorach (1887-1966). (Photo: © R. Gino Santa Maria |

The Old Court House was also where the slave Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed a historic lawsuit against his owner in April 1846 in an attempt to obtain their freedom from slaveowner Irene Emersen. Scott’s case began in the St. Louis Circuit Court and was briefly granted, based on the fact that Scott had earlier lived just across the Mississippi River in Illinois, a free state, and the Wisconsin territory. Emerson appealed the decision, however, and the Scotts were re-enslaved six years later.

In 1854 the United States Circuit Court in St. Louis considered the issue and the state court decision was upheld. Scott and his abolitionist advocates took the case to the United States Supreme Court where, on March 6, 1857, after 11 years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Dred Scott his freedom, ruling that neither free blacks nor slaves were U.S. citizens and, therefore, could not use America’s court system. It also declared Congress had no right to prevent the spread of slavery and that the Missouri Compromise was therefore unconstitutional, which disrupted the intended balance in number of pro­slavery and anti­slavery states and quickened America’s march toward civil war.

Bride and Groom in Kiener Plaza kiss in front of St. Louis Old Courthouse and Gateway Arch.

A St. Louis photo op favorite: A bride and groom kiss in front of Kiener Plaza with the Gateway Arch in the background. Kiener Plaza is named in honor of Harry J. Kiener (1881–1960) a steel executive and donor of “the runner” sculpture and fountain. Kiener was an amateur boxer, wrestler and swimmer, best known for his participation in the U.S. track team at the Olympics held at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. (Photo: © Chris Williams |

Legend has it that when Saarinen won the competition, the official notification went to his father by mistake. The family celebrated with a bottle of champagne, and two hours later an embarrassed official called to say the winner was, in fact, the younger Saarinen. The elder Saarinen then magnanimously broke out another bottle of champagne to celebrate his son’s success.

The arch shape was selected because of the simplicity and aesthetic beauty of the design, although a video that plays for tram visitors at the Arch seems to suggest that the Gateway Arch is intended to recall the curves of the innovative cantilevered arch design of the Eads Bridge connecting Illinois (East St. Louis) and Missouri (St. Louis).

St. Louis Gateway Arch at night framed by Eads Bridge.

St. Louis Gateway Arch at night, framed by the Eads bridge, a combined road and railway bridge (at 6,442 feet or 1,964 meters, the longest in the world upon its completion in 1874), spanning the Mississippi River. (Photo: © Stewart Drolet |

Saarinen himself said that, “The major concern ... was to create a monument which would have lasting significance and would be a landmark of our time... Neither an obelisk nor a rectangular box nor a dome seemed right on this site or for this purpose. But here, at the edge of the Mississippi River, a great arch did seem right.”

President Harry S. Truman dedicated the site in 1950, but it was not until May 17, 1954 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized construction of the Memorial. Even then, construction did not take place immediately. It was not until 1961 that Congress appropriated $9,497,000 for the Gateway Arch’s construction. Seventy-five percent of the memorial’s expenses were borne by the U.S. federal government and 25 percent by the city of St. Louis.

Jogger passes by Gateway Arch, Saint Louis, Missouri.

A jogger passes by the monumental staircase leading from the mississippi waterfront to the gateway arch and the rest of the Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: © Jeremy Edwards |

These funds were actually insufficient, however, and Saarinen’s overall design was scaled back to a bare minimum. The original design envisioned a grander axis extending several blocks west of the Old Court House. Another cutback involved placing the historical museum underground between the Arch’s legs, a museum that was not completed until a decade after the Arch opened to the public.

Also, Eero Saarinen believed the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial should have extended to both sides of the Mississippi River. To that end, a St. Louis attorney and philanthropist named Malcolm W. Martin became determined to create a public park directly across the river from the Gateway Arch. In 1968 Martin (who died in 2004) founded the nonprofit Gateway Center of Metropolitan St. Louis to acquire land on the Illinois riverfront and raise funds to create such a park.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

to the left is the Observation platform of the malcolm w. martin memorial park in east St. Louis, Missouri, offering a superb view of the Gateway Arch across the mississippi river. (Photo: © Ffooter |

The park eventually was constructed on the East St. Louis riverfront and is called the Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park. Dedicated on June 18, 2005, the 34.1-acre park leads from a 630-foot fountain (directly in line with the Arch across the MIssissippi river) west to the river and the Metro East Park and Recreation District. The fountain is powered by three 800-horsepower pumps, discharging 8,000 gallons of water per minute at 250 feet per second. The fountain was completed in 1995 at a cost of $4 million and was first illuminated in 2005.

The park features a 43-foot high viewing platform by HOK Designs that is sufficiently tall so that viewers can see over the East St. Louis levee. The park also has walkways that are lit up at night and are wheelchair-accessible. The memorial also includes a 9-11 memorial, picnic tables, multi-use trails, terraced lawn seating, wildflowers, interpretive signage, and a wetland.

Migrating birds fly by St. Louis Gateway Arch

Migrating birds perhaps use the St. Louis Gateway Arch as a signpost. (Photo: © Brian Longmore |

Moreover, the actual construction of the Arch was subject to a number of delays and setbacks. No one had ever tried building an arch structure of such size—let alone one based on a stressed skin of stainless steel—and conventional construction methods were not applicable.

Saarinen is credited with the idea of using an arch to symbolize both the opening of the West and St. Louis as the gateway to the West. Saarinen noted that, “the triumphal arch, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, has always been one of the great monumental forms…” It was his Chief Engineer John Dinkeloo, however, who ensured that the Arch wouldn’t collapse or warp when subjected to complex structural and wind stresses.

St. Louis Gateway Arch and rainbow.

A rainbow over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. whereas the arch is a curve called a weighted catenary, the rainbow is a circle having an angular radius from the viewer's perspective of 42 degrees, surrounding the so-called antisolar point (the point in the sky opposite the Sun). (Photo: © Jeffrey Antenore |

What’s a Catenary?

The St. Louis Gateway Arch is often mistakenly described as a “catenary arch.” A catenary is the curve formed when you allow a chain or cable to hang from its two ends under its own weight. (The word catenary comes from the Latin word for “chain.” Thus, it is the curve of a hanging chain.)

At first glance such a curve looks like a parabola (remember trigonometry class in high school?), but in fact, mathematically, it’s different—a parabola is what’s called an algebraic curve, but a catenary is a transcendental curve.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

essential weighted catenary curve of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.

Don’t feel bad, even Galileo thought the equation for the shape formed by a hanging cord was that of a parabola—and indeed such a curve can be very close to that of a parabola, especially when the curve has an elevation of less than 45 degrees. Unfortunately, Galileo didn’t know the calculus of variations, because it hadn’t been invented yet!

The Gateway Arch is said to be an inverted catenary, because its curve arches up instead of hangs down. As Robert Hooke (essentially) wrote in 1675 about the relationship between a perfect arch and a hanging chain: “As hangs the chain, so stands the arch.”

Looking up one leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch is described by a weighted catenary curve.

Looking up one leg of the gateway arch in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Perhaps coincidentally, from a purely symbolic perspective, in Freemasonry one finds the astrologically-based Royal Arch of Heaven. Alfred E. Waite, in his New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, specifically mentions the Catenarian Arch:

“There are two points from which this form of arch can be approached; the first is that of architecture, and it is proverbial in this respect that there is no curve in Masonry which approaches the catenary in strength; as regards the second, it is summarized in the simple statement that in its due and proper arrangement every Royal Arch Chapter approaches as nearly as possible the form of a catenarian arch. Of all that arises herefrom and belongs hereto it is not possible to speak: the motto is: Come and See.”

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, as seen from the stands of Busch Stadium. (Photo: © Ffooter |

As it turns out, the St. Louis Gateway Arch is not an ordinary catenary; instead, it’s closer to what’s called a modified catenary, flattened catenary, or, more often, a weighted catenary.

Whereas a catenary is the ideal shape for a freestanding arch of constant thickness, the Gateway Arch’s cross-section is narrower near the top. Saarinen wanted the Arch to appear to soar toward the heavens, so he came up with the idea of making the structure thinner at the top than at its bases.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Although the Gateway Arch appears taller than it is wide, it is in fact nearly exactly as high as it is wide. The weighted catenary curve provides the clever illusion. And yes, The Arch sits across Interstate Route 70 from downtown St. Louis, and up an imposing staircase and across another street (North Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard) from the Mississippi River. (Composite photo: © Stephen Finn |

To achieve the desired effect, Saarinen at first experimented with two different catenaries—one inside the other—for the intrados (inside) and extrados (outside) of the Arch—but he felt the resulting arch was too severely sculptural in appearance. (Ironic, really, since he had a lifelong love of sculpture.)

The U.S. National Historic Landmark nomination for the Arch states that the Arch is a weighted catenary. Its shape corresponds to the shape formed when a weighted chain, having lighter links in the middle, hangs, and then is inverted, or turned right side-up, to form the arch. The weighted catenary shape of the Gateway Arch, with its heavier sections at the base and progressively smaller ones near the apex, is thus subtly “rounder” than a pure catenary. (In the case of the Arch the vertex of the curve is a local minimum of curvature. This type of weighted catenary is called a 2-nosed catenary. This kind of arch looks taller than it is wide, but that’s just an optical illusion; in reality, the Gateway Arch is almost exactly as wide as it is tall, as we shall see.)

Looking up at the apex of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Looking up at the apex of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, where one can see the windows of the Observation Room. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)

One can form a weighted catenary either with a chain of literal weights attached at various points or else a continuous version, such as a cord or cable of varying density. Indeed, it was the German-American structural engineer Hannskarl Bandel (1925–1993), not Saarinen, who modified the inverted catenary shape for the Gateway Arch. (Bandel was a partner in the firm of Severud-Perrone-Sturm-Bandel—later known as Severud Associates. Fred Severud was the Arch’s official structural engineer.)

