In celebrating the Arch’s fiftieth anniversary, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, one of our national parks, is currently undergoing a $380 million renovation. The structure was built as a monument to the vision of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, and to the role that the city of St. Louis played in the westward expansion of the United States.
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial became a part of the National Park Service in 1935, but the purpose of building the memorial was to commemorate westward expansion and to help revitalize the St. Louis riverfront. To do this a “nationwide design competition” was conducted in the late 1940s. It was at that time that the stainless steel arch design created by Eero Saarinen (who, unfortunately, died of a cerebral hemorrhage before work on the structure even began) was chosen. Excavation began in 1961 and the project was completed in the fall of 1965. At ground level, the structure is 630 feet between the outer sides of its two legs, and each base is 54 feet wide. The width at the top is 17 feet, and there are 142 stainless steel sections. The depth of each foundation is 64 feet deep. Total weight of the Arch is over 17,000 tons. The original cost was $13,420,168, but the grand total spent for the complete area of development was over $51 million. The Arch is designed to sway as much as 18 inches and can withstand an earthquake; yet it takes a 50 mph wind to make it move even one and one-half inches.
Shortly after Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, and understanding the importance of New Orleans to the new nation, he approached the French government in an effort to purchase the Port of New Orleans. Under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, France offered to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States because they needed money to finance their war effort in Europe. In April of 1803, the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase at a $15 million price tag. This was a massive territory that effectively doubled the size of the American republic, adding 828,000 square miles (or 530 million acres of land) to the nation, at a cost of less than three cents per acre. Today, this territory makes up all or part of fifteen states, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains—not including the state of Texas or parts of New Mexico. After the purchase in 1804, President Jefferson commissioned the famous Lewis and Clark team to explore the new territory. It was from St. Louis that they set out on their dangerous journey.
Founded by the French in 1764, St. Louis was an important city. Even before the Louisiana Purchase, it was known as the Gateway to the West because of its strategic location on both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers. St. Louis was a major city for wagon trains carrying people to and from the West, as well as a key point in the growing fur trade industry. The Missouri territory was established in 1812 and admitted to the Union in 1821 as a part of the Missouri Compromise.
The “Jewel of St. Louis” (the Arch) stands as a reminder of westward expansion and St. Louis’ role in that effort, though its presence today seems to transcend time itself. It commemorates the pioneering spirit and the determination of the early Americans, yet it stands as a testament to modern technology and masterful engineering. The Arch has enticed millions of visitors to view its splendor and has become one of our nation’s most identifiable landmarks.