I’m nearing the end of my 54 weeks in Chicago and there’s somewhere on my Midwest Hotspots list I haven’t yet been. If i’m honest, I think I’ve been pretty good at scouting out the surrounding area. I’ve checked out multiple locations in Wisconsin, explored the tantalising Gary, Indiana not once, but twice, and been to more Chicago suburbs than you can shake a stick at. But one place managed to elude me for an entire year. St Louis. Can Amtrak get me out of this predicament for a modest fee? Yes they can.
Sitting on the first train out of Union Station, having woken up at 4:30am and walked through skin-soaking September drizzle in the dark for half an hour to get there, I am struck by one primary thought: Why are American trains so darn slow? Back home, a train can take me the 420 miles between Edinburgh and London in about four and a half hours, which isn’t something I’ve ever considered a particularly impressive feat. Using this modest benchmark, I presumed the 300 miles from Chicago to St. Louis might be managed in just over three. Nope. Apparently these trains are powered by donkey dung so it’s gonna take closer to six. SIX HOURS?! Thankfully the seats are luxuriously wide and I’ve made a good playlist. See you in half a day. *prays for an empty neighbouring seat*
I disembarked the Texas Eagle into the gorgeous Missouri sunshine just before midday. My return train leaves at like 6:30, so I basically have six hours to explore this place and see everything on my list. Yes, I am aware that the ratio of train time to city time on this trip will end up being 2:1, and no, I don’t think I’ve made a terrible planning error – it just means I’m going to have to run.
The Walk Down Town
There’s a strip of land between Chestnut Street and Market Street that goes from 21st Street right down to the Gateway Arch, and it’s filled with all sorts of interesting bits of civic decoration like statues, sculptures, parks and gardens. I zig-zag my way down,taking in all these adornments, as well as the fancy official buildings that are on either side. Like this one:
And this one with its mock Corinthian columns and felon-shaming marble law gods.
Then there’s a fancy shrub garden with a winding path through it, which leads up to a concrete plaza with fountains all over it. I can see the gateway arch now, which is nice. I can put my map away cause I know where I’m going.
Next, is a sculpture garden with, in addition to the sculptures, a cool waterfall pond thing with stepping stones. I love stepping stones.
After walking through an outdoor theatre sort of thing, there’s one more fountain before the Old Courthouse, and everything lines up quite splendidly. Top marks for who ever planned this town.
Formally known as the Old St. Louis County Courthouse, this building follows a design fairly similar to all the other courthouses and state houses in America. There’s a dome, some nice columns, a couple of wings, and some triangular roofy bits. There are no functioning courts in it anymore but, after being abandoned during the depression, it’s been restored and you can take a tour and see it in all its historical glory. If it wasn’t so sunny and I wasn’t in a hurry, I might have done just that.
Basilica of St. Louis, King of France
Most folk in St. Louis just call this place the Old Cathedral, and indeed, this wee church was the first cathedral to be built west of the Mississippi river. It was built in 1834, in Greek revival style, and spanning the whole length of the portico is an inscription that reads “In Honorem S. Ludovici. Deo Uni et Trino Dicatum. A. MDCCCXXXIV,” which means “In honour of St. Louis. Dedicated to the One and Triune God. 1834.” Presumably this Ludovici fella was the saint the city was named after. Lovely.
Basically, this is what I came all this way to see, and everything else is just a bonus. You probably did notice it in some of the photos above… it’s that pale grey archy thing that dominates most of the skyline. From looking at pictures, and reading its impressive stats, I knew it was a pretty sizeable monument, but I really wasn’t prepared for just how massive it is when you’re standing right underneath it. IT’S SO BIG. I found that it’s really hard to take a decent picture of, partly because of its size, and partly because it’s clad in stainless steel which reflects the colour of the sky, making it hard to get all of it to stand out in a shot. Definitely better seen with the naked eye. They’re also doing a lot of construction all around it – I think they’re making a landscaped park or something – so the surrounding area is not as pretty as it could be… but to be honest, it could be standing in a field of dead fish, and you would still be blown away by its awesomeness. And I use that word for its original meaning, not the bastardised American version. Awe is very much the feeling of the moment.
