By Crystal Thompson
The tale of the Lewis and Clark expedition has long been one of Montana's most recognized historical events.
2003 will mark the beginning of a three-year bicentennial celebration of the explorers' famous journey to find the headwaters of the Missouri River and an inland waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark's travels continue to rank among the major explorations of the world.
Nearly one fourth of the Lewis and Clark expedition took place in Montana. Today, the landscapes and views seen through the eyes of Lewis and Clark's team of explorers known as the Corps of Discovery are very much the same as we see them today. Montana offers access to many Lewis and Clark Trail sites which remain nearly unchanged and as pristine as they were nearly two hundred years ago.
Because many of Montana's trailsites remain in such a natural state of scenic beauty, estimates for the number of tourists visiting sites in the state during the bicentennial celebration are staggering. Across Montana, as well as the northcentral United States, plans are already in the making to deal with the influx of tourists expected at the historical sites along the Lewis and Clark Trail, as well as the cities and towns that border them.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, for example, is sure to draw a lot of interest from tourists to the Great Falls area and those passing through the city. Trailsites near the Interpretive Center include the Great Falls and Ryan Dam, the Portage around the Great Falls, Giant Springs Heritage Park and Lewis and Clark Pass.
The Forest Service's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Training Academy currently offer weekly workshops at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to those who will play a part in the bicentennial efforts. Workshops explore everything from the history of the expedition to identifying hazards along the trail; from how to plan local Lewis and Clark-inspired events to gathering support for area promotions. Members from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation; as well as educators, volunteers, tribal representatives and private landowners and citizens attend the workshops to understand how everyone can play a part in the upcoming bicentennial events.
The Interpretive Center itself offers a wealth of historical information regarding the Lewis and Clark expedition. Interactive displays lead the visitor on a chronological tour of the expedition from beginning to end. Lighting and sound effects combine with high quality re-creations and authentic displays which make learning about the expedition fun for all visitors. Participants visiting the Interpretive Center for workshops are offered a chance to walk through and see the many displays available.
Small towns and private farms and ranches are often overlooked as being potential tourist attractions during the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. However, because the Upper Missouri River flows through many undeveloped acres of Montana, including private lands, citizens should be aware of the potential for increased tourism during these peak years. Landowners should be prepared for inquiring tourists and should decide before hand how they will handle those wishing to explore on their land.
Each year, several thousand people visit central Montana to vacation on the Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. The Upper Missouri is not only a pathway of Lewis and Clark, but a homeland of Indians, fur trappers, traders and western settlers.
The Corps of Discovery entered the Upper Missouri area during the second year of their expedition. As they traveled west from the Mandan villages of present-day North Dakota and into Montana, Lewis and Clark began to recognize features which had been described to them by the Indians. After passing the Milk River, the captains began to anticipate the discovery of the Great Falls and the Missouri, beyond which lay the passageway to the Pacific waters. The crew passed what is now James Kipp Recreation Area, 57 miles north of present-day Grass Range, Montana, on May 24, 1805.
After passing the Judith River, the Corps of Discovery entered the White Cliffs section of the Upper Missouri, which continues to be a favorite attraction of many boaters today. The captains were thrilled by the sandstone cliffs which had been intricately sculpted by time and the elements. Captain Lewis wrote, "... so perfect indeed are those walls that I should have thought nature had attempted here to rival the human art of masonry had I not recollected that she first had begun her work."
Thanks to the careful stewardship of the land in and around the Upper Missouri, much of the beauty that was first documented by the Lewis and Clark expedition can be seen today. Although the BLM manages the river and much of the land along its banks, approximately 60 percent of the land bordering the Upper Missouri is privately owned. The stewardship of these private lands are essential, especially during the bicentennial years.
The upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial is already creating a stir, even at the political level. The National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial announced a bicentennial project briefing for the bicameral, bipartisan Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Congressional Caucus, chaired by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Montana's own Republican Conrad Burns, as well as Reps. Doug Bereuter, D-Neb., and Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., to be held on Wednesday, April 4 in Washington. The briefing will be followed by a signing ceremony for several Federal Agencies joining the National Memorandum of Understanding, "to collaborate in commemorating the Bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition."
The 8000 mile journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery in 1803-1806 has remained a cornerstone of Montana history for nearly 200 years. With the cooperation of state organizations, agencies and private volunteers and individuals, the upcoming bicentennial celebration should be another unforgettable event for the people of Montana.