One cannot visit Saint Louis without an obligatory visit to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the bank of the mighty Mississippi. The National Park Service runs the grounds, and everything is free but the ride to the top of the arch. We bought a combined arch tram ride and riverboat cruise for $24 per person, which I found reasonable.
We first took the Mississippi riverboat cruise on the Tom Sawyer, a craft that looked like an old steamboat. The narrated cruise up and down the Mississippi was an hour long, and we enjoyed it. Afterward, we went to board our tram up the Gateway Arch. Since we waited until 7:30 PM to ride the tram, we did not have to deal with the long lines of midday. I would recommend the same to anyone. The waiting area for boarding was decorated like a steamship landing, with supplies and commercial goods in crates lying around. It had a nineteenth century rivertown charm. The tram, however, looked like a cross of The Jetsons with Woody Allen’s Sleeper mixed with the Corellian Cruiser’s escape pod from Star Wars. The tram was built in the 1960’s, and it was so evident.
The ride up in what one blog called a “womb tram” was disconcerting. We were stuck with our knees’ knocking strangers’, and the pod’s window showed the arch’s structure in what seemed an endless climb. Once we arrived at the top, we snaked our way through the crowd of people to peer out the windows at the city below. To the east, we looked out on Illinois, and there was not much there. To the west, we could see Saint Louis and eventually the sunset. We could also watch a Cardinals’ game that was occurring at Busch Stadium. We stayed up there long enough to see the city’s lights come on. It was frightening to look down at the empty space beneath the arch, but the view was spectacular.
After we returned to earth, we visited the Museum of Westward Expansion in the underground lair beneath the arch’s park. It was not too large, but it was free, and we enjoyed reading about Lewis and Clark’s journey out west. My mother particularly liked the diary entries that the museum posted on the length of its outer wall, coupled with magnificent scenes of the American landscape. It was a nice way to spend an evening.
Later in the week, we returned downtown to visit the Old Courthouse, which is also part of the national memorial. It was there that the court heard the Dred Scott case. Various rooms in the courthouse featured exhibits from Saint Louis history, but the structure itself impressed me the most. One can visit the upper floors and balconies, which pleased me, as such places tend to be off limits to visitors. The upper balconies in the dome are pretty cool, and its myriad staircases and opened vistas make it a fantastic place to play as a child. I am sure that the National Park Service does not allow kids to roam the halls wildly; they must save that for themselves after hours.
On our last day, we visited the Scott Joplin House to pay homage to America’s great ragtime composer. The house was not large, but I am glad that we went. At the beginning of the tour, a man played several piano rolls of Joplin’s work for us on a player piano. He took requests, and we enjoyed the show. For who would visit Joplin’s house who didn’t like Joplin’s music? After the performance, we visited the first floor that had a small museum dedicated to Joplin’s life and music. We learnt that Joplin’s work was featured at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, but that Joplin himself could not perform it because he was black and because the World’s Fair was segregated. How manifestly unjust! We also got to watch a little bit of his opera Treemonisha. The walls featured contemporary newspaper reviews that attacked revivals of the opera as politically incorrect [sic], in that Joplin’s piece reinforces outdated stereotypes about blacks. I do not know how outdated such stereotypes are, but I find it fascinating that Americans are as foolish as ever about racial matters. Afterward, we visited the second floor to see Joplin’s apartment. I do not think that there were any original furnishings, but the apartment was decorated with period pieces.
After our visit with the king of rag, we visited Union Station before we turned north to visit the confluence of the Missouri River into the Mississippi River. Union Station in Saint Louis, unlike that in D.C., is no longer a train station. Nonetheless, it is quite sharp. Now, it consists of a hotel, a mall, a food court, and a small, free history museum about the train station and about train travel in general. I liked the Pullman silver collection that it showcased. We had breakfast there and walked around a bit before exiting to enjoy the allegorical Carl Milles’ Fountain outside.
The castle looking station and the fountain make for a great scene. Unfortunately, a number of local vagrants ruined it. One man was bathing in the fountain, while others sat gazing on. Homeless in the park . . . Saint Louis in the modern age.