Dick Bowser

Dick Bowser and the Arch's Unique Tram System

By Bob Moore, JNEM Historian

The highlight of a visit to Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is a ride to the top of the 630-foot Gateway Arch, for a panoramic view of the surrounding area. But beside commenting on the cramped nature of the little capsules that carry them to the top, or wondering about the strange clicking noises they hear as the capsules lurch to keep them upright, visitors ask relatively few questions about the tram system. This is a testament to the durability and uniqueness of the trams, since they are a one-of-a-kind invention, conceived in just two short weeks by an amazing man who never received a college degree. His name is Dick Bowser, and in a 1986 letter he outlined the sequence of events which led up to his selection as designer of the tram system:

"Being a college dropout was hardly a credential to qualify me to design the arch trains [Bowser left the University of Maryland in 1942 to enlist in the Navy, serving three years as a fire controlman on a destroyer in the Pacific]. However, I was also a second-generation elevator man with more than a fair share of guts. My father and I had developed, manufactured, and installed Bowser Parking System elevator equipment. These elevators could travel horizontally & diagonally through a structure as well as the normal vertical travel. There were no ramps or driveways in a Bowser System Garage. The Bowser System and the competing Pigeon Hole Parking were the only mechanical parking systems that ever got beyond the prototype stage. There were 35 Bowser Garages built, several of which were over 12 stories tall; some had capacities of over 1000 stalls and I believe over half of which, after 30 years, still operate."

Dick Bowser entered the Montgomery Elevator Company offices in Moline, Illinois, to visit a friend one day in 1960. The company had recently been called by Eero Saarinen's office, looking for a firm to take on a "transporter" project for the Gateway Arch. "As soon as he saw me in his office, [my friend] had his secretary make a return call to Saarinen's office. By the time he handed the telephone to me there were two of Saarinen's partners on the line. Their first question was 'did an elevator have to travel vertically?' I said I didn't think so. I could remember that my father built and installed a dumbwaiter that transferred from one hatchway to another hatchway about halfway up its vertical travel. If they were interested, the dumbwaiter was in a church building in Birmingham, Michigan. It turned out that the building was within a mile of their offices. Their next question was, 'When can you meet with Eero Saarinen?' I explained my 2 week schedule and rather than wait they made arrangements to see me the following Saturday morning giving me time enough to travel to their office and get back on my schedule by Monday."

A month after this initial contact, Eero Saarinen called back and requested a presentation from Bowser, as an independent contractor, within two weeks. "The first drawing that I got had an outline of the Arch, and down at the bottom was a square that said 'elevator' that's all there was." Bowser worked day and night at home in his basement for the next two weeks to complete his plans.

"In designing a conveyance system for the Arch, there were very few criteria to meet except that the National Park Service had established a passenger volume of 3,500 people in an 8-hour day, or up to 11,000 people in a 14-hour day, as visitors to the Arch. It was also required that in no way could the conveyance system distort the exterior of the Arch.

The first attempts in designing an appropriate system were based on several schemes, beginning with elevators. To get 3,500 people to the top of the Arch, which is the equivalent of a 63-story building, during an 8-hour day would require more than an ordinary elevator. Because of the triangular shape and the different slopes in the Arch, a standard elevator could only go up about 300 feet above that level, a small elevator at a steeper angle would be required. Between the larger and smaller elevators would have to be machine rooms, pits, and waiting space for a large number of people, and these would have consumed about six stories of the interior of the Arch. The triangular shape also presented a problem. Standard elevators were therefore determined to be impractical.

"The next solution to be considered was escalators but, here again, many units would have been needed, and the cost would have been very high. Additionally, in the upper sections of the Arch there was an area where the slope of an escalator would not follow the required curvature.

"The Ferris wheel principle was then considered. This involved utilizing small containers of people, with their seats pivoted to swing at any angle. This approach involved a continuous chain pulling seats which would go up one leg of the Arch and come down the other; but the distance up one leg of the Arch, and down the other side, and across the bottom, would have been almost half a mile, too long for any chains or cables to negotiate successfully. The Ferris wheel system would also have had to move on the centerline of the Arch, and no provision could be made for passengers to get off at the top observation area.

