Dr B R Guruprasad
When we think of the vast urban landscape of the USA, big cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco naturally come to our mind. But, compared to those famous cities with impressive skylines, many small, lesser-known cities in the US are the centres of important historical events that shaped the contemporary United States. St Louis, with a population of about three lakh, is one such small yet beautiful city named after the French King Louis IX by the 18th-century French fur traders who had settled there.
This great city at the eastern end of the midwestern state of Missouri has several places that provide valuable insights into the history of the United States and the way it evolved to become the economic superpower in the 20th century. In spite of being a prominent transportation and technological hub of the US, St Louis has enough urban lung spaces for one to relax.
The most conspicuous landmark of St Louis is the Gateway Arch, which symbolises St Louis’ role as the gateway to the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. Ascending to the summit of that 63-storey high glittering steel arch in claustrophobic tram cars in four minutes was a unique experience. The view of the St Louis skyline was breathtaking from the glass windows lined on both sides of the observational area at the summit. Turn the other side and you will witness the mighty Mississippi, an iconic river that has profoundly influenced the culture, history and economy of the United States over the last two centuries.
Giant barges carrying various goods ranging from grains to rubber destined for the ports in the Southern United States bear testimony to the role of Mississippi as America’s most important inland trade route.
The visitor centre located directly below the arch provides not only details about the arch but also the role of St Louis in the country’s westward thrust and the perilous scouting expeditions of the pioneers including the famous Captain Merriweather Louis and William Clark expedition as well, which heralded that expansion.
Another historically interesting place in St Louis is the Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site. The serene surroundings of ‘White Haven’, the house in which the American Civil War Hero General Grant, who saved the Union and later became the 18th US President lived during 1854-59, were very pleasant indeed. Equally enjoyable was the very sight of enthusiastic and eloquent museum staff passionately eulogising Grant and the nearby trees full of orange-red autumnal foliage.
Just a few kilometres from St Louis, in the state of Illinois, lie Cahokia Mounds, which have relics of the native American ‘Indian’ civilisation prevalent roughly during the 10th to 14th centuries AD. On a ramp, one can climb to the summit of the prominent ‘Monks Mound’ to see the remnants of the once prevalent, well-organised and hierarchical society. A nearby museum with exquisite exhibits will further enrich our knowledge about the native Mississippian culture.
The St Louis Science Centre is an interesting place for kids and grown-ups alike. Besides impressive exhibits that include a working model of T-Rex, the centre houses a planetarium featuring an interesting sky show.
Talking of greenery, St Louis is endowed with 108 parks of which, the 1300-acre Forest Park, also referred to as ‘the heart of St Louis’, is the most prominent. The art gallery and other cultural and historical establishments as well as the science centre are considered a part of this vast park. Downtown St Louis has a vibrant night-life especially in ‘the loop’ area.
West Alton, one of the prominent geographical spots in the United States, where the mighty Mississippi joins the longest US river Missouri, lies just outside St Louis. The sight of that great confluence and the quiet ambience there is quite surreal.
Considering the passionate attachment of Indians to their food, it can be safely said that there are quite a good number of Indian restaurants in St Louis serving gourmet Indian cuisines ranging from masala dosa to Kashmiri pulao. And, St Louis has a beautiful temple complex that is frequented quite regularly by the Indian community.
Having lived in the beautiful city of O’Fallon which lies just outside St Louis (it is more appropriate to call O’Fallon a suburb of St Louis) for more than a month and having frequently visited St Louis on many occasions, a sense of special bonding developed between me and the city of St Louis, which was not the case with my earlier visits to the other prominent US cities.
So, as my departing Lufthansa Airbus A330 effortlessly ascended into the sky from St Louis’ Lambert International Airport, a sincere feeling of having lost something dearest pervaded me.
(Published 17 December 2023, 00:10 IST)