Passions and value of extending Lewis and Clark trail

Legislation now before the U.S. Senate would extend the official federally designated Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to include 1,200 miles of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

It’s a proposal that has excited Lewis and Clark buffs, as you’ll see when you read profiles about two Lewis and Clark enthusiasts later in this article.

The proposed extension would encompass such riverside communities as Clarksville, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, all of which are important in the story of Lewis and Clark.

Currently, the official Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail goes for 3,700 miles from Wood River, Illinois, near St. Louis, Missouri, to the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific coasts of Oregon and Washington. The expedition comprised of Meriwether Lewis, William Clarkand other expedition members left Wood River on May 14, 1804, and returned to the St. Louis area in September 1806.

For some unknown reason, the explorers’ 1,200-mile journey on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in 1803 to reach Wood River was not included when the current historic trail became federally designated decades ago.

“We’ve always felt our story was an untold one,” said Phyllis Yeager of the Ohio River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

The Ohio-Mississippi journey, as well as Lewis and Clark sites as far east as the nation’s Capitol, are generally referred to as the Eastern Legacy. The Eastern Legacy spans parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

There are places in those 14 states and the District of Columbia that may be significant in the planning and execution of the expedition, or locations of Lewis or Clark events prior to or after the journey. For example, Lewis’ gravesite near Hohenwald in Tennessee is considered to be part of the Eastern Legacy.

In February 2018, the National Park Service released an extensive study that looked at extending the official historic trail to include all or parts of the Eastern Legacy. The study, done from 2009 to 2016 through a 2008 congressionally authorized study, followed criteria established by the National Trail System Act.

Cover of the NPS study. Click here to read the study.

The study reviewed 25 historical sites and geographic segments related to the expedition. Options were narrowed to three segments that encompass the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

After a draft of the study was completed in 2016, the NPS held a public comment period that garnered 323 responses from individuals, organizations, and agencies. Overall, the comments indicated public support for extending the official trail, said Tokey Boswell, chief of planning and compliance for the NPS Midwest regional office based in Omaha.

“As with most projects, there was a range of enthusiasm and concern,” said Boswell, who oversaw the study. “Non-profit organizations that interpret the Lewis and Clark story and some individual sites and cities along the study route appreciated the possibility of an NPS presence and a bigger platform to share their history. Others were concerned about private property rights and inviting visitors into areas where there is not much visitation currently.”

“When the National Trail System Act criteria were applied, the activities at Pittsburgh and beyond really stood out,” Boswell noted. “The study was very careful to note that any successful trail extension will depend on partnerships (with local volunteer groups, communities, and agencies) and additional funding.” The plan, he added, would be to “start slowly and grow over time” as far as adding NPS staff, funding, signage, publications, and other items necessary for administering a successful trail.

With the study in hand, Rep. Luke Messer (R-Indiana), along with co-sponsors Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Indiana), Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), and John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky), introduced bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extend the federally recognized Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to include the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The House legislation passed July 23.

This is a map of the official federally designated Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail from the area of St. Louis, Mo., to the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The proposed trail extension includes 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. See the map below to view the proposed trail extension. The map above came from Weber State University.

Subsequently, similar Senate legislation was introduced August 23 as the Eastern Legacy Extension Act. The legislation would extend the official historic trail to include the 1,200 river miles from Pittsburgh to Wood River in the St. Louis area.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Indiana) and co-sponsored by Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana). The proposed legislation was read in the Senate and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

It’s unknown how long the senatorial process may take.

{Read the Senate bill titled S.3375}

In testimony before the House, Lindy Hatcher, executive director of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation headquartered in Great Falls, Montana, said the journey on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was important because Lewis and Clark recruited, organized, and trained men for the grueling exploration of the Pacific Northwest. It was along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers where the Corps of Discovery—the expedition’s name—began working together as a team, Hatcher noted.

The proposed extension of the Eastern Legacy (in green) from Pittsburgh to Wood River, Illinois, in the St. Louis area. Map source: National Park Service.

Meanwhile, in an April letter to Congress, Matt Pierce, a state representative in Indiana, offered this analysis: “A large concentration of population in the eastern United States will be brought closer to the official trail by extending it to Pittsburgh. Many of those residents will see official trail sites along the Ohio River corridor for the first time and be inspired by those locations to retrace the steps of the Expedition all the way to the Oregon coast, boosting tourism for all Lewis and Clark Trail states.”

{Click here to check out a travel brochure that shows  Lewis and Clark offerings in the Eastern Legacy}

For this article, I interviewed two Lewis and Clark buffs living along the Ohio River in the Eastern Legacy: John McNulty of Pittsburgh and Phyllis Yeager, Clarksville, Indiana. Both have good stories to tell about their involvement with Lewis and Clark activities. Each has an enthusiastic passion for including the 1,200 miles as part of the official historic trail.

Interested in Lewis and Clark? Click here to learn more and join the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

When I talked by cell phone with McNulty, he was on a brisk walk from his home toward a meeting about extending a bicycle trail that would include Lewis and Clark sites. He paused from his walk at a spot where he could view not only the Ohio River and historic Lewis and Clark locations but also the Pittsburgh Steelers’ stadium.