When Saarinen tried to demonstrate the aesthetically pleasing, “soaring” shape for the arch with a suspended in his hands, he couldn't do it. Bandel took the chain and returned in a few days, demonstrating Saarinen’s desired curve as if by magic, much to the delight and confusion of Saarinen himself. Bandel had simply replaced some of the links of constant length with variable-length links, thus changing the weight, the weight distribution, and therefore the shape. While working on the design Bandel also factored in the wind loads upon the 630 foot arch and found that if he added more weight to the first 300 feet of the arch and placed 25,980 tons of concrete in the arch's foundation the center of gravity would be lowered to a stable location.

Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri.

The design of the Gateway Arch is not subservient to elegant mathematics. Instead, it follows the aesthetic sense of its creators. (Photo by Phil Dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Instead of being guided by an “elegant” equation, Saarinen’s and Bandel’s method harked back to the ancient Greeks (the folks who gave us the slightly curved columns and walls of the Parthenon) where appearance could take precedence over strict, ideal mathematical forms.

In a way it is fortunate that Saarinen settled on a weighted catenary instead of a parabola.

Side view of St. Louis Gateway Arch from Park at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Side view of St. Louis Gateway Arch from the park at the Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: © Christopher Barrett |

As Robert Osserman of Stanford University writes in the February 2010 Notices of the American Mathematical Society, because of a curious byproduct for the density variable in the case of the equation for a parabola, “…the chain has to be weighted the most near the vertex and then decrease as the steepness of the curve increases. As a result, if Saarinen had decided that he found a parabolic arch most pleasing esthetically, he would have been faced with the paradox that in order to have the line of thrust be everywhere directed along the arch, the arch would have to be thickest at the top and taper down toward the bottom, which would be both ungainly esthetically and potentially disastrous structurally.”

As was stated previously, the St. Louis Gateway Arch has a varying cross sectional area (thicker at the base; thinner at the apex). The cross-sections of the Arch’s legs are equilateral triangles that narrow from 54 feet on each side (cross sectional area of 625.0925 square feet) at the base to 17 feet on each side at the top (125.1406 square feet).

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

The St. Louis Gateway Arch casts its curved shadow onto the surrounding grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Missouri. (Photo: © Jose Gil |

The centroid [geometric center] curve is an imaginary line inside the triangular cross-sections is the true curve of the arch. Thus, the true curve of the arch is inside it, not on the inner edge (the “intrados”) or outer edge (the “extrados”).

I’ll spare you the math. What it all boils down to is this: The width of the curve at ground level is 598.4478 feet. But this curve is inside the arch (it’s a “centroid” curve, at the geometric center of the equilateral triangular sections that are 54 feet on a side).

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

View from beneath the Gateway Arch looking at the inner edge of one of its legs (the cross section of the arch is an equilateral triangle). (Photo: © Carl Coffman |

For mathematical/aesthetic reasons we must add 15.58846 feet on each side to the width of the centroid curve at ground level to give us the width of the outer curve, so we end up with a total physical width for the Arch of 629.6247 feet.

Similarly, the Arch’s centroid curve is 625.0925 feet high, but once again, this curve is an imaginary line inside the structure (the equilateral triangular sections are 17 feet on a side at this point). For mathematical reasons (See: we must add 4.90743 feet to the curve to get the very top surface of the Arch, which is 629.99998 feet above ground level. (I’m sure that on a hot day, say, 100 degrees F, the Gateway Arch expands a bit, pushing its height to perhaps 632 feet.)

View in Autumn of a leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Another view (this time in autumn) of one of the legs of the st. louis gateway arch. (Photo: © Mehmet Dilsiz |

As Robert Osserman writes, “…since the curve C [the centroid curve], although steep, is not vertical at ground level, the cross-section of the Arch is not horizontal, and the actual outer width is slightly larger. However, one sees that the dimensions of the centroid curve together with the size and shape of the cross-sections produce an arch that for all practical purposes has exactly the same total height as width. It may be worth noting, however, since it is sometimes a source of confusion, that the centroid curve is distinctly taller than wide, and the same is even more true of the inner curve of the Arch, whose height is 615.3 feet, and width is 536.1.”

Well, I’m glad we cleared that one up!

Wide Angle view of Gateway Arch in St. Louis, with entrance to the subterranean visitors center.

Wide Angle view of Gateway Arch in St. Louis, with entrance to the subterranean visitors center. Note the stainless steel plates of the exterior. (Photo: © Jiong Dai |

A Celebration of Technology as Much as History…

The contract for constructing the Gateway Arch and shell of the subterranean visitor center was awarded to MacDonald Construction Company of St. Louis in 1962. The project’s structural engineer was the Norwegian-American Fred N. Severud (1999–1990), also spelled Sæverud, who around the same time worked on Madison Square Garden in New York City. (One of his brothers was the modern classical composer Harald Sæverud.) Other members of Severud’s firm, such as Hannskarl Bandel (mentioned in the section of this article on the catenary arch), had been involved in the Arch’s design.

Each leg of the Gateway Arch is embedded in 25,980 short tons (23,570 tons) of concrete 60 feet (18 meters) deep. Twenty feet of the foundation is in bedrock. When the foundation for each leg was set, the concrete was laced with 252 high strength tensioning rods, taut with 71 tons of pull.

Closer view of 1/4-inch stainless steel panels on the exterior of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Moving closer to the Gateway Arch, one can soon make out the 1/4-inch stainless steel panels. (Photo: © Mwaits |

In cross section, each unit is double-walled (a triangle within a triangle). The inner and outer walls are made of 3/8-inch A-7 carbon steel panels. Both walls are held apart with welded high-strength steel rods. The outer wall is covered with 1/4-inch thick stainless-steel panels supplied by the United States Steel Corporation and Eastern Stainless Steel Corporation. (It totaled 160,000 square feet of stainless steel, the largest order for a single structure in history.) The structural load is supported by a stressed-skin design considered to be “orthotropic” in that the external skin and support system are one and the same.

The initial sections of the Gateway Arch at the base are so large (54 feet on a side and 12 feet high) that they had to be welded together on site. Each triangular section arrived as three individual components, then welded together on a 56-foot-by-125-foot concrete pad. Sections closer to the apex were sufficiently small so that they were welded together at a factory and thus could arrive prefabricated. (Indeed, 90 percent of the fabrication of the Arch’s sections took place in the Warren Division plant of the Des Moines Steel Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) Because of the curve and decreasing size of the triangular cross-section, no two sections of a leg are identical. The smallest sections near the top of the arch are 17 feet on a side and 8 feet high.

Close-up of leg of Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri.

As we begin to circle one of the arch's legs, we can see that weathering since the 1960s has made the joints between plates and sections more visible. There is even some grafitti scratched into the stainless steel surface. experts are figuring out a way to remove it without losing too much surface material. (Photo: © Carl Coffman |

The prefabricated triangular sections arrived from Pittsburgh on special flatcars and were hoisted into place on each leg of the Arch by using derricks to stack them on top of each other, like stacking wedges of Laughing Cow cheese. After each triangular section was hoisted into place (quite a feat for the lower sections, which weigh 45 tons), the space between the walls was filled with reinforced concrete. At the 300-foot level, the concrete stops and from that point on up the inner and outer walls are held apart by carbon steel diaphragms.

Subtracting the space taken up by the walls and stainless steel exterior, the interior triangular space of each section is 48 feet on a side at the base and tapers to 15 feet at the Arch’s apex. Through very clever design work and engineering, this small space manages to accommodate a stairway of 1,076 steps (used for maintenance and in case of emergencies), a 12-passenger elevator to the 372-foot level, and an eight-car train, thus substantiating architect Eero Saarinen’s description of the Gateway Arch as a “circulatory system rather than a skeleton, crammed with unseen movement and deceptively simple when viewed from a distance.”

Sunlight glints off of leg of St. Louis Gateway Arch.

As we begin to face one surface of the equilateral triangle making up the Gateway Arch's cross-section, we can get a closer look at the stainless steel plates as the beams of a sunset reflect off of them. (Photo: © Kelly Bates |

Unfortunately, Saarinen never actually got to view his creation from any distance. Although ground had been broken for the project in 1959 and excavations for the visitor center and foundations of the Arch began on February 11, 1961, Saarinen died of a cerebral hemorrhage following a brain tumor operation at the age of 51 on September 1, 1961. Construction of the Arch itself didn’t begin until February 12, 1963, when the first section of the south leg was jockeyed into place.

During construction, when each leg reached the 72-foot level, the conventional derricks were replaced with two special 80-ton crawling or “creeper” derricks, each running along a track bolted up the outside of each Arch leg. The pristine polished stainless steel of the Arch’s exterior was protected from the moving derricks by cushions. Each derrick consisted of a wheel affording 360-degree movement, upon which was set a crane and a platform supported by an adjustable leveling brace. The 43-by-32-foot platform held a tool shed, a heated room for the ironworkers, a restroom, radio equipment and TV cameras used by the boom operator to maneuver each section into its proper position.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Having circled about a leg to the gateway arch's inner curved edge (the intrados), the stainless steel surface of the arch no longer appears quite as pristine as it did several yards (or meters) away, though it does appear to be in remarkably good condition for its age. (Photo: © Carl Coffman |

Each crane would load a section, it would be welded to the section below it, concrete would be poured between the walls, and the tracks would be extended up the section’s face. Each derrick then crawled up the outer face of its newly-set section and another wedge would be hoisted into position. The process would take about a week for each section. As the derricks rode up the outside faces of each Arch leg, similarly crawling scaffolds were used on the other two, inner sides of the Arch. Developed by a 21-year-old construction engineer named Melvin LeRoy Callabresi, these scaffolds were also cushioned away from the Arch’s metal surface and each was positioned at intervals so that it was easy to weld the joints between sections. Well, not that easy: As each scaffold went higher and higher, it had to start tipping toward a vertical position to match each successive weld joint line.

