Our journey through St. Louis was a lesson in history. St. Louis’ location along the shore of the Mississippi River near the confluence of the Missouri River led to its development as one of the twenty-five largest cities in the United States. The water highways of the nineteenth century, including among others, the Ohio and Illinois Rivers, insured a supply chain for pioneers and traders. Most who traveled west came through this city.
A monument was erected to commemorate the role St. Louis played in the westward expansion. Construction of a 630-foot stainless steel arch was completed in October of 1965. Designated as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, on February 22, 2018, it was renamed Gateway Arch and became America’s 60th National Park. A visit to this national landmark is what brought us to St. Louis.
The National Park Service does not have on-site parking at the Gateway Arch but provides a list of preferred private and city owned parking locations on their website. The thought of finding suitable parking in a major downtown city for our super duty truck gave me a lot of anxiety. My fears were unjustified as we easily found a ground level parking lot on the north side of the national park for $7.50 for the day.
As we walked toward the Gateway Arch on a sidewalk through a beautifully manicured lawn, we were struck with a feeling of awe. The arch sparkled in the morning sunlight. The grandeur of its simple, yet visionary design, expertly engineered and masterfully constructed is a tribute to man’s ingenuity. Suffice it to say, it made an impression.
We bought our tickets online. With the current COVID-19 restrictions, this was recommended because there are a limited number of tickets available each day. We bought the See Everything Combo ticket which included the documentary movie Monument to the Dream, the Riverfront Cruise on the Tom Sawyer, and the Tram Ride to the Top.
Facing the Old Courthouse, which by the way was closed for renovations, is the glass entrance to the subterranean visitor center located beneath the arch. This new modern facility is where the ticket counter, gift shop, theater, museum and entrance to the tram ride are found. We explored the interactive museum that showcases six galleries displaying a chronological history of the westward expansion. In the theater, we watched a documentary showing the pain-staking construction of the arch.
The long anticipated ride to the top of the arch was the highlight of our visit. The line to board the tram was short as was the wait. I had heard that climbing into the tram car is like climbing into a large dryer tub. I’m not sure I can describe it any better except to say it reminded me of a 1960’s amusement park ride. Someone with a fear of small confined spaces might have a problem getting in this ride. Each car was numbered from one to eight. Capable of seating five passengers, only people from your group are allowed inside the car at a time. Grammi and I had tram car number eight to ourselves.
It only took about four minutes to ride to the top where we were assigned viewing windows corresponding to the number on our car. We had windows on each side of the arch. One window looked out toward the city and the other over the Mississippi River. The windows were smaller than I had imagined and I keep thinking how great it would be if the entire top was made transparent like the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon. However, we had an adequate view and I immediately found Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was so cool that we could look down and see the base of the arch. It was like looking down at your own feet. I was intrigued by the shadow it cast on the lawn below and wondered if it was possible to tell time by it like a modern day sun dial.
I would have liked to stay at the top longer, but after ten minutes it was time to make room for the next tram load of people. We climbed back in the dryer tub for the ride down. As I looked out the window of the tram car at the steel skeleton holding the stainless steel skin, I thought about the men who built the monument, those amazing men that hoisted the steel and tighten the bolts.
Back outside, we climbed down the levee steps to the riverboat Tom Sawyer that resembles the steam-powered paddlewheel ships that once cruised the Mississippi River. We found two seats at the front of the boat on the top deck. A deafening blast from the airhorn and we were off the dock. Heading upriver, we saw a different prospective of the arch with the city in the background. The captain narrated over a loud speaker, pointing out landmarks and other vessels along the way. The cruise lasted about an hour.
We headed back to our campsite by 3:00 p.m. and avoided rush-hour traffic. Near the city of St Charles, twenty-five miles west of St. Louis, is 370 Lakeside Park, where we stayed in our camper. They have paved sites with full hookup and a clean bathhouse including a coin laundry facility. Boat rentals are available for paddling the lake. You could hike or bike the paved 3½ mile trail around it. Bicycle rental was also available. We were so busy sightseeing that we did not experience any of that. The park staff was on site 24/7, making us feel safe. My only issue was its wide open spaces and lack of trees, but that is a minor detail and not enough to deter another stay.
St. Charles is an old eighteenth century French settlement on the Missouri River. In 1804, Captain Clark and fifty men stopped here during their famous expedition to make final preparation and wait for Meriwether Lewis to arrive from St. Louis. It was noted in a journal that St. Charles was the last civilized settlement they would encounter on their journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Grammi and I visited the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Museum located on the Missouri River that houses full size replicas of the boats used by the Lewis and Clark expedition. A keelboat and two pirogues were built by a dedicated group of volunteers to perform reenactments and promote the history of the expedition. On the second floor above the boats is an interpretive museum and a movie detailing the Lewis and Clark expedition and the building of the replica boats.
A short walk from the museum is downtown St. Charles. History comes alive in this well preserved old city. A true destination with brick paved streets and historic old buildings housing shops, cafes, and other businesses. Grammi and I spent a couple of hours walking along and looking around the town. We toured the grounds of Missouri’s first state capital building used prior to the one built in Jefferson City. We found an excellent vegan cafe tucked back in a courtyard where we had lunch, then we indulged ourselves across the street at Grandma’s Cookies. The gas street lights were a special touch and gave an nostalgic feel to the city.
On another day our history lesson continued as we went to the home of Ulysses S. Grant, a civil war general and eighteenth president of the United States. Located near St. Louis, White Haven as it was known, is a U.S. Park Service National Historic Site that commemorates the life of Ulysses S. Grant. We learned some facts about his life through a short film before taking a ranger guided tour of the house. We looked at the displays in the museum as well. This house is where Grant met his wife Julia Dent, as it was her childhood home. After marrying Julia, Grant soon resigned from the military and lived here with his wife’s parents. However, after the start of the Civil War, Grant left White Haven to rejoin the Union Army.
Traveling across America exposes us to so much history. The highways are lined with brown signs for monuments and historic sites. Standing on the spot where history took place is educational. It collaborates the stories from the pages in the history books. It is helping me connect the dots to get a better understanding of American history. I am loving it.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.