“The Gateway Arch may be the biggest thing that ever happened to Missouri after gaining statehood,” said Frank Nickell, board chairman of the Kellerman Foundation for Historic Preservation, referring to the 1965 completion of the stainless-steel monument at the St. Louis riverfront.
It’s quite a statement from the esteemed historian, who taught students at Southeast Missouri State University for more than 40 years — and who believes the Arch’s long-term impact is greater in state history than the 1860-1861 Pony Express originating from St. Joseph, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated and groundbreaking 1927 transatlantic flight aboard The Spirit of St. Louis.
Nickell is effusive in noting the monument’s continuing legacy.
“For Europeans thinking about the United States, (the Arch) is the great achievement of the American mind,” he said. “It was a visual image of what Missouri and the nation believed it was and what it was becoming — America’s way of saying to the world, ‘Hey, look at us!'”
The Arch is sometimes referred to as the “Gateway to the West,” and the museum underneath the National Parks Service-operated monument is a tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the country’s westward expansion.
Nickell suggested the thoughts of a fellow historian should be noted at this juncture.
Daniel K. Richter of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a 2001 book titled “Facing East from Indian Country.” Richter claimed to have received an epiphany by looking at the Arch from his St. Louis hotel room.
“(Richter) suggested when people see the Arch, they can see different things in it, by which he meant, while white Americans looked west past the Mississippi, Native Americans looked east and saw the encroachment of Europeans into their territory,” Nickell said.
A brief excerpt from the prologue in Richter’s book:
“We might readily check the urge to look westward across the plow of a pilgrim patriarch and instead try to peer eastward over the shoulder of a Wampanoag woman hoeing her corn (and) attempt to imagine how that woman might have made sense of the newcomers.”
“Luther Ely Smith was a St. Louis lawyer and civic booster who wanted St. Louis to grow,” Nickell said. “Smith, who was born in 1873, once went to Vincennes, Indiana, and saw a memorial along the Wabash River to Revolutionary War military figure George Rogers Clark (1752-1818) and it gave (Smith) a notion.”
Smith, concerned about the slum environment at the St. Louis waterfront in the 1920s and 1930s, proposed a 15-person territorial expansion memorial committee in 1934, leading to a condemnation of 82 acres of the city’s waterfront — save for the Old Rock House and the Old Cathedral, the latter of which continues to stand to this day.
“Smith envisioned a single, grandiose, magnificent monument to dominate the St. Louis skyline (and) the committee decided to stage a contest, inviting architects to submit a plan,” Nickell said. “It took a long time to secure the funds (but) in time there were 172 submissions from which five finalists were selected.”
The winner was Eero Saarinen of Finland, whose idea to build a monument — 630 feet high and 630 feet wide — was approved unanimously by the committee in 1948, 15 to 0. Saarinen got $50,000 for winning the design competition and his team shared a separate prize of $40,000.
“Saarinen did not live long, born in 1910 and died in 1961, so he did not live to see the Arch started or completed,” Nickell said.
TRACK RELOCATION — SEMO CONNECTION
It took more than a decade, starting in 1949, but five railroad tracks in the way of construction were relocated. Eventually, a tunnel was built to allow trains to move through the waterfront area without encroaching on the Arch grounds.
“The Missouri Pacific Railroad was the dominant track in those days and the company’s president, Russell Dearmont, was the son of Southeast Missouri State University’s seventh and long-serving president, Washington Strother Dearmont,” Nickell said. Dearmont served the college from 1899 to 1921. “(The younger) Dearmont could have blocked the (relocation) plan but he didn’t.”
“The Arch is an amazing physical structure and is the most definitive definition of Missouri,” Nickell said.
The 1967 movie “Monument to a Dream,” an Academy Award nominated documentary short, has been shown for decades in a below-ground museum theater at the Arch. The film, among other things, notes the difficult task for surveyors during the more than two-year long construction project.
On a nightly basis, surveyors would measure the alignment of each of the legs as they were raised from the ground up.
One statement in the film, above all, sums up the extreme difficulty of the seminal project:
“The margin for error, 1/64 of an inch, could mean failure at the top.”
The full, nearly 29-minute documentary, may be viewed on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjVvMkFjf1k.
•Tallest arch in the world.
•Tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere.
•Missouri’s tallest accessible building.
•No one died in its construction, begun in 1963 and finished in 1965, despite a predicted fatality count of 13.
•Original estimated construction cost was $30 million ($482 million in 2019 dollars) with the federal government expected to foot 3/4 of the bill. Private sector money accounted for the remainder.
•America’s vice president at the time, Hubert Humphrey, was present for the Arch’s formal dedication May 25, 1968.
•More than 60 companies have “Gateway” in their corporation titles.
•An estimated 10 airplanes have flown through the Arch successfully in violation of Federal Aviation Administration rules. The first “flight through the legs” was June 22, 1966.
•Approximately 4 million people visit the Arch grounds annually, according to the Parks Service.