I respect it greatly, yes. Am I totally afraid of it? No. If you don’t respect it, you won’t last long when you’re up high.
What part did you play in the Arch construction?
I worked primarily on the trains. We did the setup, wiring, safeties, controls, everything related with the trains. I was young. I was the one who would chase the trains. If the train was empty, we would send it down, if everything was working properly, it would go all the way down. If it was not adjusted properly, it would stop. I would have to go down the steps and find the car with the problem. When it was fixed, I would ride the car on the outside all the way down.
What were the working conditions?
It was like working in an oven in the summer and a chimney in the winter, the cold air would come right up the arch. If I could do it under the same conditions, I would do it again.
Did you have a favorite spot at the Arch, maybe where you liked to have lunch or take breaks?
There was only one place, the very top. Everything else was dark and under construction. We had some lighting, but if you ate your lunch on the steps you were in the dark.
Did you have any scary moments or times you felt the job was dangerous?
Every day you go to work, you have to think the job is somewhat dangerous. One time, during the Arch project, there was a massive wind that came through St. Louis, it rocked the top back and forth and you couldn’t stand up. We had to crawl on our hands and knees to do anything. We knew it wasn’t going to fall so we just kept working. There will never be another job like that one, it wouldn’t be allowed today.
I was also working the day the guy flew through the Arch. I was halfway down the Arch when the guy flew through it. I was working in the void, I thought a train had broken loose from above, but found out later it was a plane that had flown through the legs of the Arch.
What were people’s reactions to the Arch being built? Were people skeptical that it couldn’t be done or think it was a waste of time?
Some didn’t believe the two legs would ever connect. You have to remember, the legs of the arch were not connected at the time and depending on where you were viewing it from downtown, it looked like it would never connect. Most of my time was spent away from the public working on the trains, so I didn’t hear a lot of their comments.
At the time, did you know what a lasting impact the Arch would have on the St. Louis region, or the nation as a whole?
No, not in the least. As far as I was concerned, I had a wife, a child, a house and a car. It was a job. A year’s worth of work to make money for the family.
Do you have a favorite Arch memory?
I would say that it was when I took my young family to the top after the Arch had opened. The look on my kids’ faces was priceless.
When was the last time you visited the Arch grounds?
Two years ago, they have a reunion every year. Myself and others who worked on the Arch go, sign autographs, gab and answer questions from the people. Some people come back year after year. I missed last year’s reunion.
When was the last time you rode a train to the top?
Five years ago, I had some guests from out of town and took them down there. It’s not as much fun on the inside when you’re safe and sound.
What do you think the Gateway Arch represents today?
I think it is still as it says, “the Gateway to the West,” it signifies St. Louis. I’ve been overseas and the first thing people say when you say you are from St. Louis is, “That’s where the Arch is.” It’s known around the world. It’s a good thing for St. Louis.
Do you have more questions you would like to ask our Arch Builder, or hear what other members of the Arch building crew have to say? You can have your turn to interview a part of St. Louis history during the Meet the Builders Event. The 50th Anniversary Edition will be held on Oct. 28 at the Missouri History Museum. Autograph signing will begin at 9:30 a.m. Learn more about the 50th anniversary celebration.
Melissa Nordmann is an event coordinator for the City of Dardenne Prairie and currently resides in St. Charles County. When she's not planning events for her local residents, she enjoys attending her sons' baseball games and hiking with her family in many of the area's fabulous parks.