A Busy Week in St. Louis, Part 1

A Busy Week in St. Louis, Part 1

There is simply so much to do and see in the Gateway City, we easily filled a whole week and I’m splitting our adventures into two posts to keep them at a somewhat reasonable length.

Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse

Without a doubt, the Gateway Arch is the signature icon of St. Louis, and was designed to commemorate the role of St. Louis in the westward expansion of the U.S. following the Louisiana Purchase. It anchors a National Park Service unit that was known prior to 2018 as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, and has now been rebranded as Gateway Arch National Park. During our visit, the visitor center under the arch was in the process of being completely remodeled, so the majority of the interpretive information was in the Old Courthouse, a 19th century building that is also part of the park complex.

The building itself is quite impressive, and includes both restored courtrooms and exhibit areas. The exhibits covered topics that are right up our alley — the founding and early development of St. Louis as a French fur-trading center, Lewis & Clark, westward migration of Americans of European origin, and the effect of westward expansion on Native Americans and on the environment.

Most interesting to me was the information about the infamous case of Scott v. Sandford, AKA the Dred Scott case, which went to trial and to the state supreme court in this very courthouse before being taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps this is a defect in my legal education, but I knew very little about the case other than the fact that it was one of the worst decisions ever issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. My excuse is that it’s no longer valid law, so why would it be taught in law school? In 1846 Dred Scott, an enslaved man, sued his owner for his freedom and that of his wife and two daughters under a fairly straightforward claim. Dred and Harriet Scott had been kept in bondage as their owner, an army physician, took them to various locations in states in which slavery was illegal, including Illinois and Wisconsin, which constituted emancipation. There was substantial Missouri precedent for slaves to successfully sue for their freedom on these exact facts and legal arguments.

However, for various legal and procedural reasons the case was not decided quickly in the Scotts’ favor. They won their second trial, but the owner (by now they were owned by the widow of the army physician) and the Scotts pursued various appeals to the Missouri Supreme Court and then claims in federal district court and ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court decision was issued in 1857, 11 years after the case began, and it was a bombshell. The court held that Dred Scott could not possibly win his claim because he had no right to bring it in the first place, as only citizens have the right to seek redress in the courts. The court’s core holding was that African Americans could not be citizens of the U.S. The decision itself was dripping with racist commentary, and paid no mind to actual facts — like the fact that there were actually free blacks who were citizens in many of the states and had normal rights (right to own property, vote (if they were men), enter into contracts, bring cases in court, etc.).

The political effect of the decision was huge. It invalidated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had created the habit of adding states to the growing U.S. in pairs (one free, one allowing slavery) and held that the federal government had no authority to restrict the operation of slavery in any place in the U.S. The practical effect of this was that slavery could not be outlawed anywhere other than the original 13 colonies. Interestingly, as noted by the interpretive materials, this made the Civil War a major “states’ rights” issue for free states. If any of the newly-formed western territories and states wanted to be slavery-free, their only option would be to eradicate it entirely within the country. So long as any state within the U.S. allowed slavery, the new free territories and states had no authority to outlaw it within their borders. While the post-Civil War revisionist history of the South has focused on the South’s interest in “states’ rights,” the information about this case highlights that the north and free states were also fighting for their very existence as a place where citizenship rights (and basic humanity) were honored. The decision made slavery the law of the land throughout the vast western territories — meaning everything west of the Appalachians.

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

The Supreme Court ruling was a huge blunder for the pro-slavery crowd, since it heightened the paranoia of all free states about the expansion of slavery beyond the south and hastened the Civil War. It also caused the Panic of 1857. The case led to Lincoln’s famous comment that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (quoted more fully above) and was a major topic in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The holding was effectively overruled by the adoption of the 14th Amendment, but only after America endured the bloodiest war in its history.

 

View toward the east from the Old Courthouse. The Mississippi River is just beyond the arch.

 

After the somewhat heavy tour through the Old Courthouse, the visit to the arch itself was surprisingly pretty tense also. The cool design by architect Eero Saarinen speaks for itself as a thing of beauty, elegance, and power. Although graceful and full of light, the arch is also enormous. See Ken for scale in the photo at the top of the post …. if you can find him. I can easily believe that this is the world’s tallest arch and the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere. At 630 feet tall, it’s not nearly as large as the newest buildings under construction in Miami, but it towers over the relatively low-slung city of St. Louis.

We chose not to take the tram ride up to the top of the arch because after years of living in major metro areas we are well aware of what a view from a tall structure looks like. It’s the gleaming stainless steel-clad exterior of the arch that interested us, not the view from inside. With most of the visitor center closed for renovation, the main purpose of our visit was to view the 1967 documentary Monument to the Dream, detailing the construction of the arch.

Display comparing the scale of the arch to other monuments and showing the truss and rigs used in the construction process.

