the oh-so-famous gateway arch

The St. Louis Gateway Arch is located at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park in St. Louis, Missouri. Built as a memorial and labeled “the gateway to the west”, the arch was listed as a National Historic Landmark on June 2, 1987.

While visiting the arch, you can ride the tram to the top of the arch, look out the windows and see for miles and miles.

The Museum of Westward Expansion is located underground below the arch. The museum has many artifacts and exhibits depicting the life of the American Indians and the 19th century pioneers. There are also theatres in the museum where you can watch interesting and educational films. Be sure and watch the film that shows the construction process of the arch.

Even though there are people who terribly afraid of heights, they went to the top of the arch and they said it wasn’t scary at all. If you are ever in the St. Louigas area, the arch is one place that you don’t want to miss. It is truly amazing.

Construction of the Arch

In 1935, the St. Louis Riverfront was chosen for a national monument in honor of the westward expansion of the United States. Buildings were cleared on 40 city blocks to begin the memorial; however the progression ceased due to World War I.

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association held an architectural competition in 1947 for the design of the memorial.

Finland born architect Eero Saarinen won the contest with his design of a catenary curved arch. A catenary curve hangs freely from two fixed points and is flexible but it will not stretch.

Construction on the arch began on February 12, 1963 and the completion date was October 28, 1965.

The arch stands 630 feet tall and is 630 feet wide at the base, which makes it the tallest man-made monument in the United States.

The arch is made out of 886 tons of stainless steel.

The weight of the concrete in the arch totals 38,107 tons.

The arch has 142 triangular sections positioned on top of one another and welded on the inside and outside.

The arch is 63 stories tall and each story is 10 feet.

Each leg is 54 feet long at the bottom and the sections taper to 17 feet at the very top.

To place the last four-foot piece at the top of the arch, the legs were jacked apart with more than 500 tons of pressure.

Under normal weather conditions, the arch will not sway. The wind has to blow 50 miles per hour for the top of the arch to move 1 1/2 inches from the center. The design of the arch allows for an 18 inch sway and to withstand an earthquake.

There are six 1/2 by 20 inch lightning rods plus an aircraft light on the top of the arch.

The cost to build the arch totaled 13 million dollars.

The Tram System in the Arch

Dick Bowser created the tram system that carries visitors to the top of the arch. He developed this system in just two weeks.


After the first tram was completed, the arch opened to the public on June 10, 1967.

Each leg of the arch has one tram with 8 capsules that hold 5 passengers each.

The tram runs at a speed of 340 feet per minute and it takes approximately 4 minutes to get up to the top of the arch.

The tram system can make as many as 80 trips each day and during the off-season in the winter, the trams make 48 trips to the top each day. At full capacity the trams carry 200 to 225 passengers every hour.

There are 1076 steps in the arch; however these steps are not accessible to the public. The steps are only used for emergencies and maintenance. There are also two emergency elevators in the arch.

The tram works like an elevator and a ferris wheel combined. Each capsule measures five foot in diameter and is shaped like a barrel. Each capsule has an opening in the front and a closed back. The back of each capsule is constructed with a center pivot shaft and a frame with rollers encircles the open front. The frame has wheels that run in tracks and the capsule rotates along the frame. The weight of the passengers assists in keeping the capsule upright.

While traveling to the top of the arch, each capsule rotates about 155 degrees. The frame pivots around the capsule and at the loading area the tracks are above the capsule. When the capsule reaches the top of the arch, the tracks are below the capsule.


The Observation Area At The Top Of The Arch

The observation area measures 65 feet long by 7 feet 2 inches across by 6 feet 9 inches high. The observation area holds up to 160 people at a time.

There are 16 windows on each side of the observation area. While looking out the windows on the east side, visitors can view the Mississippi River and the state of Illinois. If looking out the windows on the west side, visitors can see the city of St. Louis.

Each hinged and locked window measures 7 inches by 27 inches(180 mm × 690 mm). The windows are made out of 3/4 inch plate glass.

In the observation area, visitors can see up to 30 miles(48 km) when weather permits and the sky is clear.

To the east across the Mississippi River and southern Illinois with its prominent Mississippian culture mounds at Cahokia Mounds, and to the west over the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County beyond.


Visitor center

The underground visitor center for the arch was designed as part of the National Park Service’s Mission 66 program. 

