I’ll start at the end. We left here on D-Day, often referred to as The Longest Day. For us, this was the Longest Week.
Planning to visit both with Schipperke friends to the east and family to the west, we chose a campground in St. Charles, Missouri. It sounded wonderful, and it was the most expensive campground we’ve ever considered. We decided to splurge and paid $300 in advance for a week. It was the meanest and most sterile RV venue we have ever encountered. We screamed “free at last” at the office as we drove out!
But St. Charles not only allowed us our planned visits; it gave our journey new focus.
The Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad operated from the early 19th century until 1980, when it fell victim to the great railroad decline. The line was nicknamed MKT, but even more often, Katy. In 1983, the Missouri stretch of 283 miles was sold to the state, and it is now the Katy Trail. The trail runs for miles, through Ecopark right behind the campground and along the top of the levee with bikeable side trails to areas of special interest. On the other side of the park is the Missouri River.
Just a mile or so south, the trail runs right through downtown St. Charles. We hopped aboard the free trolley service and took the 45 minute trip around “town.” The original capital of Missouri, St. Charles is also the “official” point of departure for the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The residents of Hartford, Illinois argue this, but it is the point from which L & C departed together. At The Boat House on the waterfront an exhibit was created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery trip. Departing on May 20, 1804, the journey to the Pacific and return took almost 2 ½ years. The lower level of the boathouse holds full-size replicas of the three craft that L&C started off with – a 55 foot keelboat and two pirogues measuring about 40 feet each. The keelboat was not only transportation but their primary cargo craft. Much of that cargo consisted of gifts for the Indian tribes whose lands they would explore. The mission, as defined by their sponsor, President Thomas Jefferson, was to determine an effective trade route through the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase and to negotiate safety along the route.
Upstairs was a very nice testament not only to the trip but to its city of origin. On entering, one views a series of quarter scale houses showing changing home construction materials as St. Charles matured. Next was the entrance to the theatre, guarded by a mannequin of Pierre Cruzatte, a master mariner, translator and especially fiddler whose tangible value on the trip included many evenings of entertainment. The movie in the theatre turned out to be the same production that we’d seen in the Imax theatre in Memphis. The walls were covered with many photos and news clippings of the 200th celebration. In one corner was a collection of clothes of the time, where little visitors could dress up for picture taking in the garb of their forebears.
Along the east wall is a series of typical encampments of the Corps. Beyond them, through a full glass wall, is a view of the Missouri River. Exhibits of various elements of the trip, such as the medical kit, gifts for the natives, and the story of Sacagawea and her son Pomp are nicely displayed. The west wall is a huge diorama that depicts many of the incidents encountered by the expedition. And a center ecosystem display, with taxodermed creatures, completes the feeling of being on the trail. Well worth the $4 price and a class act — you don’t have to exit through the gift shop!
The pièce de résistance was missed if one took the elevator to the second floor. It is a sculpture in the stairwell consisting of multiple strands of copper oak leaves. They total 1,804, representing the year of departure.
Near the museum in the spacious waterfront park were other exhibits. One couldn’t miss the larger than life statue of the heroes in full government dress, accompanied by Seaman, Lewis’s “Newfie.” Seaman was only a year old when they left and he endured the entire trip. A MKT train station stood nearby, its architecture and semaphore providing nostalgia even though one could only peek inside. Two cabooses of various eras stood on the tracks remaining out front.
Alton, Illinois was approximately 20 miles away at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Our day there was very profitable. We went in search of the eagles known to habituate the area, but we discovered that while sightings were prolific in the winter months, they were rare at this time of the year. Our first stop, therefore, was Lock & Dam #26, part of the 27-unit system that maintains the Upper Mississippi at a depth of 9 feet for barge traffic. It’s named for Melvin Price, who served in Congress from 1944 until his death in 1988 and championed its construction. Adjacent to the lock is the National Great Rivers Museum, which includes everything from an ecological display of nearby cliffs to a virtual simulator that allows you to try to pilot your cargo through the lock (I failed!). Studies of the L&D construction, the indigenous people of the area through the years, and of the potential and results of flooding along the rivers were also fascinating.
After the L&D education, we headed about five miles south to the confluence of the two mighty rivers. A 180 foot observation tower had just opened, and we took advantage of it. Alas, we felt it gave an inadequate view of the Rivers’ union. We mostly got to see the sprawling home refinery of Conoco-Phillips! But we did enjoy counting cars in the longest freight train we’d ever seen.
From the confluence, we continued south several more miles to the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site in Hartford, IL. It was there, in December, 1803, that Clark and his men built Camp River DuBois, his staging area for the expedition. The Louisiana Purchase had not yet been finally inked, and President Jefferson forbade the expedition from crossing the rivers until it was. Lewis, meanwhile, had been collecting provisions from as far east as West Virginia, including the keel boat that was launched in Pittsburgh, and carried them down the Ohio River. He settled in Cahokia, east of St. Louis, for his reconnoiter.
On May 14, 1804, Clark and contingent left Camp River DuBois. He wrote that this was the first day of the expedition. It was not until the 16th, however, that he linked up with Lewis in St. Charles, and the two were feted royally until they left on the 20th.
The Historic site in Hartford includes a complete reproduction of the Camp with re-enactors and docents. Among other things, it clearly demonstrates that the explorers were military servants of the United States. The museum itself provides more extensive insight to the journey. Multiple galleries depict the state of international trade and the vision of western trade at the time, a vision of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi, and studies of the expedition itself and the aftermath. It includes another full-size replica of the keel boat, this time a half-model. One wanders down the back side to view its construction and the careful stowage that took place in its hold.
All in all, our repeated and intensive exposure to the Lewis and Clark Expedition has made us resolved to encounter the full length of the trip wherever we have an opportunity to do so. Our excursions through the Dakotas this summer should be a good start!
Dot’s “Aunt Bunny” (father’s sister) lives in nearby Wentzville with her son Paul and daughter Pam. Both Paul and Pam are busy much of the time tending to their extended families living nearby. Bunny, 87, is sharper than the proverbial tack. Dot spent time with them on several days, and I spent an evening during which they treated us to dinner at the West Allen Grille. Not only was the meal great; the history lesson was a special bonus. Adjacent to the railroad tracks, this area of Wentzville was the scene in 1861 of an ambush of Missouri Union infantrymen by locals loyal to the Confederacy. Most significant is the fact that the wounded from both sides in the brief skirmish were treated side by side in the West Allen Hotel, where the restaurant is now located.
The other mission in the area was to link up with Michele Kasten — breeder, caretaker, exhibitor, rescuer and administrator supreme – certainly at the top of the list of the Schipperke’s best friends. Michele was dealing with a rescue detailed to her by Missouri’s Animal Control – a badly neglected and injured Schip taken from the perps. “Skipper” had a broken leg and was badly burned – by acid – along his back. During the week we were there, surgery was performed on the year-old leg fracture by a team of orthopedic veterinarians, and the verdict is still out. Treatment of the severe burns had already been started. Michelle reports that Skipper is doing amazingly well under the circumstances – he has one of the best natures of any Schip she’s ever known despite the cruel life dealt to him.
Michele treated us to dinner in downtown St. Louis at her favorite restaurant, Wasabi. We had lots of good catch-up conversation and big hugs. We also plan to cycle back through this area on our way home in 2012. Incidentally, all of the funds we raise through The Serena Fund, as well as all of our personal contributions, go to Michele’s rescue funds.