Lewis and Clark tower to open in southern Illinois

Thursday, May 13, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:06 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 27, 2010

HARTFORD, Ill. — The harrowing trek of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across uncharted America two centuries ago took perseverance — as did construction of an observation tower that overlooks the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and will bear their names.

Scheduled to open Friday, a decade after the landmark was conceived, the 180-foot-tall building with twin towers will give visitors a panoramic gander at the spot where the rivers meet and, to the south, a view of the St. Louis skyline and its glistening Gateway Arch.

If you go

WHAT: Lewis and Clark Confluence Tower has three observation decks of varying heights and is accessible by stairs or an elevator. The highest deck is 150 feet off the ground and gives visitors a panoramic view of the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.

WHERE: Near Hartford in southwestern Illinois, just northeast of St. Louis, along Illinois Route 3.

WHEN: The tower opens to the public Friday.

HOURS: It will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays.

COST: $4 for adults, $2 for children.

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The observation tower complements the nearby Lewis and Clark State Historic Site commemorating Camp Dubois, where explorers who accompanied Lewis and Clark were trained and equipped before sojourning west at President Thomas Jefferson's behest.

Construction of the tower proved almost as difficult as the exploration it commemorates: Work stuttered as organizers struggled to cobble together the $5 million needed from local and state sources. Frequently stormy, wet weather didn't help with the largely outdoor project.

"It was a long time coming," said Bob Schwandner, the project's superintendent for general contractor Jun Construction. "The interest is pretty high, and I think it'll be received well. It'll be something I hope a lot of people enjoy."

Crews hustled Wednesday to complete the finishing touches, including installing the second half of entry-level murals that resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle with more than 2,200 tile pieces. The interior of the visitors' center remained unfinished, as did landscaping that will include a fountain that shoots water from the middle of a huge, concrete compass.

Restrooms were ready to go, as was an elevator in one tower that will take visitors to the highest of three railed viewing decks. The other tower has stairs.

The observation tower sits on a 4.5-acre stretch bisected by a bike trail and skirted by heavily traveled Illinois Route 3.

Hartford officials broke ground on the project in late 2002 and expected it to be completed by Dec. 12, 2003 — the bicentennial of the explorers' arrival at Camp Dubois. They later traveled along the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains and to the Pacific Ocean.

The towers' planners then set their sights on christening it by late 2006, when a group of re-enactors retracing the original expedition's two-year path were to complete their trip and return to southern Illinois. That opening didn't happen, either.

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