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An engineering marvel that is, I think, unique in shape and function, the Gateway Arch that anchors the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis is breathtaking in its inception and its tram is almost as much fun to ride in as a roller coaster in a theme park. Soaring some 630 feet into the air on the western bank of the Mississippi River, the arch symbolizes the gateway to the western half of the United States, near the spot where explorers Lewis and Clark set out on their historic adventure to check out the huge territories which the US had just purchased from the French, journeying from 1803 to 1806. (By the way, the Arch also spans just 630 feet from one foot to the other. The height is about that of a 63-story building, since you asked. You aren't allowed to walk up or down the arch (1976 steps in each leg), again since you asked.

In addition to celebrating the expansion into the West, the Arch commemorates the pioneers who helped shape our history and in a third role, honors Dred Scott, who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse on the property. On the spot in addition to the Arch is the Museum of Western Expansion, where you can watch the movies Gateway to the West and Monument to the Dream. Though the Arch is only 45 years old, the National Park Service is already undertaking a new project, to be completed by 2015, to integrate the memorial and its grounds with the city of St. Louis, the river and Illinois on the other side of the river. There has been an international competition to do just that, final entries to be on display in the Visitor Center here beginning August 17, 2010. You can comment at the site until August 23, or on the NPS planning site (www.nps.gov). The winner will be announced on September 24, 2010. More info at www.cityarchrivercompetition.org.

Highlights

To me, the highlight here is a tram ride up and down the Archway, thrilling in itself (you ride underneath the Arch, not atop it), and offering gorgeous views of the city and river around the property. Next, I like the Museum of Westward Expansion, and finally, the Old Courthouse and its history. There are also riverboat rides. The price for the tram ride for adults is $10, the movie $7, tram and movie $14 and tram and riverboat $24. Because everyone wants to go up the tram, it's advisable to book your tickets for that in advance on the website www.gatewayarch.com.

The architect of the Archway, Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-born American, is also responsible for such wonders as the old TWA Terminal at JFK and the Dulles Airport Terminal near Washington, D.C.

You can borrow an audio tape for a tour (small fee), or take a free ranger-led program, for which you should reserve in advance. (May is the busiest month, they say.)

At the Old Courthouse, check out the story of the enslaved Dred Scott, who sued in 1846-50 for his freedom in this building. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where he lost, and the stage was set for that decision to play a part in the forthcoming Civil War.

Fees and Hours

Admission to the grounds is free. You have to pay to use the tram, the riverboat, enter the museum or see one of the movies. Details at the website (see below).

The Old Courthouse is open daily except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year's, free admission. The Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward Expansion are open on same days.

Visitors

There were 2,360,109 visitors in 2009. By contrast, the year before the Archway was built, in 1964, there were only 282,700 visitors. When the Archway opened up in 1965, the number jumped to 3,013,800, and the peak number in 1966, was 4,616,000.

Contacts

The official website of the Memorial is www.nps.gov/jeff.