The Iconic Gateway Arch
Gateway Arch National Park is different than any other flagship national park in the United States. It is in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the smallest flagship national park by far at only 91 acres, and doesn’t have a natural area. Why is Gateway Arch a National Park? We’ll get to that later, but let’s take a look at the park first.
The main attraction at Gateway Arch is … the Arch … that was completed in 1965. It commemorates the role Thomas Jefferson played in the westward expansion of the United States. It is an iconic symbol that embodies the adventurous spirit of America, and one of the most recognizable.
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Luther Ely Smith Park
There are two parts of the national park, connected by Luther Ely Smith park, a broad walkway over Interstate 44. The arch is between the Interstate and the Mississippi river, and the old courthouse is on the other side of the Interstate. The walkway is very well done and you’d never know there is a highway under you as you walk the 3 tenth of a mile between the arch and the old courthouse.
The arch is 630 feet tall, 630 feet wide, and sits parallel to the Mississippi river. Just as a comparison, it is taller than the Seattle Space Needle and the Washington Monument. It is the tallest structure in Missouri and dominates the riverfront landscape of St. Louis. The arch itself is 54 feet at the base and 17 feet at the top with stainless steel skin.
The plaza surrounding the arch is very nice, with a riverfront walk and a dock for sightseeing boats. It’s on par with many riverfront city parks.
The Best Visitor Center of All National Parks
The visitor center, located under the arch, is the best of any national parks. The entrance faces west, with a nice view of the old courthouse and designed to be unobtrusive. The plaza and the museum underwent a $380M renovation just before it became a flagship national park in 2018.
The museum chronicles the initial establishment of St. Louis in 1764 to the present day. The entrance is modern, beautiful, and clean. As you enter, there are ticket counters where you can buy tickets. There is a fee for the museum, tram ride to the top, the documentary, and the riverboat tour. A platform with a stylized map of the United States, used for public functions, is just behind the entrance hall.
The main museum is on the lower floor and extends towards the river from the entrance. As you walk towards the exhibits, large video screens show various pictures and videos themed on the westward expansion of the United States.
The five sections of the exhibit displays the history of St. Louis, westward expansion of the United States, and daily life in that period.
Colonial St. Louis
The first section is Colonial St. Louis, from 1764, when St. Louis was established as a fur trading post, to 1804. St. Louis became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. There is a house typical of that era transplanted to the museum, simulated videos of what St. Louis looked like at that time, and other artifacts of that era.
The second section is Jefferson’s Vision, from 1804 to 1840. St. Louis was the capital of the Louisiana Territory from 1812 until Missouri gained statehood in 1821. St. Louis was incorporated as a city in 1822. The arrival of the steamboat, the Zebulon M. Pike, in 1817, ushered in a new era of growth. The city is the northern most port for riverboats due to the rapids on the Mississippi to the north. The courthouse was completed in 1839.
The third section is Riverfront Era, from 1838 to 1860. There is a model of the riverfront with steamboats docked on the river. At one time, St. Louis was the third busiest port in the United States. A covered wagon in this section gave a real good look at the main mode of transportation as Americans migrated west. This was the kickoff point for most people’s westward journey. 6 months of provision was typical to be carried in these wagons for the trip west. Just imagine the adventurous spirit and hope that drove people to take the risk, hardship, and uncertainty of the journey.
The fourth section is New Frontiers, from 1860 to 1930. During the civil war, the city was under union control. The railroad came to St. Louis and the exhibit showed the goods of daily life. The Eads Bridge over the Mississippi was completed in 1874, connecting St. Louis to the east. Union station opened in 1894, with more railroads meeting in St. Louis than any other city in the United States. In 1904, St. Louis hosted both the World’s Fair and the Summer Olympics. It was an up and coming city.
Building the Arch
The fifth section is Building the Arch, from 1930 to today. St. Louis city population peaked in the late 1950s at about 880,000 residents. Early urban renewal for a riverfront memorial to honor Thomas Jefferson started in the 1930s, led by Ely Smith. In 1948, Finnish architect Eero Saarinen’s design of the arch was chosen, but construction did not start until 1954. The arch was topped out in 1965, and the museum and visitor center opened in 1976.
Tram to the Top
The entrance to the trams that take you to the top of the arch, along with a theater, gifts shop, and restaurants are at the eastern end of the exhibit.
The arch is beautiful in its simplicity. It naturally draws the eyes to the sky. At the top of the arch is a room for 140 people with small windows. There are two trams that go between the base and the top, one on each leg. Each tram has eight capsules with five seats each. The capsules are cramped, only five feet in diameter. The only view from the tram is the dark interior of the arch. Most of the time, the view is the staircase for maintenance and emergencies.
