St. Louis

We arrived in St. Louis on Wednesday, November 8th following two nights and a day of investigating Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, IL. For our St. Louis homebase, we decided to stay at the Scott Air Force Base FamCamp, located about 20-minutes southeast of the city, in Illinois. We had four nights reserved and our plan included downtown St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, and the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, as well as at least a day of downtime.

During our first night at Scott AFB, at about 3am I awoke to discover a damn pretty cold trailer. We had been running the Heat Pump, but because it was predicted to drop below freezing overnight we switched over to the trailer’s LP furnace.[i] The temperature in the trailer was in low 50s and I assumed we had run out of propane. We have two 30-lbs propane tanks and we only use one at a time in order to more easily keep track of how much propane we have (when one empties, I place the full one on-line and refill the empty as soon as possible). I threw on my jacket and shoes and went outside to swap the tanks. No good, the furnace still wasn’t lighting. Wide awake at that point, I spent the next 45-minutes troubleshooting via the internet before throwing in the towel, opening all the cabinets, turning the heat pumps up to the high 60s, and going back to bed. I would deal with the furnace in the morning.

The next morning, after coffee and breakfast, I spent 20-minutes troubleshooting the furnace and managed to narrow the fault down to the Sail Switch. In case you don’t know (like me before this failure), the Sail Switch is a small, normally-open switch located in the blower housing. Once the furnace’s blower is running and up-to-speed providing adequate airflow, the Sail Switch closes, completing an electrical connection that enables the furnace to ignite. Based on what I found on the Internet, and given the Ignition Fault code indicated on the furnace (Limit Switch / Air Flow Failure), I was pretty sure it was the Sail Switch (a common failure, evidently). I opened up the blower, bypassed the Sail Switch, and the furnace ignited…problem solved.

RV furnace sail switch

Troubleshooting our faulty furnace. The Sail Switch can be seen in-situ in the upper center and removed in the upper right.

In my search for a new Sail Switch, I ended up calling at least nine RV Dealerships and only managed to find one with it in stock. However, they were located across the river in Missouri, 50-miles away. Two of the nearby dealers could order a new switch for me, but it would take 24-hours to arrive. With overnight temperatures predicted to drop into the mid-20s, I decided I was going on a road trip. In my mind, the stress of worrying all night about freezing pipes outweighed the 100-miles of driving!

So after lunch, while Anna and Owen worked on day’s roadschool lesson, I headed to Byerly RV in O’Fallon, Missouri. I had called them back prior to leaving the trailer and they confirmed they had the right Sail Switch. I mentioned that I was coming from Scott Air Force Base and it would be at least an hour before I got there. We talked for a couple of minutes about other possible options closer to the base, but I said I had already talked to all of them and struck out. The Byerly parts guy agreed with my assessment of the weather and said they would have the switch at the counter. Overall, they were super nice folks and I would go back there in a heartbeat—unfortunately, they don’t sell Airstreams…By 4pm, I was back at the trailer with the new Sail Switch installed and a satisfactory furnace opcheck. By that point it was too late to really do anything else, so we hung out at the trailer and enjoyed a relaxing evening.

On Friday, we finally headed into downtown St. Louis to explore. We planned to visit the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse, as well as meeting an old friend at the Budweiser Brew House near Busch Stadium for happy hour. Luckily, the Brew House’s parking lot was only a few blocks from the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch. Score!

Happy to be at the Gateway to the West!

Happy to be at the Gateway to the West!

The Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse are part of the National Park Service’s Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The main visitor center is located under the Arch, but along with the Museum of Western Expansion is currently (November 2017) undergoing major renovations and was temporarily relocated to the Old Courthouse. So, after picking up the Junior Ranger booklet and tickets for our Tram Ride at the Old Courthouse, we walked the six or seven blocks to the Gateway Arch. Once we got into the Arch (following a pretty significant security check at the entrance), we watched a really well-done NPS video about the Arch’s construction and then queued up for our 4-minute Tram ride to the top of the 630-foot Arch. After about 20-minutes of standing in line, we finally climbed into what Anna considered our teeny-tiny steel barrel of death and ascended the Arch’s north leg.

Anna looking on pensively in our Gateway Arch Tram Pod.

Anna looking on pensively in our Gateway Arch Tram Pod.

The Arch’s Tram ride is an experience in itself. The tram consists of a train of eight 5-foot diameter steel barrels called pods. The inside of each pod has five small seats and feels eerily similar to a small deep-sea bathysphere. Mechanically, the tram functions through some half-assed principle that combines the functions of an elevator and a Ferris Wheel and results in each pod rotating 155-degrees during the trip in order to keep the riders upright. There are windows set in the tiny door, which one can use to view the innards of the Arch and observe the rickety contraption scale or descend the unseen tracks during your voyage. Needless to say, Owen had a great time. Although I don’t mind small spaces, was more than happy that the trip was only 4-minutes duration. Anna did not enjoy the trip.

Looking westward from the Arch

Looking westward from the Arch.