John McNulty in his Lewis and Clark re-enactment garb.

Not far from him was the site where a Lewis and Clark interpretive sign will be erected through funding by the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. The sign will offer information about the nearby Brunot Island in the Ohio River. The island was where a mishap with Lewis’ unique weapon, an air gun, ended with a woman accidentally getting shot, a grazing non-fatal but surely painful head wound.

McNulty, 54, grew up in Pittsburgh. In his younger years, there was a severe dearth of local information about Lewis and Clark. In the 1980s, he was a camp counselor at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, and he began learning about Lewis and Clark to teach scouts about 19th-century living.

“Nobody ever told us that Lewis and Clark had anything to do with Pennsylvania,” McNulty recalled about his days of youth in Pittsburgh. “That was really a shock when I realized it.”

In 2003, he heard about a modern expedition, a re-enactment for the 2003-06 national bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. McNulty quit his job as a narrator on an Ohio River tour boat and joined the re-enactment. He remained with the modern expedition for only three weeks, until his father became ill and he returned to Pittsburgh to help care for him.

Three years later—in 2006—the ongoing re-enactment again called to McNulty’s sense of adventure. He left a job in a call center in May and caught a Greyhound bus to join the modern explorers in June. At that time, they were departing from Lewiston, Idaho. McNulty traveled with the re-enactors east across the Lolo Trail that Lewis and Clark followed through Idaho and into Montana. He remained with the re-enactment until September 23 when it reached St. Louis. September 23, by the way, is the day the original expedition was completed in 1806 in St. Louis.

What do you think? Please take a short survey at the end of this article.

When the re-enactors entered a community, celebrations were held by locals to honor them and the original explorers. During these festive occasions, McNulty often took on the persona of Pierre Cruzatte, an experienced boatman. The son of a Frenchman and an Omaha Indian mother, Cruzatte played the violin and often entertained the explorers around campfires.

“I can play the violin,” said McNulty in explaining why he took on Cruzatte’s role, “and I can fake a good French accent.”

Today, McNulty performs one-man music shows in area nursing homes, leads history hikes in the city through a non-profit group called Venture Outdoors, and does living history displays with a theme of Lewis and Clark at festivals and other public events.

Now, though, he portrays expedition member George Gibson, a native Pennsylvanian and hunter. Gibson also played the violin but not with Cruzatte’s flair. “I thought George Gibson would be the best person to portray since he’s from this area,” McNulty said.

McNulty can easily offer reasons why Pittsburgh is important in the Lewis and Clark story. It was there that the explorers’ keelboat was constructed and launched. Lewis began journaling the happenings of the adventure as he left Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where Clark’s letter to Lewis arrived to say he is “cheerfully” honored to “partake of the dangers, difficulties and fatigues” of the impending expedition. The plan was for Lewis to meet up with Clark downstream near the Falls of the Ohio.

With admiration for Lewis and Clark always close by in his thoughts, McNulty is working toward his vision that the theme of Lewis and Clark becomes a prime mover in efforts to teach young and old about local and national history; and about such issues as watersheds, journaling, literacy, geography, and the values of friendship, teamwork and outdoor recreation.

Currently underway for McNulty is a project to start a wildlife conservation area on the 129-acre Brunot Island, part of which is now the site of a 315-megawatt power plant. The rest of the island is unused and a potentially good site for a bird sanctuary. He is also involved in a project to create a family-friendly bike system through the upper Ohio River watershed. The bike system could be a boon to tourism and tied into Lewis and Clark history.

Another of McNulty’s projects sparks one’s imagination directly back to Meriwether Lewis. The project is a community effort to save the Old Stone Tavern, built in circa 1782 and now Pittsburgh’s oldest commercial structure. The tavern has ties to the Whiskey Rebellion and was likely in operation when Lewis suffered through an agonizingly long wait in Pittsburgh while a boatwright, who seemed to enjoy whiskey more than boatwrighting, constructed a keelboat for the expedition. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that Lewis, known for enjoying a dram or two, would have partaken of a fair share of adult beverage in the tavern.

McNulty said the inclusion of the 1,200 miles of the Eastern Legacy would be invaluable in these efforts. “It could help Pittsburgh rebrand itself. It would be a great thing for the Ohio River valley and Pennsylvania, as well as the entire Lewis and Clark Trail.”

He added, “It would be like all the Super Bowls rolled into one.”

{Read an article about McNulty, published May 18, 2018, from an interview with The Alleghany Front, a public radio station in Pittsburgh.}

 Phyllis Yeager has worked diligently to promote Lewis and Clark within the Eastern Legacy. Her home in the Clarksville area is near the Falls of the Ohio. Louisville, Kentucky, is located across the river from Clarksville.

Phyllis Yeager with some of her Lewis and Clark mementos.

Yeager grew up in Montana’s Lewis and Clark country where the history of the expedition is commonly known. Her grandfather told her stories about the extraordinary journey. From her childhood home, she could see national forests and mountain peaks named after the explorers. So Yeager was steeped in the expedition’s story when she moved to Indiana in the 1980s and became associated with the local convention and tourism board.

