MHT Day 9: Lewis and Clark Turn North
On July 19, 1804, 20 days after leaving the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers where the Missouri makes a dramatic northward turn, the Corps of Discovery reached the point where I started my day, Nebraska City. For the first three months of the voyage, they had travelled through a wooded and rolling landscape along the Missouri River. Now they had reached the eastern edge of the great plains where enormous herds of buffalo, huge prairie dog towns, and packs of coyotes would fill them awe and wonder. Clark recorded in his journal that night that as he was tracking elk near the river he walked up a hill along the river and
after assending and passing thro a narrow Strip of wood Land, Came Suddenly into an open and bound less Prarie, I Say bound less because I could not See the extent of the plain in any Derection, the timber appeared to be confined to the River Creeks & Small branches, this Prarie was Covered with grass about 18 Inches or 2 feat high and contained little of any thing else, except as before mentioned on the River Creeks &c, This prospect was So Sudden & entertaining that I forgot the object of my prosute and turned my attention to the Variety which presented themselves to my view.
I chose Nebraska City because I wanted to begin the day with a visit to the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, opened in 2004 as part of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. The Center was also a convenient location for my brother Kent, who lives in Lincoln, to join me for the day as I followed the Lewis and Clark Trail north and broadened my knowledge about the expedition. As Kent and I examined a full-size replica of the keelboat outside the three-story, 12,000 square-foot Center perched on a bluff above the Missouri River, a gentleman approached and began to comment on certain elements of the boat. We soon learned that “Doug” was the Executive Director of the Center and we couldn’t have asked for a more helpful introduction to the site, which was organized, built and run by a non-profit organization with a strong partnership with the National Park Service.
As I go through museums and interpretive centers, I’m amazed at how much more I know after I leave them, especially if I interact with knowledgable staff like Doug and if the facilities have well-designed displays and exhibits. I knew, for example, that Lewis and Clark took frequent “celestial” observations, but I had not seen examples of the scientific equipment they carried nor did I know how it was used. Today I saw a display with a sextant, a spirit level and an artificial horizon instrument used in the early 18th century to determine fairly precise location and by which chronometers could be accurately set. Those instruments helped Clark measure their trip to an accuracy of 99 percent–he was off by 40 miles after making a 4,000 mile trek through the wilderness. After seeing that exhibit and the written explanation that accompanies it, I walked away with a much better understanding of the numerous journal entries they made when recording measurements.
I also knew that among the expedition crew was a blacksmith, but I never fully understood how he went about his business until today when I saw a replica of the kind of portable forge complete with bellows carried as part of the expedition’s tons of supplies aboard the boat. Kent and I toured the entire building, but I know we missed many opportunities to learn more as I tried to keep to a schedule that would allow a visit to another important site up river.
When we finished our building tour, we walked down one of several trails maintained by the Center that took us to a Missouri River overlook. There we saw the river, still at flood stage, and the flooded farm fields on the Iowa side. Throughout the day, we saw other evidence of the devastating 2019 floods.
Rather than return immediately to Lincoln, Kent decided to make a day of it and follow me to the next stop in Onawa, Iowa, at Lewis and Clark State Park. At least five of the six bridges over the Missouri River between Omaha, Nebraska, and St. Joseph, Missouri, are still closed because of the spring floods. I wanted to stay off the Interstate for a while anyway, so it didn’t bother me. But for the people who live in that part of the country, the consequences of a changing climate (e.g. 500 year floods every other year) must be taking a heavy toll.
I went through a few rain showers after we left Nebraska City, crossed the river at Omaha and headed north on I-29, but Kent said he stayed warm and dry in his car. I, on the other hand, was slightly damp, but dried out quickly after we arrived at Lewis and Clark State Park, the next stop on the Magical History Tour.
The small park boasts the only display in one place of replicas of all six watercraft used by expedition members during 1804-1806: The Keelboat (or Barge), two pirogues, a dugout canoe, Lewis’s iron-frame boat, and an Indian-style bull boat. One of the park staff, who went by his mountain-man re-enactor name “Lizard,” answered several questions I had (and several I didn’t have) about the various boats as we toured the site.
Although the park is not located on the Missouri River now, it was on August 9, 1804, when the expedition camped on the north side of the river across from what is now the park. The Missouri later changed course (as it frequently does), leaving behind an “oxbow lake” that is the state park’s focal point. The park has two full-sized replicas of the keelboat, one of which is tied up at a dock and carries tourists for rides on the lake Saturdays when the park is open. The boat inside the building is believed to be the more historically accurate of the two, but only one rough sketch and a couple of brief descriptions exist of the keelboat, and no one can know exactly what it looked like or how it was built. Nevertheless, boat builder Butch Bouvier conducted extensive research on early 18th century riverboats before and during the construction of the replicas and did his best to accurately represent the craft.
Kent had spent a full day following his big brother, and it was good to spend time with him. He, like I, learned a lot about the expedition and the watercraft they used; he decided Lewis and Clark State Park might be a nice place for a family vacation. I wandered around a while longer, had another conversation with Lizard about the expedition’s use of bull boats (he was strangely unfamiliar with that part of the journey), then left the park and ended my explorations for the day.
Tomorrow I’ll continue north, with plans to stop at sites where historians know members of the expedition visited. Sunny skies should return, but so will the heat so I hope to get an early start.