"The next consideration was the grouping of seats together so that there would be groups simultaneously at a loading zone, at the top, and at an unloading zone. This, too, presented problems, because the center portion of the upper part of the Arch would have been occupied with equipment, leaving no room for stairways and other devices for safety. Finally, a combination of the elevator principle and the Ferris wheel principle was developed into a train of capsules, and I had my solution."

After two weeks, Dick Bowser traveled to the offices of Eero Saarinen Associates in Michigan for a 45-minute presentation. "I didn't know the meeting was going to be anything more than a preliminary meeting with the architect and his staff," recalled Bowser, who walked into a room filled with St. Louis area congressmen, the mayors of St. Louis and East St. Louis, MacDonald Construction Company engineers, Director of the National Park Service George B. Hartzog, Jr., and Eero Saarinen himself. At 3 p.m., Bowser began to pitch his idea for the trams, the concept of which was the same system seen today in the Arch. His presentation lasted 40 minutes; then the questions came, lasting several hours. "After the group had been advised that the restaurant could not delay dinner any longer someone asked 'Mr. Bowser, what are you?' I was sure he was addressing my academic credentials. In an effort not to ruin what I felt was a successful presentation I answered 'I'm 38 years old.' This 'brought the house down' and ended the meeting."

Within a few weeks Bowser had a contract, for a fee of $40,000, for a two-year job; as it turned out, the job lasted six-years, until 1967, and Bowser stayed on the Park Service maintenance staff at the Arch until 1972. Bowser has described many of the details of the tram system he invented:

"The eight small capsules, used in each of the two Arch trains, are similar to the barrels used in cement mixers. Each train capsule has a 5-foot diameter barrel that is open on the front and closed on the back. The back has a center pivot shaft, and surrounding the open front there is a frame with rollers, so the barrel can rotate within the frame that is supported by wheels running in the channel-shaped tracks. There are 5 seats in each barrel, so the weight of the passengers helps keep [the capsule] in an upright position.

"Each capsule rotates approximately 155 degrees during the trip to the top of the Arch. When the capsule starts out from the lower load zone, the tracks are overhead, but as it goes up the Arch they come to be beneath the capsule. All the way along, the framework rotates around the capsule. A separate train runs in each leg of the Arch because there is a great deal of difference in the amount of time that loading takes at the top, where it is cramped, and at the bottom, where there is a great deal of room. Several advantages were gained by having two independent tram units. As crowds increase, each train can run empty one way, or in the case of small attendance, only one train need be used.

"Each train of eight capsules is powered by a typical heavy-duty elevator machine with cables, counterweights and all of the safety features of a modern high-speed passenger elevator. Each of the Arch trains carries 40 passengers and is capable of making a round trip with passengers in 9 minutes including loading and unloading passengers in both directions. When running near capacity each train typically carries 200 to 225 passengers per hour.

The trains have been operating for over 25 years, traveling a total of approximately 200,000 miles and carrying over 18 million passengers. The cars were designed by Planet Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, and built by General Steel Industries, Inc., St. Louis Car Division, from Reynolds aluminum supplied by Joseph T. Ryerson & Son. The five fiberglass seats in each capsule are the only components of the cars and carrier frames not made of aluminum.

The trams are considered to be a transportation system, and the original financing for the construction, as well as the day-to-day operation, is provided by the Bi-State Development Agency. A unique transportation system such as the trams, despite their efficiency and durability, are bound to present unusual problems over the course of time. That is why employees are kept on staff to maintain and repair the Arch tram system. These employees are some of the most specialized people in the National Park Service, with a history of innovative solutions to their credit, and an almost daily series of one-of-a-kind problems facing them. Their mission is to keep the trams running, and the service record of the system is a testament to their effectiveness. It is also a testament to the genius of their inventor.

On a 1992 visit to the Arch from his home in Florida, Dick Bowser observed: "My wife, Nell, and I were standing in a leg of the Arch watching a train go up. There were relays clicking, motors running, capsules rotating in an effort to remain level, some cables were going up, others were moving down, wheels, trolleys, wires, chains, etc. I told my wife, 'I can't believe I was involved in all this and I don't believe I have the guts to do such a thing again.'" The truth is that Dick Bowser is a very modest man. The Arch tram system he created is as unique and special as the Arch it services, one of the many amazing aspects of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. It was built due to the vision of a creative and special man, one of the unique heroes in the story of the construction of the Gateway Arch.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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