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It's a blast: Gateway Geyser turns 20 — and, oh, what a view of the Arch

Looking west from Illinois
Bryan Werner | Metro East Park and Recreation District
If it's not windy, the Gateway Geyser on the East St. Louis riverfront can reach 600 feet, nearly the height of the Arch.

Five, four, three, two, one ... Look up!

The three 800-horsepower engines that power the Gateway Geyser are reaching warp speed, sounding strong enough to launch a rocket.

At full power, the geyser shoots 7,500 gallons of water per minute into the sky above the East St. Louis riverfront. If it’s not windy, the watery blast can reach 600 feet, nearly the height of the Gateway Arch, which is directly across the Mississippi River.

The geyser is the tallest fountain in the United States, and the 10-minute spectacle can be seen for miles. But the best place to watch is the viewing platform at Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, a 34-acre site just down from the Casino Queen and Cargill grain elevator.

The overlook is also a prime spot for Arch-gazers — providing postcard views of the stainless steel monument and St. Louis cityscape.

British tourists Gillion Booth and Ross Arieta stopped by on a recent afternoon to watch the water show.

“We looked for the best place to view the Arch, and this came up,’’ Arieta said. “Actually, you can see the Arch and the rest of the city and get some nice pictures. And we timed it to make sure we could see the fountain.’’

Booth snapped pictures as the tower of water climbed:

“Yeah, it’s pretty incredible. A lot of water.”

And higher …

“Oh, wow.’’

The couple was on a road trip through the Midwest and read about the geyser in travel guides before leaving London.

“This morning we went to see the Zoo. Next stop was the Arch and the geyser,’’ Booth said.


Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Gillion Booth and Ross Arieta of London, England, read about the geyser in U.S. travel brochures.

Linking east and west

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Arch’s 50th birthday, the geyser (or “geezer,” as the Brits pronounced it) also marked an anniversary: It turned 20 this year.

And yet, many people who live in the St. Louis area still don’t know what it is, says Mike Buelhorn. He’s the director of the Metro East Park and Recreation District, which operates the fountain and park.

“We don’t get a lot of local people here,’’ Buehlhorn says. “We get a lot more people — I would say 50 percent — from the Midwest. Twenty-five percent come from everywhere in the country, and another 25 percent come from all over the world.”

The geyser was the brainchild of the late Malcolm W. Martin, a St. Louis attorney and philanthropist. In 1968, he founded the nonprofit Gateway Center of Metropolitan St. Louis to raise funds and acquire the land on the East St. Louis riverfront.

“His dream was for a great metropolitan St. Louis,’’ says Marshall Hier, president of Gateway Center. “And Malcolm — unlike a lot of my fellow Missourians — always saw that a lot of St. Louis’ future lay on the east side.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Buehlhorn of the park district, left, and Marshall Hier, president of Gateway Center, watch the geyser reach for the sky.

In a way, Martin’s dream also provided the missing piece to another man’s vision: Arch architect Eero Saarinen believed the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial should extend across the Mississippi to the Illinois riverfront.

After serving in World War II, Martin returned home to St. Louis, where he worked with Luther Ely Smith to drum up financial support for the architectural contest that was held in 1947 to design a riverfront monument.

“One of Saarinen’s dreams was a park on the east side,’’ Hier said. “Malcolm sincerely hoped that the National Park Service would catch hold of that dream and build a park on this side of the river. Even though Malcolm and his group helped persuade the Reagan administration to actually incorporate the park, it was never funded. And so Malcolm and his group seized the initiative.’’

The group bought the land from the Illinois Central railroad and placed a 100-foot flagpole on the site. The fountain was added in 1995 and the viewing platform in 2009.

Martin operated the switches for the geyser’s inaugural eruption on May 27, 1995. When he died in 2004, he left $5 million to Gateway Center to complete his vision, including the construction of the observation deck, officially known as the Mississippi River Overlook.

The overlook is a tiered concrete and steel structure that rises 40 feet above the East St. Louis levee to provide an unobstructed view of the Arch. It is ramped, making for a gentle climb to the top that is wheelchair-accessible.

There’s a bronze statue of Martin on the top of the platform, facing west across the river.

“Even though he’s not with us, his statue is — and he peers across the river at the Arch,’’ Hier said.

There’s also an EarthCam up there, providing live footage. So, smile. (And behave yourself.)

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Statue of Malcolm W. Martin, who envisioned a park on the east side of the Mississippi River where people could view the Gateway Arch.

Water, water everywhere, along with and postcard views 

In 2005, Gateway Center transferred the title of the fountain and ground to the Metro East park district, along with funds for park development and ongoing maintenance. The district develops parks and trails in Madison and St. Clair counties.

“We own it, but we take care of it for the region,” Buehlhorn said. “Gateway Center pays for it, so the taxpayers aren’t really charged anything.’’

Hier said that Gateway Center has supported and contributed financially to the CityArchRiver project that is transforming the Arch grounds — and had hoped that it would extend to the east side. He remains hopeful that, eventually, the National Park Service will incorporate the geyser and park site.

For now, the site is what Buehlhorn refers to as a “passive” park — a quiet place to walk or read, or admire the view.

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Herman "The Colonel" Atkins has been watching over the site for more than 20 years.

Herman Atkins — everybody calls him “The Colonel’’ — has watched over the park since its beginnings. He and his security firm monitor the site 24/7, and Atkins knows the workings of the geyser.

Atkins says he enjoys talking to the park’s visitors.

“They absolutely love it. They love the view, and they’re in awe about the fountain,’’ he said. “I do a little public relations, I do a little security, but the main thing is enjoying thousands of people from across the world. I have met and greeted individuals from Africa, Australia — and you name it.’’

Buehlhorn says the site is a favorite spot for photographers, and filmmakers like to shoot scenes of the Arch here.

“If you want to get the best shot of the Arch in a movie, there isn’t anywhere else to get it but here,’’ Buehlhorn says. “No offense to St. Louis, but we got their view.’’

Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
The postcard view from the observation deck at Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park on the East St. Louis riverfront.

If you go:

* In the spring and summer, the geyser erupts daily at noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. The geyser normally shuts down in October for the winter, but its schedule was extended so it could have a blast during the Arch’s birthday celebrations.

* The park and observation platform is open year round. April through October: Dawn to 10 p.m. November through March: Dawn until dusk, Sunday through Thursday; dawn until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday.

* For driving directions, check out the geyser’s website, which offers detailed directions and maps. The website notes that many online mapping services do not provide accurate directions to the park.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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