The 70,000-square-foot (6,500 m2) center is located directly below the arch, between its legs. Access to the visitor center is provided through ramps adjacent to each leg of the arch.

Although construction on the visitor center began at the same time as construction for the arch itself, it did not conclude until 1976 because of insufficient funding; however, the center opened with several exhibits on June 10, 1967.

The center houses offices, mechanical rooms and waiting areas for the arch trams, as well as its main attractions: the Museum of Westward Expansion and two theaters displaying films about the arch.

The older theater opened in May 1972, the newer theater, called the Odyssey Theatre, was constructed in the 1990s and features a four-story-tall screen.

Its construction required the expansion of the underground complex, and workers had to excavate solid rock while keeping the disruption to a minimum so the museum could remain open.

The museum houses several hundred exhibits about the United States’ westward expansion in the 19th century and opened on August 10, 1977.

Incidents (because there’s trouble even in paradise)

On the morning of February 9, 2011, a National Park Service worker was injured while performing repairs on the south tram. The 55-year-old was working on the tram’s electrical system when he was trapped between it and the arch wall for around 30 seconds, until being saved by other workers. Emergency officials treated the injured NPS employee at the arch’s top before taking him to Saint Louis University Hospital in a serious condition.

On March 24, 2011, around one hundred visitors were stranded in the observation area for 45 minutes after the doors of the south tram refused to close. The tourists were safely brought down the arch in the north tram, which had been closed that week so officials could upgrade it with a new electronic transportation system. The National Park Service later attributed the malfunction to a computer glitch associated with the new system, which had already been implemented with the south tram. No one was hurt in the occurrence.

Around 2:15 p.m. local time on June 16, 2011, the arch’s north tram stalled due to a power outage. The tram became stuck about 200 feet (61 m) from the observation deck, and passengers eventually were told to climb the stairs to the observation area.[116] It took National Park Service workers about one hour to manually pull the tram to the top, and the 40 trapped passengers were able to return down on the south tram, which had previously not been operating that day because there was not an abundance of visitors. An additional 120 people were at the observation deck at the time of the outage and also exited via the south tram. During the outage, visitors were stuck in the tram with neither lighting nor air conditioning. No one was seriously injured in the incident, but one visitor lost consciousness after suffering a panic attack, and a park ranger was taken away with minor injuries. The cause of the outage was not immediately known.

Stunts accidents

In 1973, Nikki Caplan was granted an FAA exception to fly a hot air balloon between the arch’s legs as part of the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. During the flight, on which the St. Louis park director was a passenger, the balloon hit the arch and plummeted 70 feet before recovering.

In 1976, a U.S. Army exhibition skydiving team was permitted to fly through the arch as part of Fourth of July festivities. And since then, numerous skydiving exhibition teams have legally jumped onto the Arch grounds, after having flown their parachutes through the legs of the Arch.

On November 22, 1980, at about 8:45 a.m. CST, 33-year-old Kenneth Swyers of Overland, Missouri, parachuted on to the top of the arch. His plan was to release his main parachute and then jump off the arch using his reserve parachute to perform a base jump. Unfortunately, after landing the wind blew him to the side, and he slid down the north leg to his death. The accident was witnessed by several people, including Swyers’ wife, also a parachutist. She said her husband “was not a hot dog, daredevil skydiver” and that he had prepared for the jump two weeks in advance. Swyers, who had made over 1,600 jumps before the incident, was reported by one witness to have “landed very well” on the top of the arch, but “had no footing.” Swyers was reportedly blown to the top of the arch by the wind and was unable to save himself when his reserve parachute failed to deploy. The Federal Aviation Administration said the jump was unauthorized, and investigated the pilot involved in the incident.

On September 14, 1992, 25-year-old John C. Vincent climbed to the top of the Gateway Arch using suction cups and proceeded to parachute back to the ground. He was later charged with two misdemeanors: climbing a national monument and parachuting in a national park.  Vincent had previously parachuted off the World Trade Center in May 1991. Dressed in black, Vincent began crawling up the arch around 3:30 a.m. CST on September 14 and arrived undetected at the top around 5:45 a.m., taking an additional 75 minutes to rest and take photos before finally jumping. During this time, he was seen by two traffic reporters inside the One Metropolitan Square skyscraper.


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