(Interestingly, according to his daughter Debra, Callabresi was hired fresh out of Kansas State University with no experience and given the job of designing the scaffolding, "just like that."  His responsibilities included the modeling, fabrication, construction and installation of the scaffolding, as well as surveying to make sure that the two ends met up at the top.  They had to survey at night because heat waves interfered during the day.)

View looking up one edge of a leg of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

an extreme view directly up the inner edge of one of the Gateway Arch's legs. Even today, although one can identify the individual stainless steel panels, identifying each of the 142 major sections of the gateway arch is not easy, a tribute to the exacting, state-of-the-art construction techniques used during the period 1963–1965. (Photo: © Mwaits |

The rig to weld each section together was another innovative device. Enormous suction cups held a rail just above the joint. A welding head, towed along a track by a tractor, automatically welded the seam. The resulting weld matched the seams of the prefabricated sections with such exactitude that only after decades of weathering is it possible to locate the joints between sections.

View looking up one edge of a leg of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

by intensifying the contrast of a photo of light glinting off of the arch, one can better see the joints and how both wind and structural stresses slightly warp and buckle the gateway arch's exterior steel plates. (Photo: © Leigh Warner |

As construction progressed, the Arch’s legs rose to the sky and toward each other. When construction reached 530 feet above the ground, a 60-ton, 225-foot-long stabilizing truss brace was made onsite of alloy steel and lifted by both creeper derricks into a position spanning both legs. Steel harnesses held the truss in place on either side, directing forces caused by gravity and wind towards the arch’s foundations. The truss also helped align the legs for the eventual placement of the final section at the top—both legs had to come together with the accuracy of 1/64th of an inch (0.4 millimeter). Even so, both legs had to basically be self-supporting, as the connecting bridge wasn’t set in place until the structure reached a height of 530 feet.

Sequence of nine photos documenting the rise of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.

Gateway arch Construction photo sequence: February 29, 1964 through "Topping Out" on October 28, 1965. (Photos:

“Topping Out” the Arch

The Gateway Arch was expected to open to the public in 1964, but the projected completion date was regularly postponed. Ironically, Arch watchers were caught by surprise the morning of Thursday, October 28, 1965, when the Arch finally was to be “topped out.” The insertion of the last section was scheduled for 10:00 a.m., and in preparation for this event a hydraulic jack had placed 450 tons of pressure needed to jack the legs an additional four feet apart in order to position the final piece into an 8.5-foot gap (thus allowing for three inches of clearance on each side of the last section before the pressure was reduced and everything came together). Work started earlier, however, because the sun that day had expanded the south leg by five inches (13 cm). Fire hoses were employed to pour thousands of gallons of cold water on the south leg and make it shrink to match the length of the north leg.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Detail of one of three interior corners of the gateway Arch, showing the system of stiffening braces or beams, approximately half way up the leg of the arch. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Normally at the top an arch there sits a single keystone, also called a headstone quoin. In the case of the Gateway Arch, the last section at the apex is not a keystone. Instead, it is simply the final section of the north leg, because the Gateway Arch has no keystone—there is an even number of sections in both legs (a total of 142 sections), with a welded joint in the center at the Arch’s apex.

This last section of the Arch’s north leg weighs 10 tons. A time capsule holding 762,000 signatures of St. Louis area students was welded into this final section, and then the section was blessed by both a priest and a rabbi before being raised into place.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

In the museum of Westward Expansion hidden beneath the gateway arch, there is a small reproduction of arch and the truss used to align and support the two legs of the Arch, depicting the moment prior to the insertion of the Arch's final section.

Several thousand persons watched the Arch’s completion from the surrounding area that compfrises the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and several hundred more gathered on the Illinois shore of the Mississippi at East St. Louis. Many small aircraft and helicopters (most carrying photographers) circled the arch as the final section was lifted into place.

In one such helicopter hovering above the Mississippi, Vice President Hubert Humphrey patiently watched the proceedings.

North entrance of the Gateway Arch, Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri.

1986 photo of North entrance to Gateway Arch, still looking like new. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

At 9:25 a.m. the 142nd section was lifted from the ground by one of the two creeper cranes perched on the Arch’s legs. The section reached the top of the 630-foot tall structure by 9:40 a.m. Twenty minutes later, the section had been maneuvered into position and workers began to ease the pie wedge shaped section into place. By Noon the section was positioned, and by early evening the jacks had been released, allowing the legs to come together to hold the final section in place. The dream of visionary architect Eero Saarinen was at last realized.

Also present at the completion of the Arch was Aline Saarinen of New York, widow of the Arch’s architect, Eero Saarinen. Police later reported that jewels and other items valued at $1,185 had been stolen the previous night from her motel room.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

1986 photo of the base of the North Leg of the St. Louis gateway arch as seen from the south entrance. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Undersecretary of the Interior John A. Carver Jr. said during a ceremony celebrating the completion of the arch that the structure is “not just an engineering marvel, or an architectural great...(but) reflects the impulse of the age it memorializes—westward expansion as ‘our manifest destiny.’

“The grace of this catenary symbol—which lifts our eyes in a pleasing way, responsive to the genius of [Eero] Saarinen—evidences our commitment to this ideal. So does the harmony of the arch with the city and the unity of the site with its surroundings.

“I think it does meet the challenge—it fulfills man’s belief in the nobility of his existence.”

39 cent postage stamp celebrating the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

a 39-cent postage stamp celebrating the gateway arch, America's tallest man-made monument. (Photo: © Ray Roper |

After the last wedge slipped into place, the brace positioning and the two legs of the Arch was removed and derricks crawled back down; the tracks were removed from above them and the track bolt holes in the outer surface of the Arch were filled in with perfectly-fitting, nearly invisible stainless steel plugs. The whole surface was then polished to a glistening, reflective shine.

The completed structure weighs 42,878 short tons (38,898 tons), of which concrete comprises 25,980 short tons (23,570 tons); structural steel interior, 2,157 short tons (1,957 tons); and the stainless steel panels that cover the exterior of the arch, 886 short tons (804 tons).

Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals and the Gateway Arch.

Busch Stadium, downtown ballpark of the St. Louis Cardinals, with the city skyline and Gateway Arch in the background. (Photo: © Ffooter |

Resistant to earthquakes, the structure sways one inch in a 20 mile-per-hour wind and no more than 18 inches (nine inches or 11.5 centimeters each way) in a 150 mile per hour (240 km/h) wind.

Dedication of the Gateway Arch

The completion of the arch climaxed 32 years of planning and the three years it took to construct the Arch itself. At the time, literary luminary Bennett Cerf Arch claimed that “since the arch looks something like a huge wicket, wags are calling St. Louis the ‘Wicket City.’”

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Flags of (left-to-right) the city of St. Louis, the State of Missouri and the United States of America, all set in front of the monumental staircase leading up to the gateway arch and the grounds of the jefferson national expansion memorial in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: © Chrisseman |

However, although the Gateway Arch was “topped out” on October 28, 1965, the whole Memorial wasn’t yet complete by any means. Various essential elements were not finished until years later. The arch was not open to the public until July 10, 1967. (The Gateway Arch was not designated a National Historical Landmark until May 28, 1987.)

Visitors to the Gateway Arch’s observation area at first had to use the elevator and steps, since the North Tram didn’t open until July 24, 1967. The South Tram started operating even later, on March 19, 1968, but then the North Tram was shut down to complete the load zone area. Both trams finally began simultaneous operation on May 18, 1968, just seven days prior to the Gateway Arch’s dedication on May 25, 1968, by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.

Closer look at the three flags near Mississippi riverfront, in front of staircase leading to the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

a closer look at the three flags (of st. Louis, state of missouri and USA) at the mississippi riverfront entrance to the jefferson national expansion memorial. the gateway arch towers in the background. (Photo: © Jeremy Edwards |

In his dedication speech, Hubert Humphrey proclaimed 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…Whatever is shoddy, whatever is ugly, whatever is waste, whatever is false, will be measured and condemned” in comparison to the Gateway Arch.

Rain caused outdoor dedication activities to be cancelled, reducing the number of people (250,000) expected to attend that day. The dedication ceremony itself was moved to an auditorium.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

the Gateway arch transportation system is a train or tram of egg-like capsules that can stay horizontal despite traveling below, to the side of, and above the track and cabling. its workings are reminiscent of both a ferris wheel and an elevator.

The Gateway Arch Transportation System—the “Tram”

The tram system for the interior of the Gateway Arch was designed by Richard B. Bowser (1921–2003). Bowser, a natural engineering genius, was a college dropout who left the University of Maryland in 1942 to enlist in the Navy, serving three years as a fire controlman on the destroyer U.S.S. Wadsworth in the Pacific.

Fortunately for the Gateway Arch project, in the early 1950s Bowser helped (in conjunction with his father) develop, manufacture, and install 35 examples of the innovative Bowser Parking System for parking cars in high-density cities. This employed an elevator system that could travel horizontally and diagonally through a structure as well as in the normal vertical manner. There were no ramps or driveways in a Bowser System Garage. Instead, a lift mechanism could serve many spaces in a multi-level garage. (Some of these were over 12 stories in height.)

Upper passenger loading zone, St. Louis Gateway Arch.

1986 photo of Upper passenger loading zone, St. Louis gateway arch, long before multimedia equipment was installed. you can see one of the turnstiles on the lower level. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Engineering ideas inherent in the Bowser system (as well as the engineering implementation expertise of Bowser himself) were brought to bear on the problem of transporting visitors up and down both legs of the Gateway Arch.

One day in 1960 Richard Bowser walked into the Montgomery Elevator Company offices in Moline, Illinois to visit his friend, John Martin. By coincidence, the company had recently been called by Eero Saarinen’s office, which was looking for a company to design the visitor “transporter” project for the Gateway Arch.

