The Genius behind the Arch Tram Ride

A ride to the top of the Gateway Arch is an unusual experience.  Visitors sit in somewhat cramped little capsules that carry them upward and downward through the legs of the Arch.  All the while, they hear strange clicking noises as the capsules constantly pivot to stay upright. Most people probably give very little thought to how this one-of-a-kind transportation system came about.  But it’s a fascinating story, mostly centered on one very clever inventor.

The Arch tram ride was conceived in just two short weeks by a humble man who never received a college degree.  Dick Bowser was a 38-year-old second-generation elevator manufacturer working in Des Moines, Iowa, when Gateway Arch architect Eero Saarinen asked him to develop a way to bring visitors to the top of the Arch and back down. The project was extremely challenging given the curve of the Arch (it is much narrower at the top than at the base), and the fact that he had to leave room for an observation platform at the top as well as space for a maintenance crew stairway.

A cross section view of the tram ride to the top of the Arch.

Another challenge was Saarinen’s timeline – Bowser was given just two weeks to submit a design for the Arch passenger system!  Working day and night at home in his basement, he came up with a concept that borrowed from the mechanics of both Ferris wheels and elevators, resulting in a small curving train of linked passenger capsules.  His tram concept was accepted by Saarinen and his team.  Bowser was hired to build and install the tram, which opened in 1967, two years after the Arch itself was completed. He then served as tram maintenance supervisor until 1972.

A cross section view of the tram load zone.

Dick Bowser passed away in 2003, but his crowning achievement lives on. “Dick Bowser is a trailblazer in innovation and invention and will always be an important figure in Arch history,” says Pam Sanfilippo, Program Manager, Museum Services & Interpretation, Gateway Arch National Park. “Without his Tram Ride to the Top design, tens of millions of visitors to the Arch would not have had the experience of ascending 630 feet to the top of the monument.”

That’s why the National Park Service will be honoring Bowser’s memory this Thursday September 15 on the occasion of his 101st birthday.  The daylong public celebration at the Arch will include a panel discussion by previous and current tram mechanics as well as ongoing ranger talks and kids’ activities.  The Arch Store will offer a rare 25% discount on our unique Arch cable replicas, made from the cables that pull the tram cars, and the Arch Café will hand out free cupcakes.

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