Downtown St. Louis: The Gateway Arch


You’ve seen it in a thousand pictures, and on the horizon as you drove anywhere within miles of downtown St. Louis.  But nothing quite compares to the experience of standing at the base, directly underneath, or just about anywhere near the Gateway Arch.  It is not just a structure, but also a work of art that defines the city of St. Louis, and leaves visitors amazed.

Finding the Arch is rather obvious, but finding parking might be more difficult.  If you can’t find an on-the-street parking spot within a few blocks of the courthouse or Arch, try the National Park Service’s parking building, just below the Eads Bridge on Washington Avenue.  The NPS charges $6, if I remember correctly.

There are several pictures you simply must take during your visit to downtown St. Louis, and this is one of them (pictured above): the Old Courthouse, perfectly framed by the Gateway Arch.  It’s rather obvious where you’ll need to stand to take this quintessential, albeit unoriginal, shot.

The Old Courthouse was the site of pivotal decisions regarding slavery (Dred Scott) and women’s right to vote (Virginia Minor).  The old courtrooms have been preserved and are open to visitors, with 45-minute guided tours provided by park rangers.

Walk across Memorial Drive and over Interstate 70 (which passes through a partially opened tunnel here), and you’re on the grounds surrounding the Gateway Arch.

There’s one more historic structure worth seeing, before you head on to the arch.  The Basilica of St. Louis, King was dedicated in 1834, making it the first Catholic cathedral west of the Mississippi River.  A log cabin church stood on the site before the present structure was built, and you can still see its original bell, in the church’s museum.

Oh, it’s also worth mentioning that taking a picture of the church (with the Arch in the background) is particularly dangerous.  It requires walking into the very busy Memorial Drive, and standing on a very narrow curb, as traffic whizzes by.  Even then, you don’t get a very good picture, so consider buying a postcard instead.

Now it’s time to walk up to, and underneath the Gateway Arch itself, which means taking pictures…

… from absolutely…

… every angle possible.  This is such a cool work of art.  Its appearance constantly changes as you walk around it.  Since it is triangular in shape, there are places where you can’t see the arch’s depth, making it look two-dimensional.  Even though it is, indeed, three-dimensional, it’s hard to believe the arch doesn’t simply tip over.

I swear I didn’t ask that guy to pose.

As evening arrived, the sunlight glared off the arch in amazing ways, making it look entirely different, once again.

The grounds around the arch feel remarkably safe, despite the fact that you’re in the middle of an urban setting, thanks to park police on patrol.  So, go ahead and wander around a bit.  When you walk north, you’ll find a manmade pond…

… that provides a stunning reflection of the arch.  Unfortunately, when I was there, the pond could have used a good cleaning–garbage had collected on the water in some areas.

At the north end of the grounds (officially titled the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) a path winds through some trees, but the view of the arch is still great.

Drop down to the Mississippi waterfront, and you’ll find a desolate road.  Cross it, and you can walk to the water’s edge.  At the base of the Eads Bridge (the old steel structure just to the north of the Arch), and partially submerged in the Mississippi, is the Captains’ Return statue, depicting Lewis and Clark, along with Lewis’ dog Seaman, completing a river crossing.  You can’t see it in this picture, because the river level was too high, but they’re standing in a boat, not the river itself.  The sculpture is relatively new to the riverfront, dedicated in 2006.

The Eads Bridge itself is quite an attraction.  Completed in 1874, the Eads Bridge was the first St. Louis bridge over the Mississippi.  The Dr. Martin Luther King Bridge is just to the north.

The Eads Bridge was the longest arch bridge in the world, upon its completion in 1874.  It was also the first time steel was used in a major bridge project.  The Eads was one of the first bridges to use pneumatic caissons in its construction–which basically means workers dug down to the bedrock, inside a pressurized chamber underneath the water.  Because the chamber was pressurized, many workers suffered caisson disease (a.k.a. “the bends”) when they resurfaced.  15 workers died, dozens more were sickened, in what was one of the first ever outbreaks of the disease.

The Eads Bridge is a double-decker bridge, with trains (St. Louis’ light rail system) running on the lower platform, and cars on top.  The upper deck was in disrepair and closed for decades.  Restoration in the early 2000’s allowed the upper deck to be re-opened to cars, and a pedestrian walkway was added, giving you the chance to walk back into Illinois…

… and enjoy a great view of downtown St. Louis…

… and that fabulous arch, now bathed in the soft glow of twilight.  The Arch is illuminated later at night, too, with huge spotlights.

To access the Eads Bridge pedestrian walkway, you must walk up to the same spot where vehicles enter the bridge.  In other words, there’s no way to access the walkway from the waterfront (a staircase or walkway connecting to the NPS parking garage would be a great addition, but for now, you’ll have to walk).

Route 66: The Westbound Route Out Of St. Louis

Various alignments slice through St. Louis.  I avoided the mess by re-joining the route at I-55 & Gravois–the route recommended by EZ66 author Jerry McClanahan.  Route 66 follows Gravois (MO Rte. 30), then Chippewa (MO Rte. 366), which turns into Watson (still 366).  Eventually you run into I-44 and US 67.  Be careful following the turn signs for Historic 66–in one spot, the sign indicated a hard turn, when in reality I should have just veered to the right.  If you’re not following Route 66, then take the fast route: Interstate 55.

As you make your way out of St. Louis on Route 66, you’ll pass through several old neighborhoods.  I had heard that South St. Louis was an area to be avoided, but I didn’t feel unsafe here.  There wasn’t much to stop for, until I saw a towering old church, looming 300 feet tall over the route.

You can’t miss the beautiful old St. Francis de Sales Church, dedicated in 1908.  Known to locals as the Cathedral of South St. Louis, the church is located on Gravois at Ohio Avenue.

Beyond the church, the old route remains in an area that’s home to a working class population.  Take it slow, watch for the traffic lights, and enjoy this (sub)urban part of Route 66.

Since I had started my day early, it was still morning as I drove through.  That made it too early to stop for ice cream at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a Route 66 business that’s been on the Mother Road since 1941.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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