Lower passenger, zone, looking up. St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Lower passenger loading zone of the Gateway Arch visitor transportation system, looking up. Photo from 1986, before presentation video monitors were placed above the doors leading to each tram "capsule" or "POD". (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

As Bowser wrote in 1986: “As soon as he saw me in his office, [Martin] had his secretary make a return call to Saarinen’s office. While this was going on he was explaining what he was doing. He then took the telephone and was introducing me to one of the partners. By the time he handed the telephone to me there were two of Saarinen’s partners on the line.”

“Their first question was ‘did an elevator have to travel vertically?’ I said I didn’t think so. I could remember that my father built and installed a dumbwaiter that transferred from one hatchway to another hatchway about half way up its vertical travel. If they were interested the dumbwaiter was in a church building in Birmingham, Michigan. It turned out that the building was within a mile of their offices. Their next question was ‘when can you meet with Eero Saarinen?’”

“I explained my two-week schedule and rather than wait they made arrangements to see me the following Saturday morning giving me time enough to travel to their office and get back on my schedule by Monday.”

Lower passenger loading area and capsule doors for tram, St. Louis Gateway Arch.

1986 photo of lower passenger loading area and doors leading to capsules at the Gateway Arch, centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

A month after this initial contact, Eero Saarinen called back and wanted a presentation from Bowser within two weeks. “The first drawing that I got had an outline of the Arch, and down at the bottom was a square that showed a walkway and it said ‘elevator’—that’s all there was,” saud Bowser. For the next two weeks, Bowser worked around the clock in his basement to formulate a plan.

Bowser eventually settled on an a combination elevator-and-Ferris wheel concept based upon a train of “eggs” or capsules.

Open door to tram capsule, St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Open one of the doors in the lower passenger loading area, and you'll find yourself looking into an egg-shaped capsule, one of eight strung together like pearls to form a tram. There are two trams, one in each leg of the Gateway Arch, yielding a total of 16 capsule cars. each capsule holds up to five people. (Photo: © Kelly Bates |

“I had to compute the weight of both loaded and unloaded trains, traveling both up and down, at locations every six feet throughout the 748 feet of travel,” Bowser said (quoted in the December 1963 issue of Popular Mechanics).

After two weeks, Dick Bowser traveled to Michigan for a 45-minute presentation:

Inside a tram capsule at the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

view inside one of the tram capsules, each of which transports up to five people to-and-from the observation Room at the top of the 630-foot gaTeway Arch in St. Louis. (Photo: © Leigh Warner |

“I didn’t know the meeting was going to be anything more than a preliminary meeting with the architect and his staff,” recalled Bowser, who found himself in a room surrounded by St. Louis area congressmen, the mayors of St. Louis and East St. Louis, MacDonald Construction Company engineers, Director of the Park Service George Hartzog, and the great Eero Saarinen himself.

At 3 p.m., Bowser spent 40 minutes pitching his transporter system, which turned out to be exactly the system that was eventually adopted for the Arch. Several hours of questions followed. “After the group had been advised that the restaurant could not delay dinner any longer someone asked ‘Mr. Bowser, what are you.’ I was sure he was addressing my academic credentials. In an effort not to ruin what I felt was a successful presentation I answered ‘I’m 38 years old.’ This ‘brought the house down’ and ended the meeting.”

Tram leaving for top of Gateway Arch.

The tram and its capsule pods start to leave on their journey to the top of the gateway arch. tram has paused and one of the capsule doors has been opened to show interior of the five-foot-diameter capsule. One can see the tracks, hot rails, and cables, lower curve of south hoistway at the base of the Arch, note that train at this point is suspended under tracks. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Bowser was soon awarded a two-year contract, for a fee of $40,000—the job actually lasted until 1967.

There are two Arch trains or “trams,” one for each leg of the Arch. An independent train scheme was chosen owing to the difference in loading times between the cramped, top space of the Arch, and the more spacious bottom loading area. As the size of the crowds increase, each train can run empty one way, or if attendance suddenly falls, only one train can be run.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

reverse side (“control side”) of one of a tram's passenger capsule pods and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Each train consists of 8 “eggs” or capsules (2 trains x 8 capsules = 16 total) resembling cement mixer barrels. Each of these barrel-like capsules has a diameter of 5 feet and a door on the front, is closed on the back side, and has a flat floor. These capsule cars were designed by Planet Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, and built by General Steel Industries, Inc., St. Louis Car Division, from Reynolds aluminum supplied by Joseph T. Ryerson & Son. Each capsule accommodates five passengers in fiberglass seats, which are the only non-aluminum components to be found in the cars and carrier frames.

Opposite sides of each capsule have two seats side-by-side; one seat faces the door. The low, sloped ceilings of these cylindrical compartments compel taller riders to lean forward while seated, so the tallest of the five passengers in the capsule should ideally sit in the center seat facing the door.

South hoistway at the base of St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Detail showing tracks, hot rails, and cables, lower curve of south hoistway at the base of the Arch. NOte that tram is below tracks. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

The back of each capsule has a center pivot shaft and a ring-like frame with rollers surrounds the open front so that the barrel can rotate within the frame supported by flanged wheels running in channel shaped tracks set 30 inches apart that are laid up through the hollow core of the Arch’s leg. The weight of the five passengers in each capsule helps it rotate inside the ring framework as the track curves, thus keeping the capsule upright and the seats positioned on a horizontal plane.

In the lower load zone (in the Museum of Westward Expansion, situated directly beneath the Arch) the capsules hang from the track. As the tram—looking like a string of beads being pulled along—leaves the lower “station,” the track curves up into the body of the arch—itself curved—and so each capsule rotates 155 degrees during the trip up to the observation area.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

view looking down the hoistway from the top of the gateway arch; tram is in background. note that the tram is now on top of the tracks. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Thus, by the time they reach the upper load zone, the capsules are now above the track, made possible by the ferris-wheel like pivoting of each capsule. (See the diagram.) From the curving track, it appears that each capsule rotates to maintain an upright position. From the perspective of the passengers, however, it looks like the framework is rotating around the capsule. (And the passengers do have a perspective, because there are narrow windows on each capsule’s doors, allowing one to look at the interior stairway and other things in the Arch whiz by as the capsule ascends.)

Travel time to the apex is four minutes, and the trip down takes three minutes.

Braking mechanism used for the trams that move passengers up and down the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Detail showing breaking mechanism used for trams at the st. Louis Gateway Arch. Note the live electric rails to the left. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Interestingly, as unique as the transporter system appears, each train of eight compartments is powered by modified, though basically typical, heavy duty elevator equipment with cables, counterweights and all of the conventional safety features found in a contemporary high speed passenger elevator. Each of the Arch trains carries 40 passengers and is capable of making a round trip with passengers in nine minutes — including loading and unloading passengers in both directions. When running near capacity each train typically carries 200 to 225 passengers per hour. Thus, the whole system of two trains can move 80 people per trip, or 400 to 450 passengers per hour.

Even the elevators can, if necessary, move 277 passengers per hour. Thus 11,000 persons can make a trip up inside the Arch in 14 hours.

Close-up view of south hoistway for the tram in the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Missouri.

Detail showing south hoistway for the tram that runs in the south leg of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. View is from the southeast. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Interestingly, the Arch Transportation System is considered to be a public transportation system, and is run by the Bi-State Development Agency, a quasi-governmental organization.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

view from ground level (directly beneath the st. louis gateway arch) of the observation area at the top of arch. (Photo: © Maunger |

The Observation Room

Riders of the Arch Transportation System inevitably find themselves exiting their capsule near the apex of the Arch, where they walk up some steps and a slight grade to enter the arched observation area. The Observation Room is 7-feet-by-65-feet (2.13 meters-by-19.8 meters) and has 32 rectangular windows (16 on each side), each measuring 7-inches-by-27-inches (180 mm-by-690 mm) and 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) in thickness.

Obeservation Room, Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri.

1986 photo of The observation Room at the apex of the st. louis Gateway Arch, 630-feet above ground level. View is to the south end. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

The windows afford views to the east and west horizons, 29.3 miles (47.15 kilometer) away. This includes views across the Mississippi River to the east, the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County, and the mysterious, distant Cahokia Mounds of the ancient, equally mystifying Mississippian culture.

Looking up one leg of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The Arch is described by a weighted catenary curve.

Visitors to the st. Louis gateway arch Observation Room today. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The observation deck has a capacity of about 160 people. Because of the shape of the chamber, the sound of shoes on a bare floor and people’s conversations reflected in so many directions compelled the builders to eventually install noise-absorbing carpeting.

Steps leading to tram from St. Louis Gateway Arch Observation Room.

At each end of the observation area is a set of steps leading to a tram. here is a detailed view, looking south. control panel is on the right. (Photo by Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Finishing Touches

Even after the dedication, the Memorial as a whole was still not finished. The monumental staircase from Wharf Street to the Gateway Arch did not open until June 1976.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Tourists on the monumental staircase outside the st. louis Gateway Arch, on the west bank of the mississippi river. These steps from wharf street were not completed until 1976. (Photo: © Daedal |

Moreover, although an interim exhibit gallery was opened in the visitor center lobby in 1967, the entire Museum of Westward Expansion didn’t open until August 1976.

The Museum of Westward Expansion, tucked away underground beneath the legs of the Gateway Arch, was designed by Architect Aran Mardirosian and was built at a cost of $3,178,000, including $1,268,000 spent for exhibits. Considering that it is tucked away underground, it is surprisingly large: 42,000 square feet.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Ths stuffed bear presides over the entrance to the museum of Westward Expansion, situated underground, directly beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The museum was quite innovative in its day, having no glass or plastic enclosures to prevent visitors from getting too close to the displays, and even the number of rope barriers was kept to a minimum. It was “a refreshing experiment in trusting people,” said Ellis Richard, at the time assistant supervisor of the Park Service rangers responsible for the care of the museum and its displays. “The museum belongs to the people,” said Richard, “They paid for it with their taxes.” Of course, visitors are asked not to actually touch the displays over concern that they will rub away things like feathers and hair.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson at the Museum of Westward Expansion, housed beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

this Life-sized statue of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson stands near the entrance to the Museum of Westward Expansion, housed beneath the Saint Louis Gateway Arch. Visitors were originally encouraged to touch the statue (as an “interpretive experience”) but this is now discouraged because of possible excessive wear and tear on the statue. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The museum was also unusual in that the story of the great westward expansion is told in the words of the people who did it, with quotations from old journals and historic documents, supplanted with background music such as period songs and chants.

