Arch visitors top 130 million over 50 years, but who's counting? | St. Louis Public Radio

Arch visitors top 130 million over 50 years, but who's counting?

Oct 21, 2015

For 50 years, the Gateway Arch has drawn visitors from around the world to downtown St. Louis. From presidents and pop stars, to school kids and church groups, millions of people each year have come to marvel at the monument.  But exactly how many people have visited in five decades? That depends on how they’re counted.

Dennis Hart (below flag) was a Life Scout when he helped raised the American flag on the Gateway Arch's keystone, Oct. 28, 1965.
Credit Kelley Hart-Becker

Dennis Hart was among the first people to see the Arch’s completion. As a Boy Scout, he helped raise the flag on the keystone before builders hoisted it into place Oct. 28, 1965.

Dennis Hart helped raise the flag on the Arch's final section before crews hoisted it into place 50 years ago this Wednesday.
Credit Joseph Leahy / St. Louis Public Radio

But, he said, it took a while to grasp the magnitude of being one of the first to witness it. “It wasn’t, that day, a big honor in my mind — not near as much as it would be today,” he said.

Since then, the Gateway Arch has become an international icon of the city. According to the National Park Service, roughly 130 million people have visited over the past 50 years.

Tracking Visitors

But, tracking visitors to the site actually began 30 years before the Arch even existed. The National Park Service has been counting people coming since the park’s founding in 1935 as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, said the Arch’s deputy superintendent, Frank Mares.

Until Arch construction began in the early 1960s, visitor traffic was relatively low ranging from about 12,000 to 250,000. Annual visitors peaked around the time when the first tram to the top of the Arch opened in 1967 at about 4.6 million people, but that number may not be very accurate, Mares said.

“I’m not sure how they came up with 4 million to be quite honest, but that is the official recording, about 4 million and it’s never gotten that high since, but I think it’s gotten a lot more accurate about how we count people too.”

Mares explained that counting practices have changed over the years, from tallying the number of tram tickets sold to using hand clickers as visitors entered the museum underground.

“Sometimes, staff were better at it than other staff. In the mid-90s they installed electric-eye counters over the doors to try to get a better count, but those couldn’t count people that come in groups,” he said.

“If six or eight or 10 people came in those doors all at once, it would miss a couple of them, at least. The busier we were, the less accurate they were.”

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Visitor numbers also depend on which Arch-goers are counted, Mares said. For instance, the official visitor numbers don’t include the first 10 years that Fair St. Louis held its Fourth of July celebration at the park.

The numbers also don’t include the untold millions of drivers on St. Louis’ major interstate highways, who’ve glimpsed the Arch from their cars; including, famously, the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation

In general, Mares said, the number of people actually stopping in at the park over the decades tended to be cyclical, tied to fluctuations in the economy.

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“Visitation takes a big nosedive through most of the 1970s all the way through at least the early '80s. By the early '90s it starts to rise again. After 9/11: a big nosedive.”

According to National Park Service data, the annual average over the last 50 years has been about 2.6 million visitors a year. About 70 percent of of those come from more than 300 miles away, Mares said.

Arch visitor declines

In recent years, the numbers have been down about 20 percent to 25 percent, Mares said, due to the $380 million CityArchRiver redevelopment project at the park and surrounding roads. 

But upgrades, such as the park-over-the-highway, aim to eventually boost numbers by making it more accessible to out-of-towners and locals downtown, said CityArchRiver spokesman Ryan McClure.

“It’s conservative to say we’ll at least get back up to where park visitorship was before — so like 3.2-3.3 million,” he said.

McClure said the point of the project is also to enhance the experience, by encouraging guests to stay longer and feel more at home.

“If visitors stay about a half day longer in the region because of these improvements, which we think is conservative, that’s an economic impact of about $367 million a year, additional, and about 4,400 jobs.”

The park will close entirely in January and February for construction, but visitor volume is expected pick back up by next summer and continue growing as the renovated museum re-opens in 2017.