Standing at 630 feet, it is the world’s tallest arch, and also the tallest man-made monument in the Western hemisphere. And you can go inside it. In the picture of the Old Cathedral above, you can see a row of black dots right at the top. Those are windows. Conceived in 1947, when it was designed as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, construction began in 1963 and was finished 2 years later. I could go on and on about its various accolades and feats of engineering, but I think you get the gist. Sitting on the banks of the great Mississippi River, it is truly a sight to behold, and I’m very glad I made the trip. 12 hours on a train would have been worth it just for this.
East St. Louis
If you’ve read my 3000-word epic on Gary Indiana, you might understand part of what drew me to Missouri’s very own epicentre of homicide and industrial decline. The other part of the draw is that I’m kind of obsessed with bridges. I consider it to be somewhat of a touristic faux pas if I visit a new river-based city and don’t cross over one of its bridges – and St Louis has the goddamn Mississippi, so there’s no way I’m missing this one. Unfortunately, crossing this great river does mean ending up in East St. Louis, which your mother will tell you not to do. I haven’t told mine, though, so we’re good to go.
I took a nice photo from the Eads Bridge that beautifully showcases all the construction that’s going on in what is supposed to be glorious parkland.
When arriving on foot in East St. Louis, which is a different city in a different state (we’re now back in Illinois), you have to walk through some pretty sketchy underpasses to get past the many freeways that circle actual St. Louis. Once I had got out in to the open, I headed towards the centre of town looking for some sign of life. After 10 minutes wandering around, the only other person I saw was a man raking around in a pile of burned wood that I think had once been a house. I found the police station, which was similarly deserted, then called it a day and headed back to the bridge.
A man peeped at me as I was approaching the on-ramp to the bridge, he did a violent U-turn and drove past again, staring at me. I have no idea why. I can conclude from this expedition: East St. Louis is not as fun as Gary.
I don’t even know where to start with the City Museum. It’s not like any place I’ve ever seen, nor like anything I had ever imagined might even possibly exist in this cold and serious world we live in. The City Museum needs to change its name, because while it might indeed be in the city, it falls well outside any reasonable interpretation somebody might give to the word “museum”. The City Museum is basically a giant ten-storey playground for adults. I am not joking. The “stuff” is made from re-purposed architectural and industrial objects, so pretty much everything is made from metal and concrete. No rubber mats or soft plastics here.
You basically buy a wrist band and run around, climbing up towers, sliding down slides. There’s an old world war II bomber perched precariously at the top of a pile of welded-together scrap metal that you can climb up and into. There’s mesh tubes suspended 8 storeys above the ground that you can crawl through. It’s insane.
And this is just outside. Inside is 10 storeys of more fun. You can crawl through ventilation spaces, disappear through a hole in the floor and pop out two levels below on the other side of the building… there’s also a bunch of cool exhibits that you can see if you get bored of climbing all over the place.
Up on the roof, things get even more bizarre. Hanging off the corner is an old yellow school bus. You can go into this school bus, right down to the driver’s seat – at this point there is nothing between you and a 10-storey fall except the floor of an old rusty bus that is somehow attached by one end to the roof – where you can pull the lever that opens the door, and watch as it creaks open revealing the 120 feet of air below you.
Also on the roof are a whole bunch more slides (some of which go through the floor many storeys into the building below), some more things to climb on, a water feature, an elephant.
Also, there is a mini Ferris wheel that gives nice views over the St. Louis skyline. Naturally.
What is even more astounding is that, in addition to being able to climb absolutely anywhere your heart desires, there is also a bunch of bars. So you can casually get drunk as you climb and slide around like a crazy person. We 100% entered an alternate universe where there are no rules and everybody thinks that gravity doesn’t kill you and I LOVE IT.
Back to the Station
I’ve been literally running all over this town for hours, at least 2 of which were spent climbing madly around the City Museum, but my legs are still holding out. My train is in around 40 minutes, which means I can still see a couple more things if I hustle.
First, I stopped by the Scottrade Center, home of the ice hockey team of St. Louis. I really hoped, having seen the logo for the team, that they were called the St. Louis Semidemiquavers, but I later discovered that they’re just called the “Blues”. That’s fine too, I guess.
Then, I happened across the Union Station Hotel, which is a pretty cool old building, complete with a clock tower that looks like it’s right out of Shrek 3, and has a nice fountain outside.
And that, my friends, was St. Louis in a day.
As I was sitting on the train enjoying a much-needed sandwich (I consumed no food during my time in the city), I was greeted with a nice sunset, and stunning view of the Gateway Arch as we crossed over a freight line on our way out of the city. 10/10 for a parting view, St. Louis. 10/10.