Moreover, no labels accompany the many artifacts such as axes, muskets, saddles, wagons and other pioneer paraphernalia. Instead the displays are placed in their proper historic context via old photographs and quotations.

Animatronic mannequin, Museum of Westward Expansion, St. Louis Gateway Arch, Missouri

At the Museum of Westward Expansion, talking animatronic mannequins dispense stories and speeches to educate visitors. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The Grounds

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is much more than the Gateway Arch alone. The original design took into account landscaping the nearly 91 surrounding acres. As James P. Jackson noted in an article about the Arch, “The most ambitious urban forestry project ever undertaken in the St. Louis area was the landscaping of the area surrounding the Gateway Arch.”

St. Louis Gateway Arch landscape architect, Dan Kiley.

dan kiley, Another unsung hero of the jefferson national expansion memorial, was the original landscape architect for the project.

Dan Kiley was the original landscape architect for the grounds of the Gateway Arch. Kiley had worked with Eero Saarinen on the memorial competition in 1947. In 1961, Saarinen wrote Kiley to say the Director of the National Park Service (NPS) Conrad Wirth wanted NPS landscape architects to take over the design of the Gateway Arch landscape, to which Saarinen objected. A compromise was worked out by which Kiley continued to carry the project through the design development phase, after which the NPS would take over preparation of working drawings.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park in Autumn.

the Grounds around the Gateway Arch in autumn. (Photo: © Frances Twitty |

Today, despite initial cutbacks in funding, the Gateway Arch and surrounding grounds do work together beautifully. At the north and south ends of the park, curvilinear, graceful staircases of toned concrete furnish access to the Arch from the riverfront. The landscaped grounds include carefully positioned trees, ponds and walkways, all of which are also curved and echo the Arch’s curves. Curves also appear in the design of the tunnel entrances for the railroad tracks traversing the property. These concrete tunnel entrances are so cleverly incorporated into the landscape via curvilinear lines and placement below grade that they are hardly perceptible.

At one time the park had the largest in-ground irrigation system in the state of Missouri, covering 49.8 acres, with 8 systems, 43 zones, 1,420 sprinkler heads, and 13.5 miles of pipe. The system was partially computer-based and partially manual in operation. The crew maintains 2,551 trees (28 species), 7,200 shrubs (4 species), one acre of wintercreeper euonymus, and 700 square yards of display flower beds.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Gateway Arch and reflecting pool. Note how the pool has a curvilinear shoreline that aesthetically mirrors the curves of the arch. (Photo: © Maunger |

The Final Cost…?

The cost of the Arch varies, depending on which source is reporting the cost. The Arch was said to cost $13 mllion, then $18.2 million, including the tram transportation system. Other sources claim that the whole Memorial, including the landscaping, cost anywhere from $34 million to as much as $40 million.

St. Louis Gateway Arch illuminated at night in the Winter.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis was first illuminated on Thanksgiving night, 2001. (Photo: © Threejays |

An Illuminating Situation

The Gateway Arch was illuminated for the first time in its history on Thanksgiving of 2001, when 44 floodlights were switched on at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, November 22, 2001 and stayed on until 1 a.m. Friday.

A Lure for Thrill-Seekers

The Arch was dedicated to the people of the United States and became perhaps the best-known tribute to the frontiersmen that built America. It also became an instant tourist attraction and a veritable magnet for strange occurrences. Perhaps it was its towering presence, 75 feet taller than the Washington Monument, that has made it the target of thrill-seekers.

Visually striking view of St. Louis Gateway Arch and surrounding grounds.

The visually striking Gateway Arch attracts not only photographers but thrill-seekers and other unusual characters. (Photo: © Benkrut |

In any case, at least ten light aircraft and one helicopter have successfully flown between the legs of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, just as a bug might fly between the legs of the Colossus of Rhodes. The first plane made it on June 22, 1966. Two planes then followed on the 12th and 17th of December 1969. The next flights were made on April 16 and October 8, 1971, November 2, 1977, January 30 and February 5, 1981, and February 26, 1982. The most spectacularly dangerous flight occurred on November 2, 1977, described in detail by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Flying without running lights, a real “wing nut” character took his aircraft up Market Street at an altitude of a mere 50 feet, “just above the street lights,” through the Arch, on across the river and back into obscurity, having secured his 15 minutes of fame.

One helicopter is known to have flown through the Arch on April 6, 1984. Helicopters don’t fly very fast; the pilot was apprehended and dealt swift justice by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

St. louis Gateway Arch, its surrounding grounds and the St. Louis skyline as they appear in the evening. (Photo: © Robert Simms |

Two men have attempted to scale the might Arch with the aid of suction cups. At 7:15 a.m. on Sunday, October 29, 1983, Ranger Roger Cleven noticed a man trying to climb the north leg of the Gateway Arch, wearing suction cups on his hands and feet. The man had ascended about 20 feet, but Cleven was able to talk him out of continuing his dramatic ascent. The following day, this same man, 21-year-old David Adcock, Jr. of Houston, Texas, scaled the 350-foot, 35-story Equitable Building near Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis, dressed in a blue suit and blue fright wig.

Adcock had previously announced that he would parachute from the building when the crowd was leaving the nearby St. Louis Cardinals-Minnesota Vikings football game. Indeed, he had already given out a batch of T-shirts to vendors outside Busch Stadium which read “1983 Arch Climb.” Unfortunately for Adcock, he drew too big of a crowd, including St. Louis police and fire companies. So, after scaling the building, he rappelled to the ground instead. Adcock used the alias “Skip Stanley, the Blue Bandit.”

St. Louis Gateway Arch as seen from the Bascilica of St. Louis King of France.

Anohter view of the gateway arch from the basilica of st. louis, now a museum that is also part of the Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo: © Mwaits |

Just five months before, on Monday, May 16, 1983, the same David Adcock, Jr., then just 20 years old, “hand-walked” up the 71-story Allied Bank Plaza building using three 10-inch diameter mechanical suction devices, then, upon reaching the 68th floor, he inserted a springboard into the side of the skyscraper, unfurled both Texas and American flags, and parachuted safely into a street filled with a crowd of cheering onlookers. At that time he had identified himself as the “Texas Bluebonnet” or “Blue Bandit,” and wore a fringed mask, a blue curly wig and a baseball cap. Even earlier, in the summer of 1982, he leapt from the 3,000-foot El Capitan mountain in California’s Yosemite National Park, receiving an 18-month probated sentence.

On Monday, September 14 1992, John C. Vincent, a 24-year-old who claimed to be a construction worker and diver from New Orleans, Louisiana (though at the time federal authorities stated that Vincent also might have lived in El Paso, Texas), performed a different kind of dive just after 7 a.m. that day: a BASE jump from the top of the Gateway Arch. He later told reporters he’d scaled the structure before dawn using rubber suction cups. Park Rangers were wary of his story and instead speculated that Vincent had been lowered by helicopter onto the top of the Arch and made up the suction cup story to protect the identity of the supposed helicopter pilot.

Looking up at the Observation Room of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Another view from directly beneath the arch, looking up at the observation room. (Photo: © Jeffrey Roach |

No one saw or heard anything other than his parachute jump, but Vincent did later produce suction cups to show reporters. Deryl Stone, chief ranger for the National Park Service (NPS) that operates the Gateway Arch, said two men on the ground taking video and still pictures of the jump were chased down and arrested.

Vincent, who claimed “to have done more than 100 base jumps,” including a May 1991 dive off of New York City’s World Trade Center, initially made a clean getaway after this jump off of the Arch, but was later caught. Vincent said he did it, “just for the excitement, just for the thrill… Just to climb something that no one’s climbed before,” he said to the wire services at the time. Then-U.S. Attorney Stephen Higgins, quoted in the September 16, 1992 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said, “It’s clearly a great stunt… It’s just something the Park Service doesn’t take lightly.” Vincent was eventually charged with two misdemeanors: parachuting in a national park and climbing on a monument. Each charge carried a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and six months in prison. It is not known how he fared in court.

Western view from the Observation Room of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

View to the west from the observation room of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Top of the World

Army parachute teams glided through the arch during a July Fourth celebration in 1976, but there are no known attempts to land on top of it, other than that of the unfortunate Kenneth Swyer, whose story follows:

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Saturday, November 22, 1980, Kenneth Swyers, age 33, an employee of the Westinghouse Electric Company plant in St. Louis County, jumped out of a Cessna at an altitude of 20,000 feet over St. Louis. He had been skydiving as a hobby for six years, having made more than 1,600 jumps.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Southwest view from observation area of the st. louis Gateway Arch. busch stadium is near center of photo. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Swyers had requested permission to make a parachute jump in the vicinity of the Gateway Arch three months previously, on August 21, 1980, but his request was denied by Charles Ross, special assistant to the superintendent of the memorial.

The night before this particular jump, Swyers recounting daredevil parachute jumps. That morning, as he was leaving to board the plane, he left a note for his wife to come to the Arch to photograph his jump. At the time of his jump just prior to 9 a.m., hardly any park employees or visitors were to be found on the memorial’s grounds.

View from the east from the Observation Room of the St. Louis Gateway Arch in Missouri.

view to the east and across the Mississippi river, as seen from the observation area on top of the st. Louis Gateway Arch, the main attraction at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

But members of area parachute clubs said that Swyers was a sufficiently skilled jumper and could easily have avoided the monument if he had wanted to.