The trip to the top takes four minutes. The capsule stays horizontal as it moves up, rotating a total of 155 degrees. The trip down takes three minutes.
View from the Top
At the top, one side overlooks the Mississippi river and Illinois while the other side overlooks the city of St. Louis with Busch Stadium and downtown in clear view. You have to crouch down to look out the window because the room is less than 7 feet tall and the windows are at about 4 feet, but you can stay as long as you want. The space is pretty small so you’ll have to wait your turn at the window. It can feel cramped and few stay more than 15 minutes at the top.
The view from the top is fantastic, especially on the city side. It’s the St. Louis’ version of an observation tower. East St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, is more industrial and has many factories and docks while the St. Louis side is all city.
The documentary, Monument to the Dream, that chronicles the construction of the arch, plays at the Tucker theater for a fee, and there is a riverboat cruise aboard a steamship to explore the Mississippi river.
The Old Courthouse, a short walk from the riverfront park, is one of the oldest structures in St. Louis. This is where the Dred Scott case to free himself as a slave was heard in 1847 and 1850. Ultimately, Dred Scott was granted his freedom by the United States Supreme Court in 1857 that laid the foundation for the civil war.
The other famous event at the old courthouse is the Virginia Minor trial. She sued for women’s right to vote in 1873. Ultimately, she was not successful because the US Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to establish women’s right to vote. The battle for women’s right to vote moved to each state.
The Old Courthouse is grand and has the dome common in such buildings. The interior is colorful and awe inspiring. The original courthouse was built in 1828 and a second courthouse was built in 1838 that incorporated the original courthouse as the east wing. That wing was demolished in 1851, replaced by a new wing. The west wing, where the Dred Scott trial occurred in 1848, had to be demolished in the 1850s to fix a structural problem, so the original courtroom where the trial occurred is no longer present.
The dome interior is interesting to view, and you can see the courtrooms typical of that era
Gateway Arch is a great place to visit. It has interesting history, an iconic structure, the best visitor center of any national park, and a fun ride to the top.
Why is Gateway Arch a National Park?
The National Park Service manages 423 sites as of March of 2021, 63 of them are designated as official National Parks. Other designations include National Historical Sites, National Memorials, National Monuments etc. National Parks are the flagship of these sites.
On February 22, 2018, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became Gateway Arch National Park.
The Easy Part of the Name Change
The change was sponsored by Senator Roy Blunt and received very little discussion in the hearing. There were two parts to the name change. The first part is to change Jefferson National Expansion to Gateway Arch. Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was established in 1935, well before the arch. After the arch was built in 1965, the center of attention switched to the iconic arch. There is widespread agreement on this part of the name change.
The Controversial Part of the Name Change
The second part of the name change, from a national memorial to national park, is more controversial, and this is where I disagree. Gateway Arch National Park does not fit National Park Services’ own definition of what constitutes a flagship National Park.
Definition of a National Park
According to the National Park Service:
“Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”
Definition of a National Memorial
“The title national memorial is most often used for areas that are primarily commemorative. “
Definition of a National Monument
“A national monument is intended to preserve at least one nationally significant resource. It is usually smaller than a national park and lacks its diversity of attractions.”
Does Gateway Arch Fit the Definition of a National Park?
Are there a variety of resources at Gateway Arch? No.
Does it encompass large land or water areas? No.
Does it protect resources? No.
Then why is it a national park? Is there another designation that fits better?
Is this park commemorative? Yes!
Then why isn’t it a national memorial?
Does the park preserve at least one nationally significant resource? Yes, the arch
Is it smaller than a national park? Yes
Does it lack diversity of attractions? Yes
Then why isn’t it a national monument?
The title National Memorial or National Monument would be perfectly fine for this wonderful testament to the spirit of America, the crucial role the Louisiana Purchase and the role westward expansion played in building the United States.
What About Other National Parks with a Historical Significance?
There are three other official National Parks that have historical significance as part of their emphasis, but all of them also have resources to protect, with much larger areas that require preservation.
Mesa Verde celebrates the strange cliffside dwellings of the ancient Pueblo Indians in a beautiful natural setting of 52,000 acres. Dry Tortugas is a historical fort in an area of 64,000 ocean acres that protects marine life. The smallest national park before Gateway Arch was Hot Springs National Park, also in an urban setting but has 5,500 acres with two mountains that preserves the natural hot springs that spews out water from thousands of years ago. While all three have historical significance as part of its attraction, even the smallest previous park – Hot Springs National Park – is 60 times bigger!
Gateway Arch National Park does not have a natural component. It’s more like the Washington Monument. It’s 100% man made and does not fit National Park Services’ own definition of the flagship National Park status.