After relocating to Indiana, she was surprised by the small smattering of local appreciation for Lewis and Clark’s time in Clarksville and Louisville, and along the Ohio River. The only Lewis and Clark recognition to be found was an inconspicuous historical marker on the banks of the Ohio River. Yeager photographed the marker caked with mud from a high flow of the river. Next to the marker was an old car tire.

Once described as a natural phenomenon of energy” by a former magazine editor, Yeager was appointed in 2001 by the Indiana governor to sit on the board of the state’s newly created Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission, a position she continues to hold. She served on the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation board from 2004 to 2010, and was active in the local, state and national celebrations of the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from 2003 to 2006. She was also active in successful lobbying efforts in Indiana and Kentucky to have Lewis and Clark’s names put on a new 2,500-foot Ohio River bridge in 2016 that connects the two states.

During her years of Lewis and Clark volunteer work, she realized the Eastern Legacy’s potential importance to public education, tourism, recreation, and, among other benefits, keeping alive the story of the most important expedition in U.S. history.

“It’s been a passion for me,” she said in a telephone interview.

The idea of extending the official trail to include Eastern Legacy segments gained strength as activities of the 2003-06 bicentennial familiarized more Americans with the expedition. The extension effort was long on volunteerism but short on funds. This prompted some creative maneuvers. Yeager and others began promoting the Eastern Legacy’s contribution to the expedition. Among their endeavors was a successful project that resulted in the state issuing special vehicle license plates designed with Lewis and Clark artwork. A portion of the revenue from the ongoing project goes to the state’s Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission.

An example of the specialized Indiana license plates that help raise funds for the state’s Lewis and Clark Expedition Commission. 1803, by the way, refers to the year when the explorers traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on their way west. And, of course, “LC” refers to Lewis and Clark.

In another interesting tactic, Yeager and husband Ray held annual Kentucky Derby parties with Lewis and Clark themes, a public relations effort to acquaint influential people about the local importance of the expedition. At first blush, tying Lewis and Clark to the nearby famous horse race may seem like a stretch, but there is an unusual connection. Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville, was developed by William Clark’s grandson, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr.

The Kentucky Derby story “made for a fun time,” Yeager said, “and it helped us tell the story of Lewis and Clark in our area.”

{Read two articles about the involvement of Phyllis Yeager and others in the Eastern Legacy and bicentennial celebration}

One of Yeager’s favored keepsakes from her Eastern Legacy volunteer work is an autograph of Stephen E. Ambrose in her copy of Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the West. For many Lewis and Clark fans, Ambrose’s book is the bible of the Lewis and Clark’s story.

Knowing that Yeager resided in the Clarksville area, Ambrose signed his name on the page that has this important statement about the meeting of Lewis and Clark in Clarksville: “When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.”

This shaking of the hands occurred in October 1803 after Lewis arrived in Clarksville. There he met up with Clark, who was living in the home of his older brother, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark. This meeting was the first opportunity Lewis and Clark had to talk face-to-face about the impending journey. Until then, the two friends, who knew each other from serving in the army years earlier, had only corresponded about the expedition by mail.

The image of the handshake has become a major theme in promoting Lewis and Clark in the Ohio River region of Indiana and Kentucky. A museum in the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville features an exhibit on the topic while an outside bronze statute by the late Carol Grende portrays the two men shaking hands. Yeager, who has written a book about the statue (The Story of the Lewis and Clark Statue), helped arrange the creation and acquisition of the statue. This October 20th a festival celebrating the 215th anniversary of the handshake will be held at the park.

No one knows for sure whether the two men actually shook hands. But the handshake is a good story and a significant image to think about.

At the Falls of the Ohio: Carol Grende’s statue of Lewis and Clark shaking hands.

Whether the expedition actually began with the handshake is a matter that Lewis and Clark buffs sometimes debate. Some strongly believe the journey began in Pittsburgh; others, in the nation’s Capitol when Congress appropriated funds. Or did the expedition begin in the mind of Thomas Jefferson in his earlier years when he daydreamed about the expansion of the United States into the West? The answer: No one knows. But it’s a fun issue to ponder.

However they greeted each, Lewis and Clark would have intensely focused on planning and practical matters as they slowly traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Conversations would have centered on boats and equipment, food and other supplies, and the grit of men recruited along the way. They also would have discussed weapons, gunpowder, and the need for military readiness.

They honed skills they knew would be needed in the wilderness: navigating flowing waters, sawyers, and sandbars, and techniques for mapping land and waterways. They probably discussed the diplomacy of interacting with natives and the collecting of specimens of plants and animals. They wrote in their journals, entries that have delighted and captured the imagination of generations of Americans.

It was time well-spent and helped to ensure the expedition’s success—significant reasons for now extending the current historic trail to include the 1,200 miles of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

{Interested in offering your views on the trail extension legislation? Contact your U.S. Senators. Here’s how…}

Iconic portraits of Lewis and Clark painted in 1807 by Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy of ExplorePAhistory.com and Independence National Historical Park.

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