Their journey up the Missouri River on a 55-foot keelboat is the symbol of the great American odyssey. Next year, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1804 expedition of the American West returns to Missouri, where it began 200 years earlier.
St. Louis and Kansas City will hold major ceremonies for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, but even in smaller cities like St. Charles, preparations are under way for what is expected to be a colossal event.
More than 30 million people are expected to travel some portion of the Lewis and Clark trail during the next three years, said Venetia McEntire, an organizer for the commemoration in St. Charles, one of three sites selected by the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial to hold “national signature events” in Missouri.
No one is sure what the high expectations for national tourist travel mean for Missouri — or if they’ll come true.
“We don’t know at this point, and it is kind of hard to predict,” said Sue Holst, information officer at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which is working as support staff for the Missouri Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission.
McEntire expects about 500,000 visitors for the St. Charles event to be held March 14 to 23. McEntire said she and nine other committee members have spent more than 1,000 hours in the past two years planning for the event, “The Expedition Faces West.”
St. Charles is also conducting traffic and transportation studies to plan for the large number of projected visitors at the site where Clark and his crew waited for Lewis to arrive from St. Louis.
Peter Geery, who runs a 110-year old Victorian bed-and-breakfast in St. Charles, thinks that 500,000 is an unrealistic estimate. With only three rooms to fill, Geery said he still has vacancies at Geery’s B&B for the week of the Lewis and Clark celebration.
Geery, director of a Lewis and Clark re-enactment group called the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, expects about 200,000 people to visit St. Charles for the event. He’s basing his estimates off two previous national signature events that he said drew similar numbers, including the inaugural bicentennial event at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va.
In Charlottesville, 3,500 people attended the January opening ceremony of the event held on the grounds of Jefferson’s home, said Wayne Mogielnicki, director of communications at Monticello. The location’s capacity was 4,100 attendees, but the city also held numerous Lewis and Clark events over the four-day commemoration that attracted additional visitors.
“The event was probably held too soon, but we didn’t choose the date,” Mogielnicki said. “I expect that out West, it could be a bigger event.”
Tourist expectations in central Missouri don’t run as high as those for national signature events such as those in St. Louis, St. Charles and Kansas City.
Steve Johnson, executive director of the Missouri River Communities Network, expects mostly family with children following the trail to visit the smaller river communities while traveling to and from larger events.
“There will be a tremendous amount of local community celebrations, if nothing else,” said James Denny, a historian who works with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Rocheport, the Boone County river town where Lewis and Clark camped on June 7, 1804, is holding its own bicentennial celebration along the Missouri River and the Katy Trail.
“People tend to forget that the real Lewis and Clark trail was the Missouri River,” said Brett Dufur, editor of Pebble Publishing Co., which produces guidebooks on Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.
In 2001, Rocheport held a celebration that drew about 4,000 to 5,000 visitors, Johnson said.The 2001 celebration was held in part to see how many people might come to the celebration in 2004.
Dufur expects the numbers to be slightly less this time.
“I would not be surprised if we have 3,000 people,” he said, though he thinks that tourists will continue to visit throughout the summer, passing through Rocheport on their way to other sites.
Mogielnicki warned that if cities prepare too soon for the bicentennial, they could risk losing community enthusiasm. “It is tough to maintain something over that period of time,” he said.
Columbia itself has little Lewis-and-Clark-related history, other than the original tombstone of Jefferson, which was relocated to the MU campus.
“Even through advanced reservations, it is very difficult to discern what might happen,” said Laura Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If overall tourist traffic on I-70 has increased, then we may see some traffic because we are on the way en route to other destinations.”Johnson is organizing “Bicentennial Byways,” a driving tour through the river communities of central Missouri that goes through Columbia, Boonville and Jefferson City. Visitors can even follow the tour by boat on the Missouri River.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to get people from Missouri who want to visit these communities and probably don’t know a lot about them,” Johnson said.
Families retracing the trail can follow one of three driving loops designed to bring visitors into communities where Lewis and Clark once were. The Missouri River Communities Network also hopes to install “interpretive signs” along the river. The signs are still in the works, but they will describe each location and its significance to Lewis and Clark’s journey.
“We have an advantage over a lot of other states on the Lewis and Clark trail because our communities are so close together,” Johnson said.