“As they drove up to a bridge, they saw a very broad waterway, its water both heavy and yellow; both realized without having to say a word that it was the Mississippi, Father of Waters, the river that divided America in two and joined North and South, the great river of Louis Jolliet and Pere Marquette, the sacred river of the Indians, the river of the black slaves and of cotton, of Mark Twain and Faulkner, the river of jazz and the bayous, the mythic, legendary river that people said merged with the soul of America.”
⁃ from Volkswagen Blues, by Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman.
I’m not sure I would describe our first view of the Mississippi as “heavy and yellow”. Viewed from its west bank in downtown St. Louis under a clear fall sky it was steely grey. Later on though, from 630 feet up at the top of the Gateway Arch, the muddy river bottom did lend an ochre tint to the water.
Nothing defines St Louis, Missouri more than “the arch”: the shining stainless steel monument that reminds everyone that this city is the country’s gateway to the west. I didn’t feel we could come through the city without experiencing it, so we bought tickets for the ride to the top and the historic displays at its base. Maybe we should have felt more trepidation when we were asked at the ticket counter whether either of us had trouble with stairs, a fear of heights, or claustrophobia, but the line was full of families of all ages…. so how worried could we be?
We entered the arch from below ground level, walking down a ramp from the beautiful riverfront park. After going through airport-style security (sadly, a feature of most museums and national park attractions in the U.S.), we entered the underground museum area. I had read about it, but was nonetheless really impressed with the displays: the explorations by Lewis and Clark; the history around the Louisiana Purchase including the ways in which the native tribes were relocated and the rights of women impacted by the change from French laws to British ones; the growth of St. Louis into a commercial and shipping hub for goods and people heading west; and the part that Thomas Jefferson played in America’s western expansion. I particularly liked the interactive screens that allowed you to choose how deeply you wanted to explore a theme. As an example, one display involved changing images of pages from Jefferson’s own notes.
Of course, there was also an area that focussed on the arch itself, beginning with the vision to revitalize the waterfront with a monument to the city of St. Louis’ role in opening up the west, through to the design contest being won by Eero Saarinen -the same man who designed Toronto’s city hall in Nathan Phillips Square! Now that you know that, does the arch over Toronto’s skating rink remind you of anything?
We took in a 15 minute documentary about the incredible engineering involved in the building of the arch. Each leg was 500 feet tall, supported internally with steel and cement and externally (temporarily) in a way that allowed a derrick to be attached to it on a rail once ground cranes could no longer lift sections that high, before they added a support between the legs and completed the curve at 630 feet above ground. I was TERRIFIED just watching footage of the high steel workers with absolutely no safety harnesses. Interestingly, the project had been predicted to have 13 fatalities, but had none.
After the movie, it was our turn to take the 4 minute tram ride to the top. The tram’s mechanical design is described as a “combination elevator, escalator, and ferris wheel”. Unlike the CN Tower’s elevator, in which you stand upright and can lookout through the glass, the 8 cars that make up this tram are more like cramped space pods. They were built in the 1960’s after all, and they do need to fit inside the leg of the arch, even as it narrows at the top! Each pod is only 4’4” tall, with a 4 foot hatch-style door. Inside are 5 seats, designed by Saarinen himself in a shape similar to his famous “tulip” chairs. There are no windows, although the hatch is fitted with glass through which you can see just how tight the space between the tram car and the arch interior wall is. Each tram car is a rounded shape, so even when seated tall people have to stoop over. Ted, folded up somewhat grasshopper-like in his seat, said it reminded him of some crazy vehicle in a Dr. Seuss book…. and he “did not like it, Sam-I-Am!”
The viewing room at the top, fitted with a series of sixteen 27” x 7” windows on each side, has a disconcertingly curved floor…. we were at the apex of the arch after all! They had a strong cool “wind” emanating from the air vents as a way of counteracting claustrophobia in the room. The entire space is 7′ 2″ x 65′ x 6′ 9″ high and in theory can hold 160 people (4 full tram trains), but it felt crowded enough with only about 60 people in it, and tall guys were very near the ceiling.
For the ride back down, we crammed back into a tram car with a new set of “close friends”. The ride down is only 3 minutes, as we’re helped along a bit by gravity.
Was it worth it? Well, the view from the top, especially on the city side, is spectacular, and it’s a neat experience to be inside an engineering marvel, so for me the answer is a resounding yes. Ted’s reaction? “Interesting.” (But probably better than green eggs and ham)
The only downside to our afternoon at the arch was that it didn’t leave us enough time to visit the historic courthouse, where the Dred Scott trial took place. Located across from the arch, it is apparently architecturally gorgeous as well as historically significant, but sadly it closes at 4:30 every day. Maybe we’ll get to tour it on our next trip through St. Louis….but we’ll be back on the road tomorrow morning, continuing our journey southwest.