Even the National Park Service Disagrees
In fact, the National Park Service submitted a statement to the hearing on the legislation for the name change that said:
“Although we would welcome using the term “Gateway Arch” in the name of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the National Park Service strives to provide consistency in the naming of park units. To better align with the standard nomenclature for units of the National Park System, we recommend that Congress re-designate the unit as “Gateway Arch National Monument.” National parks contain a variety of resources and encompass large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources. The existing 59 designated national parks protect at a minimum thousands of acres each, and some span millions of acres. At only 91 federal acres, we believe that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is too small and limited in the range of resources the site protects and interprets to be called a national park. Since it is a site similar to the Statue of Liberty National Monument, in its iconic status and small land area, we believe that a more fitting name for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would be “Gateway Arch National Monument.” “
De-Emphasize the Name Change to National Park in the Documents
The documents in support of the name change went out of their way to downplay this part of the name change.
Senator Blunt said:
“Colleagues, I have introduced this bill to rename and grant the Gateway Arch and surrounding area its proper recognition as part of the National Park System.”
Notice he said “as part of the National Park System”, which it already was. He did not say “As a National Park”
Other supporting organizations, the City River Alliance and Explore St. Louis, both mentioned this as “one of the few urban national parks”, which is not true if they are referring to flagship National Parks. Gateway Arch is the first and only urban flagship National Park.
The legislation passed via voice vote in both the senate and the house, so no recorded vote was taken.
What’s the Big Deal?
So, What’s the big deal in a name? As the park services stated: “… to provide consistency in the naming of park units”. This is about protecting the perception and branding of what is a national park in the United States. Gateway Arch sets a dangerous precedent of diluting the national park brand. This is a slippery slope. Gateway Arch does not fit the image or the official definition of a National Park for most people. What’s next? Does the Statue of Liberty become a full fledged national park?
While not mentioned explicitly, the force driving the name change is economic. The national park brand attracts more visitors, as often mentioned in other efforts to convert a park to the flagship national park status. The name change worked! See the section below on visitation numbers but suffice it to say, there was a clear and dramatic jump in visitation after it became an official National Park. In this case, the National Park Services’ effort to preserve brand integrity was overridden by congress. Common sense lost to economic and political forces.
Despite the naming issue, Gateway Arch is a wonderful place to spend a few hours to learn about westward expansion, the arch itself, and the important role the courthouse played in slavery and women’s suffrage.
Impressions of Gateway Arch National Park:
Gateway Arch National Park is unlike any other official National Park. It is fundamentally a National Monument, like the Statue of Liberty. The visitor center and the museum are fantastic, the best of all the National Park Service units. The tram ride, while cramped, is fun and the view from the top is fantastic. The Old Courthouse is interesting and very colorful with a rich history. This is an excellent place to visit for a few hours.
Have you visited Gateway Arch National Park? Leave a comment below on your experience.
Gateway Arch National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5-star ratings as 1-star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Gateway Arch National Park:
Top Attractions at Gateway Arch National Park:
- Gateway Arch and tram to the top
- Gateway Arch museum
- Old Courthouse
One Day Visit Plan:
Half day is more than enough to visit this park, unless you want to go on the riverboat cruise. Get your tour tickets early. Visit the museum, watch the film on the construction of the arch, take the tram to the top, linger for 15 minutes, come back down, walk to the Old Courthouse and take the ranger-guided tour. If you have the interest, take the riverboat tour on the Mississippi.
Note: The Old Courthouse is closed during the pandemic.
Practical Info for Visiting Gateway Arch National Park:
- Get your tour tickets early, especially in the summer, at gatewayarch.com.
- Tickets are available for the tram to the top, the riverboat cruise, and the movie.
- Show up at least 30 minutes for your tram time to get through the security check.
- Take the ranger-led tour at the Old Courthouse.
- Take the picture of the arch from the St. Louis (west) in the afternoon so the sun is not behind the arch.
Gateway Arch National Park Facts:
- Size: 91 acres, ranked 63rd
- Visitors: 2,055,309 in 2019, up from 1,398,188 in 2017, the last year it was a National Memorial. Visitor count was only 486,021 in 2020, the pandemic year. The record was 3,649,308 visitors in 1996
- Gateway Arch ranked 31st in visitation in 2020, but was ranked 15th in 2019.
- Peak Month in 2019: 583,866 visitors in July, by far the highest.
- Low Month in 2019: 18,962 visitors in January
- 2019 visitation numbers are used because 2020 was not a typical year.
- Entrance Fee: $3. Additional cost for the tram ride, riverboat cruise, and the movie.
Date Visited: January 20, 2020