They faced floods and bitter cold, hostile and friendly fire, drinking and disciplinary problems, illnesses and injury. It's no wonder thousands of people are planning to follow in their footsteps.
Although Meriwether Lewis and William Clark didn't set out from St. Louis to explore the Northwest until May 21, 1804, celebration of the bicentennial of their Corps of Discovery is already well underway. An unusual consortium of tourism and commerce departments from a dozen states has come together to help plan and promote events along the Lewis and Clark Trail during the next three years.
Interest in the Lewis and Clark story has increased markedly in recent years. "Undaunted Courage," Stephen Ambrose's 1996 book on the expedition, was a bestseller and was followed a year later by the PBS broadcast of a Ken Burns documentary and by many books since. This fall, the national Ad Council will begin airing $26 million worth of commercials to drum up interest in the bicentennial. "Culture and heritage tourism fills that need for people who want to learn on their vacations but have fun, too," says Julie Curtis, assistant director of the Oregon Tourism Commission.
The bicentennial's kickoff event was held in January at Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark's patron. A three-day conference sold out its 900 slots and an outdoor event open to the public attracted 3,300 souls, despite sub-freezing temperatures. That's way up from the 525 visitors Monticello averages on most Saturdays in January. "We estimated from $1 million to $1.6 million in direct spending during that week because of the signature event itself," says Mark Shore, director of the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A Lewis and Clark exhibit will decorate Monticello's entrance hall for the rest of the year. Seventy miles to the southeast, practically every museum in Richmond--the historical society, the botanical society and the art and science museums--will hold Lewis and Clark- themed shows. "People interested in Lewis and Clark will be able to take advantage of it without having to drive to North Dakota or Montana," says Monticello spokesman Wayne Mogelniecki.
The Monticello conference attracted attendees from 41 states and two foreign countries. Three-quarters of them traveled a thousand miles or more, but organizers of most events along the trail predict that the bulk of their traffic will come from folks who live relatively close by. Car travel has not been hurt as badly as air trips since September 11, 2001, according to a study commissioned by the Lewis and Clark consortium, and most people attending the bicentennial events are expected to be drawn largely from the same pools of people who normally would visit the states along the trail anyway. "In terms of economic impact, we--like most states--believe that our primary visitation will come from within a 500-mile radius," says Betsy Gable, Washington State's acting tourism director. "We are not anticipating millions of people getting in their cars and driving west because that simply isn't the travel pattern of the average citizen, and is especially not the travel pattern these days."
Still, special events and exhibitions are expected to increase tourism traffic all along the Missouri River watershed. Oregon's major events aren't scheduled until Thanksgiving in 2005, but the state has already hired three excursion cars to ferry folks along the Columbia River gorge between Portland and Astoria, near where the Corps of Discovery wintered at Fort Clatsop in 1805-06.
If nothing else, the cooperation between tourism agencies in many states is likely to encourage visits to some places that normally do not see a lot of tourists. There are two national "signature" bicentennial events being held in Montana, for instance. With more than 2,000 miles of the Lewis and Clark Trail running through Big Sky Country (the party meandered through Montana both on its way to and from the West Coast), the impact may be greatest in the vast state's out-of-the-way northern tier. "There are smaller communities in Montana that proportionately may feel a much larger impact with folks traveling the trail than some of the bigger population centers," says Clint Blackwood, executive director of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.