Meet me in St. Louis
The St. Louis Gateway Arch can be seen from miles away. You have to get up close to discover there is much more to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial than its iconic arch.
Not only can visitors go up -- to the top of the 630-foot tall monument. They can also go down -- to the underground Museum of Westward Expansion. Admission is free.
The museum is designed as an American West experience complete with a stagecoach and covered wagon, a lifesize tipi and a replica sod house, animated figures from the era, and some of animals which played key roles in survival, including the horse, bison, steer and beaver.
The museum, which is the size of a football field, traces the history of the American West from the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to the closing of the frontier in the 1890s.
St. Louis truly was the gateway to the west at the time of a mass migration known as the westward expansion. It already was a center of commerce along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.
Early on came the explorers. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to find the Pacific Ocean (1804-1806). Then came Zebulon Pike and his southwest explorations (1806-1807), then Stephen Long's trips to survey western rivers and mountains (1819-1821).
Trappers and mountain men ventured into the frontier in the early 1820s.
From 1841 until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, thousands of wagon trains headed west. Before leaving on their four- to six-month journeys, pioneers gathered supplies in St. Louis and took steamboats to the trailheads.
More than 300,000 settlers traveled overland. Some wanted the free land. Religious freedom was more important to others. Yet others searched for gold.
St. Louis also was a major military depot, supplying western forts as the Army displaced the Native Americans who already called the land home. As the Indians were forced onto reservations, St. Louis was the scene where many of the treaties were negotiated.
By the end of the century there was no land remaining that met the definition of "frontier" -- places with fewer than two people per square mile.
Each of these stages of western expansion is depicted in the museum.
One of the newest features is the American Indian Peace Medal Exhibit. It tells the story of what was known as "peace medal diplomacy" by having animated figures representing historical characters -- an Indian agent, a Sioux chief, a cavalry officer and an engraver -- give their unique perspectives.
Visitors also can see as well as read about the everyday life of the cowboy, the Plains Indian, and the pioneer.
Not surprisingly, Red Wing has a prominent place in the settler's sod house. Sitting in one corner is a 5-gallon butter churn with birch leaf design.
Of more interest to children are the animals that were created or acquired for the exhibit.
An Appaloosa horse symbolizes transportation; a longhorn steer represents the cattle drives that predated railroad transportation. There's a bison, which once provided the Indians with food, clothing and shelter; a beaver, which gave the country an economic boost in the early 19th century; and a grizzly bear, representing all that was wild and fierce about the West.
(The steer, bison and grizzly all are real.)
The underground complex also features two theaters, including one that shows the construction of the arch, and two shopping areas. The Levee Mercantile has snacks and souvenirs that replicate items from the 1870s, and the Museum Store carries plenty of educational toys, books, videos and the usual selection of t-shirts and sweatshirts.
The line to board a tram begins in the entryway to the underground amenities. Tram cars, which hold five passengers, are barrel-shaped capsules with seats which stay upright while moving inside the hollow legs of the steel and concrete arch. The ride to the top takes 4 minutes.
Every year, a million people travel to the top at a cost of $10 for adults 16 and older, $5 for children; $7 for adults with National Park Passports. Reservations can be made online.
Five things to know about St. Louis
1. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was created as a national historic site in 1935 to memorialize the role of St. Louis in the westward expansion of the United States. Forty blocks of old buildings in the core of downtown St. Louis were leveled to create the memorial on the site where the French originally set up a fur trading post in 1764.
2. A competition in 1947 challenged architects to come up with a design to symbolize the dramatic story of westward expansion. The judges reviewed 172 entries and chose Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch, which is the nation's tallest monument at 630 feet. It was built in 1963-65 at a cost of less than $15 million.
3. The Historic Old Courthouse, which is within walking distance of the Gateway Arch and is part of the memorial complex, was the site of the Dredd Scott lawsuit. Scott and his wife Harriet sued for and were granted their freedom in 1846, but the U.S. Supreme Court later declared that slaves were property and had no right to sue. This decision likely hastened the Civil War.
4. St. Louis offers a year-round calendar of events. The 2012 holiday season kicked off Nov. 22 with a Thanksgiving Day parade through downtown St. Louis, complete with dozens of floats, colorful helium balloons and marching bands. Nov. 23-25 is St. Louis Holiday Magic, a family-friendly event with carnival, shopping, entertainment, children's activities and Santa.