Person

Dick Bowser

Quick Facts

"It was just very interesting and very flattering that somebody was even thinking about letting me do this." -Dick (Richard) Bowser, about designing the tram system at the Gateway Arch, in an interview with NPS historian Bob Moore in 1993.

Have you been to the top of the Gateway Arch? If so, you might remember the slightly claustrophobic, gently pivoting futuristic white capsules you rode up in. The Gateway Arch tram system is a one-of-a-kind invention that incorporates components of ferris wheels and elevators in its design. There is nothing else quite like it anywhere in the world! It was invented in only two weeks by a fascinating young man named Dick Bowser.

A series of seemingly unrelated events all conspired to give Mr. Bowser the experience, skills, and abilities he needed to invent the ingenious tram ride. 


Childhood as an Elevator Mechanic's Apprentice

Dick Bowser's parents, Ruth and Virgil Bowser, were both raised on farms in southern Michigan. Ruth worked as a schoolteacher before she married, and Virgil held jobs as a pattern-maker and owner of a machine shop. Soon after baby Dick entered the world in 1921, Virgil moved the family from Detroit to went to work for the Warner Elevator Company in Cincinnati. When the depression hit in the 1930s, however, Virgil lost his job. Dick was around 10 years old at the time, which was old enough to help his dad with the family business. Dick explained what that was like in a 1993 interview with park historian Bob Moore: "At ten years old, I became the helper. I would run the elevator, and my father would be on top, to inspect the cables and grease things and so forth. . . This used to cause a bit of excitement . . . people would come up and want that elevator, and see this kid in there running the elevator, and they'd go to the manager and they'd bang on the doors and holler and so forth, because this kid was playing with the elevator." (Bowser, 1993). As Dick grew up, he moved with his family to Florida and then North Carolina for his father's work. Dick eventually graduated high school from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

A Short College Education in Engineering

He enrolled in the engineering school at the University of Maryland, but as he describes it “I was a lousy student.” (Bowser, 1993). His main interests at the time were cars and a young woman he was courting (Nellie G. Harland Bowser, who later became his wife of over 50 years). After just a few semesters of school, Americans joined the fight in World War II, so Dick Bowser took the opportunity to drop out of school and join the Navy.

Navy Training

An aptitude test administered during Navy boot camp earned Bowser a position as a fire controlman. This involved using early computers (“as big as refrigerators lying on their back” [Bowser, 1993]) to calculate ballistics data. He also managed equipment that automatically set fuses so they would fly the proper distance before detonating. He quickly rose through the ranks and left the Navy almost four years later as a first class petty officer.

 

Night Classes

When Bowser returned from the war, he worked briefly at the Naval Ordinance Lab in White Oak, Maryland. That job offered its employees the chance to take after-hours adult education programs through Montgomery Junior College. Bowser took advantage. “So I went over and I signed up for everything available. . . there was college algebra, solid geometry, analytical geometry, descriptive geometry. I went just because they were available, and it didn't cost me very much to go, and it was a good thing to do for my employment with the Navy, and so forth.” (Bowser, 1993). He didn’t know it yet, but those math skills would be essential when he was designing the Gateway Arch tram system. 

Back to Elevators

Meanwhile, Virgil Bowser (Dick’s father) was busy inventing an ingenious parking system garage that had horizontally and vertically traveling elevators. By 1953, Bowser Company Parking Systems were being built in cities all over the country. The older Bowser needed some help, and he knew just who to turn to. “My mother talked me into going to work for my father. I was not too anxious to do this . . All the things that he didn’t want to do, I got stuck with” (Bowser, 1993). Business was very good for the next few years, but the older Bowser was starting to think about retirement. According to Dick, the father and son only had one major disagreement during the time they were working together. Virgil “wanted to keep it [the company] in the family. He wanted my little boys to have the Bowser Company Parking System to work for when they got older. And I had no intention then of making the decision of what my kids were going to do when they grew up.” Eventually, the Bowsers negotiated the sale of the business. In February of 1960, Dick Bowser left Bowser Company Parking System, with no way of knowing the huge opportunity that was about to come his way.

