What is the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial?

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  • Written By: Dee S.
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2019
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The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, located in the United States in St. Louis, Missouri, is home to three distinct national and regional treasures: the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse, and the Museum of Westward Expansion. The memorial area is managed by the United States National Park Service and was established to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s efforts in opening the western portion of the United States for expansion and settlement. It is also serves as a tribute to the pioneers and Native American Indians who transformed the west and to freedom fighters, such as Dred Scott and Virginia Minor.

The Gateway Arch, constructed out of stainless steel, is many visitors’ first stop when exploring the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Designed by Eero Saarinen, the Arch is 630 feet (192.02 m) high and 630 feet (192.0 m) wide from one leg to the other at its base. It is often referred to as the “Gateway to the West” and symbolizes Thomas Jefferson’s dream to spread democracy and freedom from “sea to shining sea.” Visitors can take a ten minute tram ride to the top viewing platform of the Arch. From there, they can look out one of 16 widows on each side of the observation platform that holds a maximum of 140 people.


Construction of the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial began in 1963 and took more than two years to complete. The first tram was not open to the public until 1967. It was designed to withstand earthquakes and high winds. In fact, if an earthquake or 150 mile per hour (240 km per hour) winds were to occur, the Arch is capable of swaying 18 inches (46 cm). In addition, if the winds are gusty, it is not uncommon for the top of the arch to sway at least 1 to 2 inches (2.54 to 5.08 cm).

The Old Courthouse, also located at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial was originally constructed on land donated to St. Louis County in 1816. The land was given to the city for the specific purpose of building a courthouse, since court and city business was previously held in non-governmental buildings, such as a church, a fort, and a tavern. The Old Courthouse was constructed in 1828 and then expanded ten years later.

In time, the court was moved to a different location and the Old Courthouse and surrounding land became part of a legal battle over ownership. Heirs to the land claimed that once the land was no longer used for a courthouse, the land should revert back to them. The courts disagreed and the land was transferred to the National Park Service.

The Old Courthouse is open for tours of the restored courtrooms and galleries. Many important legal cases were heard at the Old Courthouse at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. For example, it was the site of both the Dred Scott trial and Virginia Minor’s trial. In 1847 and again in 1850, Dred Scott and his wife sued for freedom from slavery and were granted freedom, until the Supreme Court held they had no right to sue, pushing the states closer toward the Civil War. Virginia Minor sued for her right to vote when she was not allowed to register to vote in the 1870s.

The Museum of Westward Expansion is a historical museum at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It focuses on the lives and route of Lewis and Clark and their exploration of the American West. Visitors can see a Native American tipi and a covered wagon. They can also learn how the Pioneers and Native American Indians lived in the frontier. Dioramas and exhibits show how farmers, miners, hunters, trappers, and others lived in the area to the west of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.


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