The top of the Arch is 17-feet wide and has sixteen small viewing windows split between the west and east sides of the arch. While it was super cool and had a nice view, to be honest, sort of like the Tram Ride, walking around up there was a little freaky. The Arch is designed to sway as much as 18-inches and I swear I could feel it while hanging around at the top. I didn’t dwell on the fact that other than the Arch, there was nothing underneath me until the ground, about 630-feet below. Of course, Owen loved it. We spent some time looking out towards the east from where we came and then turned and looked towards west, to where we were going. After about 15-minutes, we had all had enough. We got in line for a slightly faster (3-minutes) downbound tram and had an uneventful trip back to terra firma.

St Louis View from the Arch

St Louis View from the Arch.  The Old Courthouse is in the center of the picture.

Back at the base of the Arch, we finished up Owen’s Junior Range Booklet and got him sworn in. Afterwards, we headed back to the Old Courthouse to learn about Dred Scott and see some of the relocated artifacts from the Museum of Western Expansion.

Owen showing off his Junior Ranger Badge

The Dred Scott case was one of the most important cases ever tried in the United States and was heard in St. Louis’ Old Courthouse between 1847 and 1852. In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott filed petitions in the St. Louis Courthouse for their freedom based on having lived in free-territories for over nine years of their servitude. The first case was held in 1847 and the Scotts lost on a technicality. However, the Missouri Supreme Court granted a second trial and the Scotts won their freedom in 1850. The 1850 finding was appealed and in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court would overturn their emancipation. The case would eventually find its way to the United States Supreme Court.

Dred Scott  [Source: Wikipedia]

On March 6, 1857, after 11-years of fighting, the United States Supreme Court dismissed Dred Scott’s suit for freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the official opinion of the court. The Supreme Court’s dismissal and Taney’s opinion were catalysts that accelerated the nation’s march towards the Civil War in 1861. Essentially, the court based their decision on two “facts.”

  • Negroes were not and could never be citizens and hence had no right to sue in court.
  • Because the right of property was guaranteed by the constitution, Congress did not have power to pass that regulated property and therefore, the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional.

We spent about an hour meandering around the Old Courthouse, but barely scratched the surface. We spent all our time in the Dred Scott exhibits and never saw any of the relocated Western Expansion exhibits. Another hour or two would have been beneficial, but the Courthouse was getting ready to close and we had happy hour plans.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney [Source: Wikipedia]

After a nice evening catching up with our old friend Jen, we headed back home with plans to explore more of St. Louis on Saturday. However, by the time Saturday rolled around, we had changed our minds.

We woke up on Saturday thinking that we would go to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, located just south of St. Louis. However, after looking at GoogleMaps and realizing it was a 40+mile one-way drive, we opted to do a drive-by on our way out of town on Sunday. We spent a leisurely Saturday running errands and relaxing. On Sunday morning, November 12th, we hitched up and headed east. After the Grant home, our goal for the day was Independence, Missouri.

White Haven [Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site]

Exploring White Haven [Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site]

The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site is located on grounds of White Haven Plantation, the family home of Grant’s wife, Julia Dent Grant. Born in 1822 to middle class parents in southern Ohio, Ulysses S. Grant would eventually earn his Army commission via West Point and serve in the Mexican-American War, before resigning his commission in in 1854 and joining his family at White Haven. Over the next five years, Grant struggled to earn a living while managing the Dent family plantation. After several failed ventures, he eventually gave up on White Haven and farming and moved to Galena, Illinois to work in his father’s tannery. Grant’s struggles in St. Louis had a profound influence on him and molded the man that would eventually lead the Union Army during the Civil and later serve as President during Reconstruction.[ii]

“My oft expressed desire is that all citizens, white or black, native or foreign born, may be left free, in all parts of our common country, to vote, speak & act, in obedience to law, without intimidation or ostracism on account of his views, color or nativity.”           – President Ulysses S. Grant, July 28, 1872.

Coincidently, during our visit to White Haven, I was reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, so it was a real treat to tour the house and visit the museum. Owen enjoyed the movie (fantastic by National Park Visitor Center movie standards) and earned his junior ranger badge. I’m sure both he and Anna were sick of my Grant commentary by the time we finished lunch and headed westward.

Owen's Junior Ranger swearing-in at White Haven [Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site]

Owen’s Junior Ranger swearing-in at White Haven [Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site]


[i] While our Airstream is not considered a four-season camper, it can hold it’s own in freezing temperatures because the furnace is ducted to the underbelly. This helps to keep the pipes and tanks from freezing. We also managed cold weather by using Reflectix to insulate the windows, ceiling vents, and skylights. Cold weather camping also brings up the issue of moisture from condensation. We also take a variety of measures like a small RV dehumidifier and Hypervent Condensation Prevention Matting to help combat that. A listing of things we use to manage camping in cold weather can be found on our “Things we Like, Use, and Recommend” page.

[ii] During Grant’s time at White Haven, he managed the Dent farm, working side-by-side with Dent family slaves and one of Julia’s slaves. Although there is evidence that Grant owned one slave (William Jones) that he evidently received from his father-in-law, he freed Jones after about one year (1859). It provides insight into Grant’s character that he “freed” William Jones, vice selling him for a profit during a time when Grant was failing in his farm and business ventures and was in dire need to cash. While Julia Grant owned a handful of slaves (given to her by her father when she was a child), they were emancipated during the Civil War by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—she was visiting her husband during his campaigns in Tennessee when the Proclamation was issued and therefore her slaves were automatically freed. One of Julia’s slaves remained with her as a paid servant for several years following emancipation—also speaking volumes about her character.

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