“Home of the Arch” ~ an essay by Walt Atwood
In November of 2012, a group of retired Boilermakers, aged 70 to 93, embarked on a remarkable journey that would take them back in time. In October of 1965, structural work to erect the stainless steel exoskeleton for the Gateway Arch, part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in Saint Louis, Missouri, ended after more than three years of work by Ironworkers and other tradesmen on the site. From 1965 through 2012, the National Park Service welcomed and recognized Ironworkers and others at reunions on the memorial site. One group was never recognized and barely acknowledged. That group was the Boilermakers.
A fact often obscured in the history of the Arch is the fabrication of its components. While the base of the structure was a combination of concrete, steel and other foundation elements put in place by the Ironworkers and other tradesmen, the above- ground part of the Arch— 80 percent of the structure was fabricated off-site and shipped to Saint Louis by rail. That fabrication job was left to a small boilermaker shop owned by Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company in Warren, Pennsylvania. It took 47 years for those Boilermakers to be recognized. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers, headquartered in Kansas City, Kansas, paid for the trip from Warren to Saint Louis. “Ironworkers, along with other trades, did a masterful job of erecting the Arch on site,” Newton Jones, union president, said in a statement. “But there is another story that has gone largely untold. The men who did the front-end work, who crafted the individual Arch sections to exacting specification before shipping them to Saint Louis by rail, are part of the monument’s history, too. By organizing this event, we hope to recognize their contributions and secure their place in history.”
On November 14, 2012, the group of retired Boilermakers boarded a motor coach bound for Saint Louis. Their mission: claim their contribution as Boilermakers in building the Gateway Arch, and to “put Warren on the map” as “the home of the Arch” where most of its wedge-shaped components were made. Leaving Warren at sunrise, the bus arrived in downtown Saint Louis after dusk. Approaching on Interstate 70 from four miles away, the traveling Warren elders could see the Arch in the distance, illuminated at night. The glistening 630 foot tall monument is a spectacle to behold at any time.
To most of the retired Boilermakers, the Arch was a photo in a news story or an image on a television, never tangible, as some had never seen the completed Arch in person. At sunrise on Thursday, November 15th, the Boilermakers walked a few blocks from the Downtown Hilton to visit the Arch. Greeting these men were two videography crews. Dana Dean of KDSK Channel 5 interviewed the men, live on the air, for the station’s morning show. “I can’t believe it,” Kenneth Wright, 74, a retired Boilermaker from Warren, told the Saint Louis / Southern Illinois Labor Tribune. “All I’ve ever seen is pictures. But when you get down here, the pictures don’t do it justice. It’s magnificently beautiful.” The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers hired Wide Awake Films to capture the event and interview the men. The union brought an office crew to the Hilton so that old photographs and documents of the project could be scanned in and recorded.
Later that day, the men toured the Arch. Tom Bradley, superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, held a ceremony and lunch to honor the men. “We’ve had many reunions here of workers over the years, but none quite like this one. Many of you were instrumental in building the Arch, this incredible memorial, yet never saw it when it was completed,” Bradley told the men. “But it’s due to your hard work that we’re here today.” The National Park Service presented each retired Boilermaker a special commemorative book about the history of the Arch project.
On Friday, November 16th, the Boilermaker’s union took the Warren bus tour contingent on a Mississippi riverboat tour, followed by a group photo pose near the Arch and a special dinner at the Hilton. The men were shown a proclamation signed by Saint Louis Mayor Francis Slay, declaring a “Gateway Arch Boilermaker Craftsmen Day”. The proclamation, printed on large parchment, was later duplicated and shared with each of the men.
Tempering the generosity of the union’s tour and honors were doubts that recognition of the Warren men would come easily. These doubts were quickly erased by Mr. Bradley’s remarks at the ceremony. Thanks to the Boilermakers union, KDSK, the mayor of Saint Louis and the National Park Service, the men quickly became the talk of the town in both Saint Louis and Warren. Archie Brittain, 79, worked on the Arch project in 1964 and ’65 as a “layout person”, laying out all the sizes of the stainless steel plates. “It’s exciting to be able to go up inside and see what is there,” Brittain told the Labor Tribune, “because I know how it’s all put together. It looks a lot better than I thought it was going to. When you see one piece at a time it doesn’t amount to too much, but when you get it together, it’s awesome.” The men and their families are discussing plans to attend the 50th anniversary celebration at the Arch in 2015.
Walt Atwood, Chairman & Co-Organizer
Committee of Retired Boilermakers
“Home of the Arch” – Relevant web links:
KSDK Live Video Clip – “Arch Builders See Work First Hand”
The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers
– news article – “Brotherhood Honors Gateway Arch Builders”
Additional Print References:
“Boilermakers who worked on Arch visit the monument, many for the first time” by Tim Rowden. St. Louis / Southern Illinois Labor Tribune – 22 Nov. 2012 – Vol. 76, No. 15.
Warren Times Observer – news article – “They Built It” – 23 Nov. 2012