A witness, Peter Loehr of Ohio, later told newspapers that Swyers apparently aimed for the peak of the arch, where there is a trap door leading to the interior. (Every year, the current Gateway Arch maintenance supervisor uses this trapdoor to inch out across the Gateway Arch’s stainless steel skin to install a new grapefruit-sized, 660-watt light bulb in the aircraft warning beacon atop the nation’s tallest monument. Magnets don’t work so well on the stainless steel, so workers have to be lashed to the structure by a double cable.)

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Still frames from youtube video of the yearly ritual of replacing the 660-watt light bulb in the aircraft warning beacon atop the St. Louis Gateway Arch. workman is accessing the top via a small trapdoor on the ceiling of the observation room. Note the lightning rods on the beacon and on either side.

“He landed very well,” said Loehr. “I guess he had no footing. He just slid down, fast. Where he landed was out of our field of vision, but I knew he was dead.”

Swyers drifted to his target and soon landed right at the apex of the Gateway Arch. His moment of glory, unfortunately, did indeed just last for a moment. Witnesses say he stumbled and grabbed at either the 45-inch tall housing of the Arch’s red aircraft warning light, or the short lightning rod attached to it. It was a blustery, cold and windy day, very bad for using a parachute or parasail, and wind gusts caught and tugged on Swyers’ chute. He immediately lost his balance.

Placard noting the Gateway Arch's observation area's 630 foot elevation.

A placard in the Observation Room of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch, noting to visitors the structure's 630-foot height. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The smooth stainless steel skin of the Gateway Arch offered no traction, and so Swyers began to slide headfirst down the outer side of the Arch’s north leg. When he reached the halfway point, the now-frantic daredevil pulled his backup chute, but he wasn’t traveling fast enough for it to fill with air and slow him down—it failed. Swyers landed with a thud and died on the spot.

As Randall Roberts later wrote in the Wednesday, March 30, 2005 Riverfront Times: “But what a view he sure had for one brief and shining moment, 630 feet above St. Louis. At his back was East St. Louis, where citizens changed the course of American music. And below him, the glowing red-rick of downtown, this birthplace of potions and legends, home to blues and booze, ragtime and rock. Here, writers honored the river, architects built sturdy and high, and the westward masses paused to make a quick buck.”

View of Mississippi River from the top of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

a view of a tugboat moving a barge on the mississippi river, as seen from the observation room of the st. louis gateway arch. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Lisa Hanfgarn, a park official, briefly caught sight of what she thought was an object rapidly plummeting down the north leg of the Gateway Arch as she hurried to work at the memorial complex. Reporting her observation to Seasonal Park Technician Liz Schmidt of the law enforcement division (who was monitoring the north entrance doors), Schmidt made her way to the site at the Arch, to make the grisly discovery of Swyers’ body lying among the folds of his parachute. She immediately radioed to her fellow Park Police officers requesting assistance, an ambulance and the St. Louis city police.

Two St. Louis city policemen did happen to witness the jump from Wharf Street. They rushed to the scene and documented Swyer’s fatal injury. By 8:59 an ambulance was already on the scene.

Public space around the base of one leg of the Saint Louis Gateway Arch.

View of the base of one of Gateway Arch's legs. ramp to underground entrance is at right. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Swyers’ wife got his note and was on the memorial grounds when the accident occurred and saw her husband fall to his death. (A witness said she filmed it.) She came forward at the accident scene, viewed her husband’s body for a time and then used his parachute to cover his face. During this time a crowd gathered round, a mix of Memorial visitors, police and medical personnel. Schmidt later testified that the weather was blustery, cold and windy, and that it was not a good day for a jump, near the Arch or elsewhere.

“His chute collapsed,” said police spokesman Sgt. James Prost, “and he apparently didn’t fall with enough speed to get his reserve chute out… I think he was just doing something he had always wanted to do. He just didn’t make it.”

Tourists on walkway that leads around and toward St. Louis Gateway Arch.

A walkway that leads around and toward the Gateway Arch, st. louis, missouri. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

FAA investigators soon found the pilot who flew Swyers over the Gateway Arch to make his final, fatal jump: Richard Skurat of Overland, Missouri. In December 1980 the FAA suspended Kurat’s pilot’s license for 90 days.

Famous Visitors

The Gateway Arch has attracted numerous celebrity / VIP visitors over the years: everyone from the Vienna Boy’s Choir, to entertainer Johnny Carson, to His Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales, who toured the Arch visitor complex on October 21, 1977, rode to the observation area, and attended a reception in his honor at the Old Courthouse sponsored by the St. Louis Chapter of the English Speaking Union and the Council on World Affairs.

One of the two entrances to the visitors center at the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

one of the two entrances to the Saint Louis Gateway ARch and visitors center. because of the events of 9/11, Gateway Arch, both entrances have security checkponts. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

Many U.S. presidents have also arrived to pay homage to the Arch or at least use it as a dramatic backdrop for a speech.

After a visit aboard the Delta Queen riverboat on August 24, 1979, President Jimmy Carter made a speech on the St. Louis riverfront, identifying the 10-millionth paid visitor to ride a tram to the Gateway Arch's Observation Room. Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford landed on the Memorial grounds in their respective helicopters, but in each case it was merely to keep appointments elsewhere in St. Louis. On November 4, 1984 President Reagan addressed a political rally on the Arch grounds. In 1988, then-Vice President George Bush visited the park for the VP (“Veiled Prophet”) fair.

19th Century artifacts in Museum of Westward Expansion housed beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

The Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the gateway arch is unusual in that 19th century artifacts are not isolated from the public by glass cases, velvet ropes, or what-not. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

However, the unique security problems posed by such an enclosed, confining, yet exposed space have forced the Secret Service to preclude sitting U.S. Presidents to ride to the very top of the Gateway Arch—or enter the visitor center complex, for that matter.

The only President or former President to visit the Observation Room at the apex of the Arch was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, fittingly, had been the U.S. President who authorized construction of the whole Jefferson National (Western) Expansion Memorial on May 17, 1954.

Covered wagon exhibit at Museum of Westward Expansion located beneath St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Covered wagon exhibit at the museum of Westward Expansion, st. louis, missouri. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

On November 13, 1967, Eisenhower was returning home to his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farm, and had a rigid itinerary for a visit to St. Louis visit, which included a speech at a fundraising dinner for Congressman Tom Curtis (1911–1993) who would later serve as vice president and general counsel of the Encyclopædia Britannica during 1969–1973, and chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting 1972–1973. Prior to the dinner, a 15-minute stop was planned for Eisenhower to briefly visit the Gateway Arch and chat with a reception committee from the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association, along with Superintendent LeRoy Brown and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Harry Pfanz, who had met Eisenhower during the time Pfanz was the Gettysburg National Military Park historian.

Gen. Eisenhower arrived an hour early, the committee presented him with several mementoes (now in the collection of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas), including a replica of the Arch, and suddenly he decided to take a ride to Arch’s observation area. Fortunately, no throngs of visitors were present because it was after closing time, and because of the heart condition of the 77-year-old Eisenhower, he did not have to walk to the stairs to the tram load zone: instead, the tram’s designer, Dick Bowser, was on hand to bring the tram to the upper level so that the General could enter the tram’s first capsule through a maintenance access door.

Handcrafted farming equipment from the 19th century on exhibit at the Museum of Westward Expansion, located beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Handcrafted farming equipment and traveling items on display at the museum of Westward Expansion, st. louis, MIssouri, beneath the gateway arch. (Photo by Phil dotree © Richard Grigonis)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Eisenhower “called it a ‘remarkable experience,’ but said he was sorry he was unable to see the entire city because of cloudy weather.” Eisenhower became absorbed by the technology of the Arch, and stayed longer than expected, thus disrupting his itinerary (In a November 24, 1967 letter, Col. Robert Schultz, Eisenhower’s military aide, mentioned that the General’s visit to the Gateway Arch “had loused up the whole [St. Louis visit] schedule.” In any case, Eisenhower very much enjoyed his visit to the Gateway Arch, making comments such as “This is very unusual” or “this is very unique.” Dick Bowser declared him to be a “very nice man, not like some....”

The “Order of the Veiled Prophet” and the Gateway Arch

The biggest annual event associated with the Gateway Arch is “Fair St. Louis,” a festival held during the July 4th holiday in on the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Proclaimed by St. Louis as “America’s largest birthday party,” Fair St. Louis consists of “three days of excitement, fun and action,” says St. Louis Foundation chairman David N. Farr. “There’s no place in the world celebrating the Fourth of July weekend like we do under the Arch.” Fair St. Louis attracts more than 2.5 million people annually.

Keiner Plaza, Morton D. May Memorial Amphitheater, the Old Courthouse and the St. Louis Gateway Arch during Fourth of July Fireworks.

Fair st. Louis, formerly the VP (Veiled Prophet) fair, has been closely allied with both the fourth of july celebration and the gateway arch. Here we see the Morton D. May Memorial Amphitheater and beyond it, Kiener Plaza, that offer a dramatic view of both the Old Court House and the Gateway Arch. (Photo: © Robert Simms |

The event showcases various attractions, educational activities, a barbecue competition, the Fair St. Louis Air Show, musical entertainment by popular entertainers on stage, a K-Town Kids Zone, and a traditional spectacular fireworks show to conclude each evening of the event. The festivities begin with the equally traditional Veiled Prophet Parade, generally held at 10 a.m. on the first day of the Fair.

Veiled Prophet? In fact, the whole fair was at one time known as the “Veiled Prophet Fair” (or “VP Fair”) prior to 1992. That’s because Fair St. Louis was organized by the Veiled Prophet Organization, a secret society of prominent St. Louisans who also put on the “Veiled Prophet Ball,” a debutante cotillion (now for young ladies generally in their sophomore year of college) held annually in December, as well as the Veiled Prophet Parade that kicks off Fair St. Louis during the Fourth of July holiday.

