Thursday, May 3, 2007

Why "Gateway City"?

Someone commenting on one of my posts asked why I referred to St. Louis as the Gateway City. Lots of cities in the U.S. have nicknames, and some of them are pretty obscure. I know of various cities around the U.S. unofficially dubbed such things as Beantown, the Key City, the Summit City, and so forth. But one the reason for St. Louis' nickame is pretty obvious once you recall that the Gateway Arch, officially the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, stands in downtown St. Louis within a few yards of the Mississippi River.

The Arch is remarkable in a surprising number of ways. Every time I drive over the nearby bridge between Missouri and Illinois, the sun seems to be hitting it at a different angle, causing it to glow a different, beautiful color. From several places close to where I live, you can see the Arch in the skyline, visible even over the tops of intervening tall buildings. Nevertheless it took me more than a year, after moving to St. Louis, to take the time to visit the Arch and tour the underground Museum of Westward Expansion situated at its base. This is a tour I would recommend.

The Arch is a big, impressive structure. World-famous architect Eero Saarinen designed it, but did not live to see it built due to his untimely death from cancer. The task of building the Arch called for the solution of many sticky engineering problems, including building a railroad tunnel under the site. Huge sections of steel and concrete, sheathed in stainless steel, had to be transported by rail and then lifted into place on both sides of the arch, until quite soon it grew too high for cranes to be any use. Then they had to build a railroad up the sides of the arch to transport men, materials, and each new section of the structure. Near the end they had to brace the two sides with a temporary, central strut on which they built a crane that finally hauled up the last piece. The fact that the last piece fit perfectly between the two sides of the arch is an amazing testimony to the skill and precision of the builders.

And now, tourists can ride a trolley inside the arch, all the way up to the top, where they can look down through arrow-slit windows and see the city below them on one side, the river and the Illinois skyline on the other. It's an amazing view from that height of 630 feet. (Compare that to the 555-foot Washington Monument; the St. Louis Arch is the tallest monument in the U.S.) It's also kind of a spooky ride, in a cramped, spherical, 5-passenger capsule that looks exactly like what it is: a piece of engineering that has been in use continuously since the 1960s. My palms sweated going both up and down.

Down in the museum again, you can try not to get lost in the concentric circles of historical displays, which include some impressive facts, some impressive artifacts, lots of pictures, and even some talking dummies. The gift shop sells, among other things, an Oscar-nominated short documentary showing the construction of the monument essentially as I have described it. And the grounds include a long, tree-lined path; an old cathedral; and a steep flight of stairs down to the riverfront, on which a plaque marks the high-water line of the 1993 flood a sobering distance up from the bottom of the steps.

I look forward to writing more posts about the many ways St. Louis is a remarkable city. I've lived in many cities that had some claim to fame. Kansas City, Missouri, for example, is second only to Rome in its number of public fountains. Fort Wayne, Indiana, is second only to Salt Lake City in the size of its genealogical library. Yuma, Arizona, is listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as the sunniest place on earth. Mankato, Minnesota, boasts the site of the largest mass execution in American history. OK, we're scraping the bottom here. But St. Louis is superlative in lots of ways, and not all of them are scary ways (such as being the most tornado-afflicted city in the U.S.).

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