An arch, yes, and much more

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At 630 feet, St. Louis’ Gateway Arch is certainly an architectural wonder. It’s the highest monument in the nation (by far) and the tallest arch in the world. Building it required workers who were part engineer, part acrobat toiling at great heights over two-and-half years.

This Gateway to the West–which just turned 50–reminds us that, until relatively recently, the “frontier” lay just beyond the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition along the Missouri River just upstream from here. The park that encompasses the arch bears the name Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in recognition of those pathfinders who kept pushing to see what was around the next bend in the river.

But the memorial’s significance isn’t limited to that moment in time. The Old Courthouse on-site symbolizes social ills and reforms spanning 300 years. Slaves were once auctioned from its steps. Later, in 1847 and 1850, slave Dred Scott fought for his freedom within its wall. (While Scott and his family’s freedom ultimately was affirmed locally, later losses in the Missouri Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court hastened the start of the Civil War.)

In the 1870s, Virginia Minor argued for her right to vote there and her case also went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which ultimately left it to individual states to decide whether or not women could cast a ballot, until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920).

Later still, during the construction of the park, racially discriminatory hiring practices were protested on-site. Memorial archivist Jennifer Clark says their actions “led to the first direct actions of the Federal Government to enforce equal employment opportunity.”

Photo courtesy Sue Ford/NPS.