Fourth of July Fireworks at the St. Louis Gateway Arch during Fair St. Louis.

As the Fair St. Louis makes merry below, Fourth of July fireworks colorfully explode around the 630-foot Gateway Arch. (Photo: © Stewart Drolet |

The Veiled Prophet is one of the more unusual and controversial aspects of the Memorial’s history.

The original VP Fair has its origins in the agricultural and mechanical fairs held in St. Louis beginning in 1856. Interest in these fairs declined (along with attendance) by March 21, 1878, when Charles Slayback, an influential grain broker and former citizen of New Orleans, invited 20 leading St. Louis businessmen to a meeting at the Lindell Hotel. At the meeting, Slayback proposed an annual event to rival the pageantry, costuming, and floats of the New Orleans Mardi Gras (he had been a member of one of the many krewes or carnival clubs that plan different parts of Mardi Gras, such as dances and parades). Slayback hoped that such a Mardis Gras clone would galvanize public interest, boost attendance at the October harvest fairs, and generally improve St. Louis’ economy, which had been hurt during and after its occupation by Union forces during the Civil War.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Confederate Colonel Alonzo William Slayback, founder of the Veiled Prophet organization.

Slayback’s brother Alonzo, an attorney who had an apparent natural aptitude for marketing and promotion, then enters the picture to brilliantly formulate the characteristics of the event, including his mysterious majesty, the Veiled Prophet.

Alonzo William Slayback was born, appropriately, on July 4, 1838, in Plum Grove, Missouri. A descendant of a French countess and one of Louis XIV’s royal guardsmen, he became the celebrated Colonel Slayback of the Confederacy, the calvary officer who commanded the Slayback Lancers during the Civil War. After the conflict, he was awarded the title of Duke of Oaxaco after teaching the Emperor Maximilian English.

Veiled Prophet Parade, St. Louis, Missouri, 1880.

“The St. Louis Fair—Procession Of The Veiled Prophets", an engraving published in an October 1880 issue of Harper's Weekly, from sketches and photographs by John A. Scholten. (Available on eBay.)

In 1866 Alonzo moved back to the U.S. and established his law practice in that great northerly spiritual outpost of the Confederacy, St. Louis. (He tried 40 cases over a 16-year career and lost only one, thanks to his brilliantly humorous ability to ridicule his opponents. He is said to once have had the entire U.S. Supreme Court laughing hysterically.) In St. Louis he was soon joined by his brother Charles, another staunch former Confederate, who had become extremely successful in his grain business and was attempting to launch his boosterism “event” to help St. Louis.

Alsonzo researched a mythical character created by Irish poet Thomas Moore in 1817 in his book Lalla Rookh; an Oriental Romance. Moore’s first poem in the book, entitled, The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan, has a character named Mokanna who is modeled loosely on al-Muqanna, “The Veiled One” (died A.D. 779) an ethnic Persian and Muslim heretic actually named Hashim ibn Hakim, a clothes pleater and magician who claimed to be a prophet and incarnation of God.

Veiled Prophet Parade and Pageant, October 1883.

“Procession of the Veiled Prophet, St. Louis, Missouri,” an engraving published in an October 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly, drawn by Schell and Hogan based upon a photograph by the St. Louis Autotype Company. (Available on eBay.)

Alonzo changed Moore’s legend considerably: the new and improved Veiled Prophet was not a warring, rabble-rousing charlatan but an supreme capitalist, and entrepreneur who wanted to share his personal immense happiness with some community elsewhere in the world. Slayback’s version of the legend has the Veiled Prophet wandering about, finally stopping in St. Louis, which he made his adopted city. He believed the citizens of St. Louis to remind him of the contented and hard-working people of Khorassan. He sent word to city officials that in one year he would return to share his happiness with them, informing them that they must make suitable preparations for his arrival.

Such a tantalizing “hook” was sure to entice the public and certainly appealed to the businessmen, who formed a secretive, elite society that Alonzo Slayback christened, “The Mysterious Order of The Veiled Prophet.” (As Alonzo later wrote in his diary, “I think it the nearest thing to a stroke of genius that I ever produced.”) This organization, by the way, is not related to The Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophet of the Enchanted Realm (founded 1889), another social organization with membership restricted to Master Freemasons. (Its related organization, The Daughters of Mokanna, founded 1919, also takes its name from Thomas Moore’s poem.)

Veiled Prophet's Parade, St. Louis, 1887.

“Veiled Prophet’s Pageant at St. Louis,” an engraving published in an October 1887 issue of Harper’s Weekly, from the sketches of Rogers and Graham. (Available on eBay.)

Plans were quickly drawn up for a fabulous evening parade and a super-extravagant grand ball, the first of which was held on October 8, 1878 at the Merchant’s Exchange Building. The dazzling event was amazingly popular, with more than 50,000 people lining the parade route that first year.

Queen Victoria’s crown provided the model for the first VP Ball crown. Perhaps not surprisingly, the first Queen selected by the Veiled Prophet was Alonzo Slayback’s own daughter, Susie Slayback.

Susie Slayback.

Susie Slayback, daughter of Col. Alonzo W. Slayback, crowned queen of the first Veiled Prophet'S Ball.

The Veiled Prophet parade and ball immediately became annual events and a St. Louis tradition down to the present day. Early Queens carried bouquets of American Beauty roses, but beginning in 1924 the Missouri Botanical Gardens began supplying rare orchids.

One reason for the Veiled Prophet’s success was that, whereas the existing Mechanical and Agricultural Fair honored young ladies of St. Louis with its “Court of Love and Beauty” (the name probably taken from the salon of Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of England’s 12th century monarch, Henry II), the maiden’s names were always kept confidential—something of a drawback, as these stunning young debutantes were to be the festival’s main attraction.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

“The St. Louis Exposition--Procession Of The Veiled Prophet,” engraving published in an October 1886 issue of Harper’s Weekly, drawn by Charles Graham from sketches by H. R. Heaton. (Available on eBay. )

From 1885 on, the Veiled Prophet’s festivities had no such restrictions, and St. Louis newspapers were encouraged to print the names of the Veiled Prophet’s selections, particularly the “Belle of the Ball” (the “Queen”), and articles and photos were to be published revealing and extolling her beauty too. Thus, instead of being a trade union-controlled event, the V.P. committee made it possible for ladies with a non-union white collar parentage to be recognized.

As Charles Slayback wrote, “The Veiled Prophet was conceived as a social organization with a broader vision of citizenship—a purely altruistic order” compared to its preceding competitor. Which meant, amusingly, that upper-class ladies could now enjoy the same opportunities for celebrity afforded members of the working class. (Though, to be fair, those women crowned queen of the Mechanical and Agricultural Fair were always the daughters of the trade union presidents. In any case, on occasion the trade unions would stage their own events to mock what they thought were the VP Ball's pretensions.)

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.


Slayback’s wealthy associates outclassed and outspent the hokey competing Mechanical and Agricultural Fair, which ceased operations in 1894, whereupon the Order of the Veiled Prophet immediately began promoting the role of their Belle of the Ball as the new “Queen of the Court of Love and Beauty until his [the Veiled Prophet’s] coming again.” To be precise, five debutantes are chosen by secret process to form the “Veiled Prophet's Court of Honor,” of which one is chosen to be crowned the Queen by the Veiled Prophet. Aside from the Veiled Prophet Queen, other ladies are honored as the Veiled Prophet selects “Maids of Honor” and “Special Maids of Honor.”

As for the Veiled Prophet himself, his identity is traditionally kept secret even by local media. Riding on the floats of the parade with him are the hooded members of the Order of the Veiled Prophet. All of their identities are kept secret for 50 years. The first prophet was St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, another was Col. Alonzo Slayback (not a big surprise).

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

The creation of the veiled prophet AND HIS FESTIVITIES was inspired by the figure of rex, king of mardi gras in new orleans. hERE IS AN INVITATION TO THE kREWE (cLUB) OF REX BALL FROM 2007. (Available on eBay.)

Just like the Mardi Gras’ Rex (Latin for “king”) who appeared in 1872, he never removes his veil or mask. In the case of the Rex and his Queen, they sometime arrive at the Mardi Gras by boat and upon disembarking they are saluted by cannons. In St. Louis, the Veiled Prophet first arrived by barge at twilight on October 8, 1978.

The original Veiled Prophet had a more “colorful” (that is, controversial) appearance than he does today, inspired by the garb of the Klu Klux Klan. In 1877, the year before the Veiled Prophet came to town, a huge railroad workers strike had paralyzed St. Louis. As described by historian Thomas Spencer in his book, The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power on Parade 1877-1995, many African-American workers participated in the strike, which proved to be just too distressing for the social elite of post-Reconstruction St. Louis. Although the Slayback brothers did indeed want to help St. Louis economically, a further mythology concerning the VP parade and ball is that it was also a “civic balm” to bring the community together in the wake of the disastrous stike of 1877. In fact, the iconography of the first Veiled Prophet was actually something out of The Birth of a Nation.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Illustration from an announcement for the first Veiled Prophet Parade that appeared in the October 6, 1878 edition of the Missouri Republican. The artist’s depiction resembles that of an armed Klansman. (Public domain image.)

The announcement for the first Veiled Prophet Parade in the October 6, 1878 edition of the Missouri Republican printed an artist’s depiction of a rather startling character, one looking as if he could take on Ulysses S. Grant and the whole Union Army: He wears a white sheet and pointed hat, brandishes a pistol in one hand and a shotgun in another and, for good measure, has a reserve shotgun sitting nearby. Not exactly the kind of fellow one normally finds crowning the 19-year-old queen of a lavish debutante ball. He was soon replaced with a more Merlin the Magician kind of character.

Over many decades, the Veiled Prophet Organization, along with The New South, rehabilitated both itself and its celebrations. After public protests, black members were finally admitted in 1979. By the mid-1990s the VP Fair had become Fair St. Louis. And, finally, in 1996, a distinguished African-American executive at Southwestern Bell, Horace Wilkins, became the Fair St. Louis Committee’s chairman.

