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Is St. Louis really the Gateway to the West?

The Gateway Foundation had to negotiate for some time with the U.S. Parks Service before it could illuminate the Gateway Arch.
Jan-Erik Finnberg | Flickr

St. Louis, the Gateway City, is also known worldwide as the "Gateway to the West." But before the federal government erected the Gateway Arch 50 years ago this week, some historians say that Kansas City had a strong claim to the title.  

The National Park Service built the Gateway Arch in St. Louis to celebrate the millions of explorers and pioneers who settled the American West in the 19th century.

The monument on the Mississippi River symbolizes where, in general, the massive Diaspora began, but some Missourians farther west believe that St. Louis commandeered the title to replace its previous nickname, Mound City.

Chief among them is Calvin Trillin,  a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and a Kansas City native. He has written for years about how St. Louis took the name from his hometown.

“I can’t blame them for wanting to get rid of that sobriquet: Mound City,” he said. “But they did it by getting the federal government to build the Arch and then stole the 'Gateway to the West' from Kansas City.”

Gateway Sporting Goods had a number of storefronts in the Kansas City area including this one in Independence.
Credit Mitchell Cope
Gateway Sporting Goods had a number of storefronts in the Kansas City area including this one on Main St. in Independence.

When he was growing up, Trillin said, many Kansas City businesses used the mantel in their names.

“Well, I can corroborate it very easily: I bought my first baseball mitt from the Gateway Sporting Goods store in Kansas City probably in the 1940s and there were other places named Gateway, too,” he said.

Jumping off points

Credit National Park Service
Many pioneer trails of the 19th C. began in western Missouri.

According to the Arch's National Park Service historian in St. Louis, Bob Moore, Trillin has a point.

“Well, the real start is Kansas City. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Moore said. “I mean, the Arch could have just as easily been in Kansas City, if you want to talk about jumping off points."

Moore explains there were a number of places where settlers and pioneers lit out for the territories, but in general, that point was farther west than St. Louis

“The main starting points were in Kansas City, Omaha, Council Bluffs – out at that line almost along the Missouri River,” he said.

Settlers would often buy their wagons and livestock in St. Louis, put their goods on a steamboat and sail up the Missouri River to one of those jumping off points, said Moore.

And, anyone who’s played the popular Oregon Trail computer game might remember that their group of settlers launched from Independence, Missouri, which borders Kansas City in Jackson County. 

Credit Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium
Even if players didn't reach the end of Oregon Trail in the popular educational computer game, most learned that the historic route began in Independence, Mo.

Former state representative and past president of the Jackson County Historical Society, Ralph Monaco, said he’s also well aware of the important role that the Kansas City area played as the starting point for travelers heading west, including on the the Santa Fe Trail and the Pony Express.

“When you start dealing with the trails going to Oregon, Santa Fe and California, nothing began in St. Louis. It all began in Jackson County,” he said.

But, even though he’s a true-blue Kansas City fan, he said he still has his reservations about which city really deserves the title.

“I’m kind of torn. I really am, because once something becomes a historical fact, I would never change it... I can understand why St. Louis wants to hold on to it,” he said.

As a historian, he said there are, of course, many valid reasons for St. Louis having the name Gateway to the West, above all for its role in the Louisiana Purchase and the early exploration of the continent.

“St. Louis does deserve that title only because of the historical framework around when it was founded in the 1760's and with the Louis and Clark Expedition in 1804,” he said.

There are, in fact, a number of other U.S. cities that also claim the name, including Fargo, North Dakota, Fort Wayne, Indiana and Omaha, Nebraska. Each city played a significant role in the westward expansion of the United States. But saying exactly where the East ends and the true West begins probably depends most on where you're from and where you're going. 

Follow Joseph Leahy on Twitter: @joemikeleahy     

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