Meeting Eero Saarinen

Less than a month later, Bowser decided to drive from his home in Des Moines, Iowa to Washington DC to check out a parking garage he was considering leasing. On the way, he stopped in Moline, Illinois to visit a friend/business associate named John Martin. When Bowser arrived, Martin had just got off the phone with architect Eero Saarinen’s team, who had been calling elevator manufacturers looking for somebody to design a transportation system for the architect's gigantic and ambitious Gateway Arch design. Martin excitedly told his friend Bowser about the project. “My own knowledge of the St. Louis Arch was that it was something everybody in St. Louis was talking about, but they didn't want to buy parking garages. I had been down there trying to sell parking garages.” (Bowser, 1993).

Martin called Saarinen’s office back and introduced Mr. Bowser. “John Martin had a lot more confidence in me than I had in myself, I think.” (Bowser 1993). They had a very short conversation about elevator possibilities. It went well. Saarinen’s team asked when Bowser was available to meet with the architect, and he told the team Saturday would work. “We had a meeting on Saturday morning. Can you imagine somebody telling Eero Saarinen if he wanted to talk to them that he’d have to come in Saturday morning! This whole thing was just beyond my comprehension, even what happened.” (Bowser, 1993). After the meeting, they said they’d give Bowser a call. He finished his trip - he didn’t want to lease that parking garage after all - and returned to Des Moines. He might have wanted to sit by the phone and wait for Saarinen’s call, but he had already made other plans. The family went to Florida for a week to visit Grandpa and Grandma Bowser, Virgil and Ruth.

“When I returned to Des Moines, the first telephone call I had -- I don't know whether they’d been trying to call me or not -- but the first ring on the telephone was Saarinen’s office. And they wanted to know if I could put some kind of a concept together for some elevators in the Arch” (Bowser, 1993).

Bowser only had two weeks of work time before the deadline. He carefully considered the unique constrictions of the project. The Arch was to be much narrower at the top than at the base. Space for a stairway needed to be included in case of emergencies. He also needed to leave room for an observation platform. He decided an elevator machine could work, and he assembled freehand sketches and filled a notebook with scribbled notes. Some of the notes his wife Nellie typed up “in between making coffee so I could work all night and things like that.” (Bowser, 1993).

The forty-five minute presentation to Eero Saarinen and the consulting architects and politicians went very well, and a lively question-and-answer session went on for hours afterwards. Mr. Bowser remembers towards the end of the discussion, “One man got up and I knew just from the way he asked the question, he wanted to know how much education I had. His question was, 'Mr. Bowser, what are you?' And something told me, don’t get in an argument with this man, so I just told him I was 38 years old, and everybody laughed, and that was the end of my credentials as far as being able to do the Arch. I still laugh about that, and I think it’s the most appropriate answer I could have given.“ (Bowser, 1993)

No One Else For The Job


Dick Bowser was involved in every part of tram construction, installation, and early maintenance, which is very unusual for most government contracts. As George Hartzog, who served as Superintendent of the park from 1959-1962, remembers it, "They got the bid, but they didn't have an engineer that knew how to build it! So they hired Bowser to go up and build it. So that's how Bowser got his job. He disigned this thing for Eero, went up there and built it. And then when they got it built, Bi-State hired him to install it. When he got in installed, I hired him to maintain it. And that's how he got in the Park Service." There was truly no one else who had the knowledge, skills, and abilities to make the tram a reality. Bowser’s amazing, unique tram system celebrated its first ride to the top in 1967 and is still being used today.

Life After the Tram was Installed


Bowser worked at the Gateway Arch as part of the National Park Service maintenance staff until 1972. He spent much of his later years in Florida, and he passed away in 2003 in Richmond, Virginia. Bowser is survived by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and by the thousands of visitors who enjoy his remarkable invention every year.

References:


Bowser, Dick (Richard) B. (1993, October 8). Interview by Bob Moore [Tape recording]. JNEM Oral History Project. Gateway Arch National Park Archives, St. Louis MO.

Hertzog, George B. (1994, October 25). Interview by Bob Moore [Tape recording]. JNEM Oral History Project. Gateway Arch National Park Archives, St. Louis MO.

Moore, B. (1993, July). “Give Us a Concept in Two Weeks”: Dick Bowser and the Arch’s Unique Tram System. Museum Gazette at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Obituary: Richard B. Bowser. Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 29, 2003. https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/timesdispatch/name/richard-bowser-obituary?id=5375599: accessed 11/23/2021.

Gateway Arch National Park

Last updated: December 20, 2021