1981 Engraving of the Veiled Prophet.

The Veiled Prophet soon lost his Klansman image. It was a replaced with a sort of Merlin the Magician-type persona, as can be seen in the upper left quadrant of this engraving, “The Veiled Prophet Pageant At St. Louis,” published in an October 1891 issue of Harper’s Weekly. It was drawn by Charles Graham. (Available on eBay. )

As historian Thomas Spencer now says, “the Veiled Prophet Parade now is something written for children.” But it still continues to fascinate thousands of St. Louisans of all classes and the organization has done great things for St. Louis, such as the fair held on the grounds of the mighty Gateway Arch, as we shall see.

The ball continues to be St. Louis’ greatest social event. For example, even in the depths of the Great Depression, on October 4, 1933, at the 54th annual Veiled Prophet Ball in St. Louis there were 7,000 guests attending the Queen’s coronation in the elaborately decorated “throne room” of the St. Louis Coliseum. VIPs present included Missouri’s Governor Guy Brasfield Park (1872–1946) and, astonishingly, Prince Louis Ferdinand von Hohenzollern, second son of the ex-Crown Prince, who looked upon the spectacle and commented to Time magazine: “It is a long time since I have witnessed such scenes.”

Souvenir 1981 VP Fair button.

Souvenir 1981 1st Annual VP Veiled Prophet Fair St Louis Button. Nearly a million people attended the fair, which was held around the arch and Memorial's grounds. (Available on eBay.)

On that evening four maids of honor—Miss Laura Stephens Gray, Miss Jane Marshall Metcalfe, Miss Mary Elizabeth Bascom and Miss Marion Elizabeth Caulk—were selected by the Veiled Prophet, before he announced his “consort” to rule over the Court of Love and Beauty for the ensuring year. The Queen he selected was Jane Alva Johnson, 19, daughter of Vice President and Treasurer Andrew W. Johnson of the International Shoe Company.

The VP Fair is Born at the Gateway Arch

In the early 1980s, it was decided to expand the public aspects of the Veiled Prophet event from a city-wide parade celebration to something more impressive, capable of garnering national attention. Robert R. Hermann, a St. Louis businessman and civic promoter, also wanted to build upon his July Fourth “Freedom Festival” riverfront fireworks show, traditionally sponsored by St. Louis’ Famous-Barr Stores and KMOX-AM Radio (1120 AM), which pioneered the call-in talk radio format in the 1960s. The Freedom Festival was popular but offered little in the way of food or entertainment. There was much room for improvement (that is, promotion).

Huge crowd at the 1982 VP Fair, held at the Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri.

The second VP Fair, in 1982, had many problems, including alternating rain and extreme heat, and 3.75 million attendees that littered, waded in the pools and trampled the Memorial's grounds. (Photo: National Parks Service.)

In 1981, Robert R. Hermann recruited 100 community leaders to organize the first Veiled Prophet Fair held on the Mississippi riverfront. The NPS issued a special use permit to the City of St. Louis, which, in turn, issued the permit to the VP Fair Foundation. The fair opened on Saturday, July 4, 1981, following the previous evening’s VP Parade. Fifteen community and charitable organizations staffed food and beverage booths, and approximately 3,000 volunteers managed entertainment activities around the Memorial’s grounds. Nearly a million people attended the fair. The monies raised were funneled into the organization and staging of the second fair in 1982.

The Veiled Prophet Organization still aims to serve and promote the St. Louis Community. Since 1992 the VP Fair is now Fair St. Louis. It starts on the Fourth of July weekend, with various ancillary celebrations extending for five weekends each summer as “Celebrate St. Louis and Live on the Levee.” The events continue to attract millions of visitors (and dollars) to downtown businesses, and has led to the creation of a huge volunteer network that extends to various St. Louis constituencies and communities.

Souvenir token imprinted with Gateway Arch from 1983 VP Fair.

Token from the 1983 Veiled Prophet fair held on the grounds of the St. Louis Gateway Arch. (Available on eBay.)

The Veiled Prophet Organization continues to add programs to enhance St. Louis life. For example, the VP Community Outreach Initiative involve members and their daughters who will be presented at the VP Ball. VP Community Initiative projects have provided funding for many service projects and over thousands of man-days of “sweat equity” performed by VP volunteers. Projects have included the construction of three Habitat for Humanity Houses, two elementary school playgrounds and refurbishment projects at four St. Louis city schools.

The Order’s largest yearly contribution to St. Louis continues to be the Veiled Prophet Parade, one of the longest running parades held in the United States, attracting over 100,000 spectators to the streets of the city each year as it is the opening event for Fair St. Louis.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

Veiled Prophet fair souvenir program, July 1986. An impressive, 160-page celebration of st. Louis and the fair, held on the grounds of the gateway arch. (Available on eBay.)

The City of St. Louis has benefited from both indirect and direct multi-million dollar investments made by the VP Organization and it members. Direct investments include the Overlook Stage on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard on the riverfront, the improved lighting of Eads Bridge and the new Grand Staircase connecting the Gateway Arch with the riverfront.

Reframing the Gateway Arch for Its 50th Anniversary

On January 26, 2011, the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation hosted a “Report to the Community” presentation to a full house at the America’s Center’s Ferrara Theater in downtown St. Louis. Lead designer Michael Van Valkenburgh, (MVVA) and members of his design team revealed plans for redesigned Gateway Arch grounds and its connections to St. Louis, the riverfront and the Illinois side of the Mississippi river.

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

projected appearance of the West Gateway project. it shows a redesigned Kiener Plaza, the Old Court house, the proposed shutting down of Memorial Drive and creation of a walkway over Highway 70 and a new entrance to the Arch grounds and museum. (Photo: © CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.)

During a period of four months after winning a competition, Van Valkenburgh worked closely with a broad group of people in the community, key representatives from the City of St. Louis, City of East St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois Departments of Transportation and park service officials.

“This is an iteration of what was shown this summer,” stated Van Valkenburgh. “The vision for this project is that the east side and the west side are more connected than they currently are. The park on the east side is expanded and begins to take the place which was imagined by Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley when they won the competition in 1947.”

Area to be altered around St. Louis Gateway Arch by 2015.

By the time Gateway Arch celebrates its 50 anniversary in 2015, much of the area around the arch and the old court house (in foreground) will have been altered. (Photo by Phil Dotree: © richard grigonis.)

The project can be envisioned conceptually as four areas: The West Gateway, from Luther Ely Square over to Citygarden; the Arch grounds; Riverfront on both sides; and the Eastbank Park.

Van Valkenburgh explained that the plan will make the Arch and its grounds “even more incredible and friendlier,” increasing the range of things that people can do in the area. “We are now proposing to close Memorial Drive… We are in the process of rethinking the connectivity and flow of traffic in downtown.”

Museum store at the Museum of Westward Expansion, under the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

One thing that won't change by 2015 are people wanting to buy gateway arch-related souvenirs. Here's the gift shop at the museum of Westward Expansion, located under the arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree: © richard grigonis.)

“We are also proposing a new entrance to the Arch ground, right at the edge of Luther Ely Square,” said Van Valkenburgh. Parking will be moved more into the downtown areas, rather than building new underground garages... St. Louis gets a little hot here in the summer, so there will be lots of shade trees.”

Considerable changes will occur to Kiener Plaza, with a major waterplay element introduced into the design. There will be a year-round restaurant and open grassy area that is family-oriented on one side with an old-style carousel and a beer garden on the other side.

Second gift shop in the Gateway Arch's Museum of Westward Expansion is a confectionery store.

A second gift shop in the museum of Westward Expansion, Levee Mercantile, offers confections and foodstuffs from the late 19th century. (Photo by Phil Dotree: © richard grigonis.)

The project also involves the construction of a gondola paralleling the Poplar Street Bridge. “This challenge of the divide between the east side and west side is most centrally solved with an incredibly easy way for users to go from one side to the other,” said Van Valkenburgh, noting that some of the aerial cabs have glass bottoms. “Some people would think it’s extremely cool to be over barges and looking down on them. It would be a fantastic ride,” he said enthusiastically. This new design element involves expanding the east side by adding 60 or more acres, enabling expansion over time.

Interior of confectionary shop, Museum of Westward Expansion, beneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Interior view of the well-stocked confectionary shop at the museum of Westward Expansion, housed beneath the Gateway Arch. (Photo by Phil Dotree: © richard grigonis.)

Van Valkenburgh said one major change involves accessibility. “Whether you are in a wheelchair or not, you should be able to get down to the waterfront without using the stairs. We have carefully studied through grading how to create ramped access to the lower level and throughout the Arch grounds.”

In theory the work will be finished by October 28, 2015, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “topping out” of the Arch.

Night view of St. Louis Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse.

In St. Louis, The Old Court house and the gateway arch are like bookends, not just of a large historic and civic area, but of history itself. work is already underway to prepare the arch and st. louis for another 50 years of tourism and progress, both economic and social. (Photo: © Ken Cole |

“Thank you, Daddy”

The November 29, 1987 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on how the 42-year-old Susan Saarinen, daughter of architect Eero Saarinen, visited the top of the Arch for the first time (“Saarinen Finds Dad’s Arch ‘Neat’.”). She was awed by the structure, which did not seem very impressive when she was just a child growing up in the Saarinen household. Newspapers reported that as she was leaving the Gateway Arch, she said “‘Thank you, everyone’... to a group accompanying her on her visit. Finally, glacing back over her shoulder, she said ‘Thank you, Daddy.’”

St. Louis Gateway Arch park side.

View of the arch from the south. note the tiny figure on right side of arch holding scale rod. (Photo: Jack Boucher, April/May 1986, Historic American Engineering Record Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.)

Like Susan Saarinen, we thank him too. End of article dingbat


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