Getting to the Top in a Whole New Way

From the start, Gateway Arch designers sought to give folks a view from the top. Getting them there, 630 feet above St. Louis, however, would be no easy feat.

They faced a huge challenge: Design and build a visitor-transport system to handle high passenger volume on a consistent basis, without detracting from the image or character of the Arch in any way whatsoever.

Plenty stood in the way of that goal. The straight lines of an elevator system would destroy the memorial’s aesthetic. An escalator would travel too slowly and introduce too many safety and reliability concerns. A stair-only system would appeal chiefly to triathletes. Traditional trams or roller-coaster-type systems would fail due to the steep ascending and descending slopes. Did we mention that the narrow Arch interior did not leave room for exotic ideas?

The answer came in combining the properties of Ferris wheels and trams – a brainchild of Dick Bowser.

Bowser, along with his father, led an elevator company that produced the Bowser Parking System, which could transport automobiles throughout parking garages vertically, horizontally and diagonally. In 1960, he took a call from the design team at Arch architect Eero Saarinen’s headquarters. Bowser didn’t realize it then, but picking up that phone charted his course for the next 12 years.

Following initial discussions with Saarinen, Bowser had two weeks to come with a proposal, but had little to go on. Saarinen’s office provided only a simple drawing of the Arch for reference, and the National Park Service had but two guidelines: The system had to move 3,500 passengers in an 8-hour day or as many as 11,000 people in a 14-hour day; and in no way could the transport system distort the exterior of the Arch. Working day and night in his basement, Bowser met the two-week timeframe and presented his plan.

His proposal was accepted, earning Bowser a two-year contract for system design and oversight. Two years would stretch to six, and ultimately, he would stay on at the National Park Service conducting system maintenance until 1972.

St Louis Arch Made Possbile With Lincoln Electric

Bowser’s design: A two-train system of eight capsules each traveling 748 feet per trip up (a 4-minute ride) or down (3 minutes). Each barrel-shaped capsule, 5 feet in diameter with a passenger entry opening on one side, includes a center pivot attached on the closed side of the barrel. The pivot, aided by rollers attached to the frame on the open side of the capsule, allows the capsule to rotate 150 degrees on the complete trip to the top. This rotation enables passengers – five to a capsule – to remain level to the ground during the entire ascent and descent, similar to a ferris wheel car.

Bowser reportedly drew inspiration for the capsule cars from eyeing the interior of a new Ford® Falcon, a car he adored. The Arch’s aluminum cars, with fiberglass seats, were designed by Planet Corp. of Michigan and fabricated by General Steel Industries, Inc., St. Louis Car Division.

Still running according to the original design, the transport system today is operated by Metro Transit, which also manages the metropolitan region’s bus and transit network, as well as a riverboat line.

Year after year, Metro Transit delivers passengers to the top of the Arch and back to the bottom, and with each trip a point is proven: With little guidance and even less time, Bowser had delivered the perfect people mover for the Gateway Arch.