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Park Over the Highway entrance opens at Gateway Arch

Area schoolchildren made history at the Gateway Arch Monday afternoon, becoming the first visitors to cross the new walkway over Interstate 44 to enter the national park.

Officials with the Gateway Arch Park Foundation say the massive overhaul of the Arch grounds that began in 2013 is all about the future, so they wanted schoolchildren to be the first to use the Park Over the Highway when the construction fences came down. The entrance connects downtown St. Louis with the Arch and riverfront.

“Visitors can walk straight into the park for a seamless visitor experience,’’ said Sarah Melinger, the foundation’s director of development. “It’s definitely an exciting day for us.”

The students included preschoolers from the University City Children’s Center and Ascension School in St. Louis and fourth-graders from Douglas Elementary in Belleville.

Anne Rutherford came with her 5-year-old son, Will, a pre-kindergartner at Ascension. She said they’ll always remember the occasion, despite the soggy weather.

“Even in this rain, it’s still beautiful, and you can see how green the grass is. And it looks awesome. It’s very special, I think,’’ she said. “What about you?”

Will replied, “I think it’s very cool and special, too.”

Crews are still installing new exhibits in the museum portion of the expanded visitors center, but that is slated to be completed in time for an opening celebration on July 3. Fair St. Louis will be held at the Arch, beginning on July 4.

The project cost $380 million, including $221 million in private donations from the St. Louis area. The updated facilities and new entryway are expected to attract one million more people annually to the 52-year-old monument and turn around a decline in visitors in recent years, foundation officials said.

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

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.