Lewis’ boating experiment

Meriwether Lewis spent hours designing and building a boat that could hold up but he overlooked one little detail
Sunday, May 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:09 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Meriwether Lewis spent hours of preparation and dedication on his iron boat before the expedition of the Corps of Discovery. The boat, invented especially for the expedition, was aimed at tackling the problems Lewis knew lay ahead on the Missouri River.

And then it sank.

Lewis designed the iron boat for the journey around the Great Falls of the Missouri River. He also knew there would be a portage over a dividing ridge between the waters of the Atlantic and the waters of the Pacific. He designed and built the framework for that reason.

The iron boat needed to be both lightweight and portable so it could be easily portaged across the Continental Divide and then reassembled. Its frame was collapsible and of Lewis’s design.

Stretched animal hide would cover the frame. These skins would be supplied locally from whatever animals the men could hunt.

“Lewis took much time perfectly designing the collapsible canoe,” said Jill Jackson, a Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation librarian. “He wanted it to be perfect. In the end it was 40 feet long when it was assembled, with wood and bark on the inside.”

Once the mechanics of the iron boat were finally finished at Harper’s Ferry, Lewis conducted a full experiment to test the boat’s limits.

“To his satisfaction, he found the iron and hides in these two sections weighed only 99 pounds and could carry a load of 1,770 pounds,” according to the National Park Service Web site.

Successfully built, the boat was shipped up the Missouri River as cargo with the rest of the expedition’s supplies. Once the Corps of Discovery reached the Great Falls of the Missouri River, the boat was taken out and assembled. The crew planned to seal the hide to the iron frame with pitch.

“Pitch is hard to understand because it isn’t used today,” said Don Peterson, a Lewis and Clark historian from Great Falls, Mont. “Today we have much better substances to hold things together.” But 200 years ago, pitch was frequently used as a bonding agent.

“Pitch is found in conifer trees” — trees with needles and cones — Peterson said. Taking the bark off of the tree and cooking it makes pitch. After the bark is cooked, a black, tar-like substance results.

But there was a problem. “There aren’t any trees like that within 30 to 40 miles of the Great Falls,” Peterson said.

Instead, Lewis and his men used a substitute tar of charcoal, beeswax and buffalo tallow to seal the 28 elk skins and four buffalo skins to the iron frame.

When the iron boat was finally put into water on July 9, 1805, it floated, but then began to leak.

Lewis wrote in his journal, “She leaked in such a manner that she would not answer. I therefore relinquished all further hope of my favorite boat.”

Peterson looks upon the boat’s failure kindly. “It probably wasn’t Lewis’ fault his boat failed,” he says. “He just didn’t know there wouldn’t be those kinds of trees in the area.”

As to where Lewis’ iron boat is today, no one knows.

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