The movie showed the challenges involved in building a gigantic structure whose two curving legs needed to be self-supporting for most of the construction process. The Arch weighs 43,226 tons, including 900 tons of stainless steel. Multi-ton triangle-shaped sections were fabricated in Pittsburgh and shipped to St. Louis with the steel cladding already in place. The St. Louis construction team worked from giant rigs that crawled their way up the outside of the two legs on rails affixed to the outside of the leg. The cranes on the rigs lifted each section into place, where it was then welded to the lower sections and its double walls were filled with concrete and reinforcing steel tendons. The design is elegant yet incredibly strong. It took almost four years of steady construction to get from the 60-foot-deep foundations to the placement of the keystone section.

The footage in the film provides a fascinating look at the construction process, but it also nearly gave me a heart attack. The film showed men hanging off the side of the arch, attaching bolts and welding seams, hundreds of feet up in the air. They walked along the outside railings of the rig as huge arch sections and buckets of cement were raised. They stood on the truss between the two arches as the highest sections were maneuvered into place. All of this went on while no one was wearing any sort of safety harness. This film was quite literally one of the scariest movies I have ever seen.

We’re Here for the Beer

Luckily the rest of our visit was not nearly so grim. The Anheuser-Busch Brewery was one of our early destination choices, and it was surprisingly fun. It didn’t hurt that the free tour includes a small sample of Bud or Bud Light, as well as a ticket to select a full size sample of virtually any of the main InBev beers at the end of the tour. The weather was warm during our visit so tastings took place in the lovely outdoor shaded biergarten area. The tour covered several different areas of the campus, including several nationally-recognized historic buildings. First up was the historic stable that houses the iconic Clydesdales. In addition to having several restored delivery wagons, the very ornate stables come complete with horses that pose for pics. The horses are popular enough that there’s actually an option to exit the tour after the first stop, and skip the information about beer making.

Of course, we didn’t exit early and we enjoyed learning about the brewing process. At last, I know what “beechwood aging” is all about. It’s not like aging wine or spirits in a wooden cask, but instead involves a second yeast-driven process to naturally carbonate the beer. The tasteless beechwood strips inserted into the stainless steel tanks give the yeast a surface to adhere to, so they don’t all just sink to the bottom of the liquid.

One more horse, because they are photogenic

I really liked that the brewery’s historic buildings have been converted to modern use inside, while retaining the elaborate Gilded Age decorations. The exteriors of the historic buildings have also been maintained beautifully, and newer buildings blend in seamlessly to make for a charming campus appearance. The free tour was about an hour, not too detailed, and presented in an interesting way. And did I mention the free beer?

I will admit to being a bit of a beer snob — I think Bud Light basically tastes like water — but the tour did give me new respect for the challenge of producing millions of gallons of Bud at six different breweries around the country with the same flavor that was originally developed 150 years ago. Since it’s a natural process there could always be variation thanks to differences in water or grains, but the main stabilizing factor is the yeast. The same strain has been used since the days of Adolphus Busch, and is grown in St. Louis and shipped out in batches to all the other breweries daily. The industrial scale of the operation certainly appeals to the factory nerd in me.

Errands

Much like our buddies Lewis & Clark, we used our time in St. Louis to make lots of final preparations for the journey ahead. This is the last big city we’ll see for a while, so we jumped on the chance to deal with various household tasks. Accomplishments in this category include a new battery for my phone (I impressed/terrified the Apple tech with the incredibly poor performance of my battery when they did the testing!), procuring some exercise equipment for strength training on the road, printing out camping permits for upcoming camping locations that require them, and making multiple stock-up trips to Whole Foods and Costco.

In the next installment: get ready for more pics, because we went to another botanical garden!

5 thoughts on “A Busy Week in St. Louis, Part 1”

  1. How interesting….as usual I learned a lot of new information. Never knew the details about the Dred Scott decision.
    As usual beautiful pictures, the ones of the Arch are amazing.
    Thanks a lot.

  2. Great post – so much to think about here. As we’ve traveled around the south, we’ve visited a number of Civil War and civil rights era sites and museums. Learning more about the infamous Dred Scot decision and its impacts on the country would certainly fit right in. In general, St. Louis seems like one of those cities with something for everybody – the history, the beer, the arch, the bbq, the beer, the horsies, the beer…. LOTS of good stuff!! 🙂 Seems like you went at a great time too – not too terribly busy (at least that’s what it seems like from your photos) and presumably not too hot yet. Looks like a great stop!

    • Getting a new perspective on many significant events and people in American history is my very favorite part of the journey so far. Food and drink are a close second! But I definitely recommend St. Louis as a destination. If you visit, make sure you figure out exactly what you want to see because it’s a large city with an overwhelming number of things to do, different neighborhoods, etc.

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