I’m standing at the apex of the St Louis Gateway Arch, 630 feet tall. I need sea legs and I prefer not to dwell on why: I can feel the Arch swaying — back and forth, back and forth.
The park ranger reassures me. The wind today measures about 30 miles an hour, he says, enough to make the Arch sway about 18 inches. I don’t see how this is possible, since the legs of the Arch are embedded in more than 23,000 tons of concrete — 44 feet thick and 60 feet deep. Engineers say the stainless steel structure, the highest manmade monument in the Western Hemisphere, will withstand earthquakes and winds up to 150 miles an hour, which IS possible, considering St. Louis sits in Tornado Alley and it IS tornado season.
But for now, the May sky is a brilliant blue with an occasional mushrooming cumulonimbus cloud, and the view through the narrow windows on either side of the Arch is spectacular.
To the east: Illinois and a relatively undeveloped landscape.
To the west: a different story. The St. Louis metro area stretches as far as the eye can see and then some. It’s home to almost 3 million people who, for the most part, keep pushing west, north and south away from the city, which has lost population in recent decades. The reasons are familiar, related mostly to the racial divide — a shame, really, because the city has much to offer: historic neighborhoods with plenty of character; significant monuments; world-class universities; a great ballpark and team (go Cards!); a superb botanical garden; numerous heavily shaded parks; and great restaurants.
At the moment, there is much construction at the base of the Arch. When complete, the National Park Service will have planted hundreds of new trees and the area will be more pedestrian-friendly. A new history museum also is in the plan; in the meantime, exhibits on the area’s history are located in the Old Courthouse, a block away.
The courthouse is the site of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the slave Dred Scott was not entitled to his freedom; that African Americans were not and could never be citizens of the United States; and that the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in northern states and western territories, was unconstitutional. (Constitutional scholars have since made mincemeat of the arguments upon which this decision was based.)
While at the courthouse (free admission), we watched the 20-minute documentary on the construction of the Arch — a magnanimous feat of engineering and construction during which workers used no safety harnesses or nets. Amazingly, no one died.
The film also recounts Oct. 28, 1965, when the “keystone” (the final piece at the top of the Arch) was installed while thousands watched and held their collective breath. Had the legs of the Arch been off a mere 1/64th of an inch at the bottom, the top portions would not have met.
Only a block east of the Old Courthouse is the Basilica of St. Louis, King of France, known locally as simply the Old Cathedral. It was the first cathedral west of the Mississippi, and I was surprised to find it open. The cool interior of the Greek Revival-style church is always inviting, especially during St. Louis’ notorious hot and humid summers. The meticulously maintained interior provides a quiet respite from the city noise and activity.
For information on these and other St. Louis attractions, visit explorestlouis.com/. Check out the Arch experience at gatewayarch.com/. For additional photos, visit facebook.com/elouise.ondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at firstname.lastname@example.org