Lewis and Clark’s Long Leg in the East

There's lots more to the Lewis and Clark story than we usually hear. Their Corps of Discovery traveled through 11 states before they even "began" in St. Louis.

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The way the school books tell it, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Capt. William Clark and company left St. Louis in 1804, more or less paddled up the Missouri River to the Pacific, and in 1806 moseyed back to St. Louis. In between, the story goes, they did some mapping and insect collecting and traded for goods with the Indians in exchange for lots of blue beads. 

With the bicentennial of these events (2004), awareness of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, was rekindled. Everyone between St. Louis and the mouth of the Columbia River likely heard of commemorations along the official trail or noticed people running around in buckskins, reenacting highlights of the Corps’ journey.

As the last of these commemorative activities took place several years ago, Lewis and Clark’s achievement might again fade from public consciousness, a ripple on water. So the National Park Service plans to reengage the public in Lewis and Clark’s expedition – not the trip from St. Louis to the West, but the Eastern Legacy Trail.

That’s right. Lewis and Clark didn’t spring from the soil of St. Louis like a pair of morel mushrooms. In 1801, President Jefferson named Meriwether Lewis his personal secretary and over the next three years guided Lewis’s studies in handy practices like field medicine, botany, biology, and navigation. Lewis eventually left Washington, D.C., to set about gathering supplies like those blue trading beads and much of what he’d need to lead an expedition of several dozen men.

The western part of the Lewis and Clark’s trip, from Wood River, Illinois (across the river from St. Louis) to the mouth of the Columbia, was established by Congress as Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in 1978. The current special resource study will determine if the eastern stages of the journey should be granted National Historic Trail status, too.

The study is evaluating “additional sites and overland routes followed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, whether independently or together, prior to and after the expedition.”

Along the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail are silhouette-signs pointing in the direction of the route’s continuation. The proposed Eastern trail would be similarly marked.

There wouldn’t be an actual trail, like what one might hike along the Continental Divide, for example. Instead, existing roadways as close as possible to the Corp of Discovery’s water and overland routes would be marked with those two silhouetted fellows, one carrying a rifle, the other with outstretched arm, pointing in the direction they headed. The signs will let roadway travelers know they are near the trail, directing them to historic markers and other interpretive sites along the way.

The NPS says that three criteria must be met to qualify as a National Historic Trail. First, the trail must be an established and documented route, following as closely as possible the historic route. Second, the trail must be of national significance and have had a far-reaching effect on broad patterns of American culture. Third, it must have a significant potential for public recreational use or historical interest.

To assess these criteria, the NPS held a thirteen public meetings in all eleven trail states during summer and fall 2010. From now until fall 2011, the NPS will evaluate the proposed trail’s “preliminary significance,” suitability and feasibility. They’ll also draft alternatives to the trail route, based on public input. Then from winter to summer 2012, The National Park Service will  analyze the various alternatives based, in part, on costs and benefits. They’ll produce a draft study, including an environmental assessment.
 
According to Mark Weekley, superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, “Once the study is completed, Congress will determine what, if any, action it will take. Even if resources are found to be significant, suitable, and feasible, there may be other alternatives besides NPS management of the route or a formal designation. Ultimately, Congress may decide to take no action.”

The proposed Eastern Legacy Trail would link up to the better known trail from St. Louis to the Columbia River in Oregon.

One organization that is highly enthusiastic about the trial is the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The Great Falls, Montana-based organization bills itself “Keepers of the Story- Stewards of the Trail.” One of its past board members, Phyllis Yeager, is originally from Montana, where “Lewis and Clark is part of the landscape,” she said. Now she’s a board member of the Indiana Lewis and Clark Foundation. Yeager has lived near a portion of the trail in southern Indiana for about 25 years. Her home is across the river from Louisville, Kentucky, a key spot on the eastern portion of the Lewis and Clark journey.

“In the late 1980’s I came upon a historical marker, seemingly unnoticed and isolated, near the banks of the Ohio River in Clarksville [IN] that piqued my interest and dismay because of the lack of care of the surrounding historic site,” she said. “It stated that near this spot on Oct. 26, 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set off together with the nucleus of the Corps of Discovery to explore the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Northwest.”

At the Falls of the Ohio, near Louisville, KY, Lewis and Clark shook and hands and agreed to journey across the continent together.

This was the spot at the Falls of the Ohio where, as Lewis and Clark historian Stephen E. Ambrose says, the pair “shook hands” and the journey truly began.

Yeager has been actively participating in NPS’s public meetings. She argues that cultural and heritage tourism, of the sort the Eastern Legacy Trail designation would promote, is a huge market. Yeager points to statistics from the state of Indiana and other travel sources that leisure travelers represent 68 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 152 million Americans.  Seventy-eight percent of all leisure travelers are cultural/heritage travelers. They spend more than twice what other travelers spend on a trip – $994 compared to $475 for average travelers.

“Completing the Lewis and Clark Trail would encourage these travelers to visit the series of Interpretive Centers already built along the trail,” Yeager said.

James Mallory is another Lewis and Clark enthusiast hoping for the designation of this historic trail. He is the immediate past president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Mallory said that when it comes down to it, the Foundation is hoping for two things. “First, authorization to install Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail signs in the eastern states of travel, and second, printing the NPS Lewis and Clark National Heritage Trail maps with a continuous red line across the nation that shows the route of travel from sea to sea.”

Mallory adds that during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, “some of the really memorable commemorative events were in the small communities. The people of the small communities really appreciated the events and especially the re-enactors that told the Lewis and Clark story so very well.”

“Just as history is the basis for improving our society through lesson of the past, cultural tourism helps move people beyond their own back yard to see how other people live and interact in our nation,” Mallory said. “That movement is in both directions, rural to the city and cities to the open country.”

After all, as Mallory reminds us, “At one time all people in this country lived in rural areas.”

 

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