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Why Is St. Louis Called the "Gateway to the West"?

By K.E. Walsh
Updated: May 17, 2024

The city of St. Louis, Missouri, is known as the “Gateway to the West.” It has this nickname because it was the starting point for the westward movement of settlers in the United States during the 1800s. It was a traveling hub for many settlers, hunters and others migrating west. The Gateway Arch in St. Louis symbolizes the city’s nickname.

St. Louis plays a major role in U.S. history. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark started from St. Louis in 1804 to explore and chart the Louisiana Territory. They were sent by U.S. president Thomas Jefferson to investigate the Louisiana Purchase, land that the U.S. had bought from France. Many pioneers, hunters and adventurers followed the trail of Lewis and Clark from St. Louis to the new frontier of the West.

When heading west, St. Louis was the last big city that many settlers encountered. The so-called "Gateway to the West" was where these travelers could load up on supplies before venturing further. Many entrepreneurs made their fortunes in St. Louis, selling products to the people heading into the western part of the country. St. Louis sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and just south of the Missouri River, so it also was popular for explorers who used the rivers to travel. Travelers could go up the Missouri River to the northern sections of the uncharted West during the years when that area of the U.S. was being colonized.

The Gateway to the West was the center of the fur trade in the U.S. during the early 1800s. Trappers and hunters used the "Gateway to the West" as a stopping point before going out on their hunts, and they used it as a shipping point. The two large rivers near the city supplied them with the means to send their furs and other goods back east to be sold.

The Gateway Arch, also known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, is a 630-foot tall (192-meter tall) metal structure built in St. Louis to symbolize the city being the "Gateway to the West." It commemorates the large part that the city of St. Louis played in westward expansion. The Museum of Westward Expansion is housed in the Gateway Arch. It has artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition and exhibits that teach of the pioneers who traveled through St. Louis to help build the American West during the 1800s.

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Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Oct 07, 2011

I remember studying about the Lewis and Clark trail when I was in school. It would probably be much more interesting to learn more about this now than when I was younger.

I know this trail covers several states but didn't remember that it started in St. Louis. It sounds like the city of St. Louis is a city rich in tradition and history.

One of my friends who is in college went there on her vacation. She didn't have a lot of money to spend, but one of the biggest reasons she went to St. Louis is because they have several free museums.

This was a great way to have a good time and learn some great American history without spending a lot of money.

By SarahSon — On Oct 06, 2011

I have been to this city many times and have driven right past the St. Louis arch more than once, but have never stopped to see it.

I have also seen the arch from the window of an airplane as we have landed at the St. Louis airport.

Some day I am going to make it a point to stop and visit. It sounds like the view is incredible and there is a lot of interesting history that I could learn.

By ceilingcat — On Oct 05, 2011

@Azuza - I don't know that I would have been brave enough either. But it sure sounds like it would have been an adventure!

Anyway, you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the merchants in St. Louis. Instead of making the rough journey west, they simply made their living selling supplies to people who were making the journey. Maybe not very noble, but certainly a smart idea!

By Azuza — On Oct 05, 2011

I've been in the Gateway Arch too, but I never knew that it was supposed to symbolize the gateway to the west. Although, I was pretty young when I made that trip up the arch. I think I was more focused on how cool it was, rather than the interesting history behind it!

And the history is certainly interesting. I can't imagine being brave enough to go settle in the "wild west" myself. It must have been a weird experience for those people passing through St. Louis, knowing that it was going to be the last time they saw any kind of civilization for who knows how long!

By jennythelib — On Oct 04, 2011

@Kat919 - I've visited St. Louis several times, and would never dream of missing the Arch on a visit. It really is cool.

My other favorite things to do in St. Louis mostly involve eating! There's going to Ted Drewes, of course (that line moves surprising fast). I also like going to Fitz's, on the Delmar Loop. They have good friend ravioli (a St. Louis delicacy that you can also get at Olive Garden) and the world's best root beer floats.They microbrew root beer!

I actually don't care for root beer myself, but other people tell me it's the best. I would get a "creamsicle" float: orange soda (which they also make themselves) with vanilla ice cream. Exquisite!

By Kat919 — On Oct 04, 2011

The Gateway Arch is actually really cool, not corny like you might think. I lived in St. Louis, MO for a while and we took visitors to see it.

It costs money to go up it, but it's totally worthwhile. You ride up in these tiny little cars. They seat five people but are clearly assuming that three or four of them will be children, and even then it's *snug*. But that's part of the experience! Then there's an observation deck at the top where you can really get a good view of the city.

When we would take road trips, we would always look for the arch out the window to know that we were nearly "home."

There's also a neat little museum underneath the arch, if I remember right, with cute little gift shops. (You can buy old-fashioned candy, for instance.)

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