I was headed west from St. Louis in a heavily loaded covered wagon, the most thrilling adventure of my life, and I couldn't wait to see what the future would bring. Maybe I would strike it rich in California and buy a cattle ranch.
The thought of owning land someday is what drove me to make the arduous journey with my family into uncharted territory.
It was my job to plan the trip and buy supplies with our meager funds, and I felt pretty good about my choices — ample food, tools, even a guidebook.
Everything was going surprisingly well, then we got hit by a sudden, blinding snowstorm and froze to death.
This high-tech, interactive game at the new underground Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis demonstrates the challenges early pioneers faced when they traveled west through a vast wilderness fraught with danger — harsh weather, accidents and myriad diseases, to name a few.
The museum's grand opening is July 3, before the annual Fair Saint Louis, and it's sure to be a high point of the newly revitalized, 90-acre Gateway Arch National Park (formerly the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial).
It's the last and largest component of the $380 million CityArchRiver Project, a five-year enterprise to enhance the visitor experience at the Gateway Arch, the city's most iconic landmark and a symbol of U.S. westward expansion that began with the famous 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition.
The new museum replaces the Museum of Westward Expansion, built in 1976. Gone are the outdated, animated figures that lecture visitors about history, and artifacts behind glass are no longer the main attraction. Instead, multimedia installations help visitors better understand the city's past.
Six themed areas chronicle the history of St. Louis, tracing its growth from a small colonial fur trading post to the construction of the arch in the 1960s.
I was intrigued by the Old Rock House, a fur trade warehouse built on the riverfront in 1818 and later used as a workshop where canvas tops for covered wagons were manufactured. It was dismantled in the 1950s, but many of the components of the ancient structure were saved, and the facade has been reconstructed.
An intricate model of the riverfront circa 1852 depicts the Port of St. Louis as a bustling hub of activity with an endless parade of steamboats plying the Mississippi River.
Many Americans grow up hearing about how the West was won, but it's a multifaceted issue. I appreciated the contemporary approach of one exhibit that offered three perspectives: that of President James Polk, who believed the U.S. had a "manifest destiny" to expand its territory; that of a Mexican woman for whom the West was the spoils of the Mexican-American War; and that of an American Indian who considered the West to be blatantly stolen.
Another highlight is "Building the Arch," an exhibit that provides the story of how the imposing monument came to grace the riverfront.
A timeline traces events starting from the 1947-48 architectural competition that was held as a means of finding design talent, to the actual construction in the 1960s. Finnish architect Eero Saarinen won the contest, but, sadly, didn't live to see the monument's completion.
Next, I made my way to the light-filled, newly expanded visitor center and walked along a terrazzo floor emblazoned with an outsized map of North America that zeros in on pioneer trails emanating westward from St. Louis. I'm sure many children will trace the routes as I did, playing on the brightly colored map and getting a history lesson in the process.
View from the top
The view from the observation deck atop the nation's tallest man-made monument has changed for the better since I took the tram up the 630-foot-high steel marvel of modern architecture six years ago. I still had a spectacular view of the Mississippi River to the east and the Old Courthouse to the west. I spotted Busch Stadium, home to the Cardinals, and the historic Anheuser-Busch brewery — just as I remembered.
What I didn't see this time was an ugly tangle of roads cutting through downtown, making the park notoriously difficult to access. Thanks to a new land bridge across Interstate 44, a verdant stretch of shady lawn covers the once-noisy thoroughfare, creating a peaceful oasis on the riverfront that is pedestrian- and bike-friendly. An eyesore of a parking garage no longer blocks the view of Eads Bridge to the north.
The arch grounds, a place where I once had no desire to do anything but snap a few pictures and move on, have been transformed into an inviting space that enticed me to linger long after my arch tour.
I strolled along new tree-lined trails and regretted not bringing along picnic food. Cyclists on shiny green bikes were taking advantage of the city's new bike-share program.
The Old Courthouse, part of the national park, is a short distance from the arch. The historic domed edifice is a symbol of a nation divided on the issue of slavery. At the entrance is a bronze statue of Dred and Harriet Scott, an enslaved couple who sued for and won their freedom at the courthouse in 1850 but lost it again on appeal. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1857 Dred Scott case was one of the most momentous cases ever heard by the court, with far-reaching consequences. Scott sued for his freedom based on the fact that his owner had taken him into free states, but the court ruled that Scott was not a citizen under the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, had no rights. The decision fueled tensions between North and South and is often cited as a factor that led to the Civil War. A small museum chronicles the history of the case.
As I stood on the courthouse steps, I took one last look at the arch, gleaming against a cerulean sky, and considered the time, effort, funding and manpower to implement such a dramatic transformation of the park. I realized that modern St. Louisans have the same pioneering spirit that thrived here 150 years ago, but instead of traveling thousands of miles for a better future, they are realizing their dreams by improving their own backyard.
Where to stay and eat
Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch: 1-314-655-1234, stlouisarch.regency.hyatt.com.
Mango: Downtown restaurant serves upscale Peruvian cuisine (1-314-621-9993, mangoperu.com).