Gateway Arch turns 50 with nod to those who built it

Jim Suhr and Jim Salter
Associated Press

St. Louis –

Half a century to the day since they closed out the Gateway Arch’s construction, workers whose nerves of steel helped build it reunited Wednesday for its anniversary, some joking that the now-iconic stainless-steel monument has aged better than they have.

Many of the sheet metal and iron workers, electricians and engineers are great-grandfathers now with hair that’s gray or gone. Their once-strong fingers cramped while clutching Sharpies to satisfy a snaking line of autograph-seekers who came to mark the milestone of the landmark that dominates St. Louis’ skyline.

The passing of five decades has altered the workers’ mindset: For those whose often-untethered work resembled high-rise acrobatics in putting up the 630-foot-tall landmark, the project at the time was little more than just a job. The years since have them appreciating its lasting impact.

“It’s a lot bigger deal today than then,” said Bruce Izatt, who in 1965 was an 18-year-old iron worker and among the youngest who played a role in the Arch. “To me, it’s more famous now than when it was built. And that’s pretty cool.”

That reverence for the nation’s tallest man-made monument, a tribute to President Thomas Jefferson and pioneers for whom St. Louis served as a gateway to the West, echoed across St. Louis.

In the city’s downtown, hundreds who turned out for a brief observance in the Arch’s shadow heard two firefighters ring a bell five times shortly after 11 a.m. — homage to that moment the last and highest of 142 stainless steel sections was tucked into place.

Mayor Francis Slay, who was 10 at the time, recalled “it seemed like the entire world was focused on the Arch that day to see if that last piece would fit.”

Slay said he is awed “almost every single day” by the landmark along the Mississippi River that he called a “symbol of our region’s strength, our civic pride.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon also offered a nod to the Arch, saying it made the St. Louis skyline instantly recognizable around the world.

The Arch, which cost less than $15 million to build, opened to visitors in mid-1967. No workers were killed during its construction.

Within reach of the posters he signed one after the other, Izatt allowed the autograph seekers at the Missouri History Museum to flip through his book of snapshots. One photo showed him being hoisted by crane, on his way to hundreds of feet above ground. Another showed him 40 stories up, in line on the unfinished Arch to get a haircut — a company courtesy, given that the workers’ seven-day-a-week schedule on the project afforded them scant leisure time.

“We’re very, very proud of him,” said his daughter, 50-year-old Laura Schneider of St. Charles.

When it came to such dizzying heights without safety gear, Izatt recalled advice from his father, also an iron worker: “He told me, ‘You don’t have to be crazy to be an iron worker,’ but it helped.”

Michael Schuller, a 74-year-old ex-field engineer from Pittsburgh, said those who built the Arch aren’t surprised it survived.

“It should be here to the end, as an amazing structure,” he said, smiling. “It’s providential, and we were blessed to have worked on it. It was a one-of-a-kind deal.”