In November 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Ocean. Upon seeing the vast wide mouth of the Columbia River, Clark's records in his journal "Great joy in camp We are in View of the Ocian, this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see." What he was actually seeing was the Columbia River estuary (pictured), a marsh and forested area that still supports hundreds of acres of enormous Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees. The explorers realized the mistake after they hopped back into the canoe and made their way to the craggy beaches of the Oregon Coast a few miles away.
They pitched camp for the winter near the spot that they had first thought was the ocean, near the mouth of the Columbia in what is now Astoria, Oregon. Their Fort Clatsop has been recreated and has been a tourist draw for 50 years. Vandals torched it last year and the park service rushed to rebuild it before the end of the Lewis and Clark commemoration. The hoopla surrounding the anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey west hasn't really impacted visitation at the site, which maintains a steady stream of visitors year-round.
In fact, according to a Wall Street Journal article this summer, tourism boards and commercial outfits in every state along the Lewis and Clark Trail have been extremely disappointed at the low visitation records associated with the commemoration. In St. Charles, Missouri, where the expedition started, organizers anticipated 50,000 visitors for a 10-day Lewis and Clark festival and only 5,000 showed up. Great Falls, Montana ended up $535,000 in debt after putting on an extravaganza that originally cost the city $1.6 million to organize. It has been estimated that all told, $70 million to $100 million have been spent by city, state, federal and private coffers countrywide to celebrate Lewis and Clark's trip out west.
Speculators point to the lack of true heroism Lewis and Clark portray; after the expedition, Lewis committed suicide and Clark worked to keep Indian tribes confined to reservations. Maybe it was the explorers' abysmal treatment of the Native Americans that have kept tourists away from Lewis and Clark sites. Or maybe Americans just don't care about their history. Nevertheless, in Missouri, as in Oregon, state agencies have placed well-written and thoroughly researched markers at significant sites. The Lewis and Clark Trail in Missouri takes the driver through charming river towns with a lot of sharp turns along the way. Some of the smaller towns, like WAshington, Missouri built Lewis and Clark motels and inns, in anticipation of tourism dollars. A private donor in St. Charles sponsored a nice Lewis and Clark museum and statue in their riverside park. If these are generating tourism dollars, I don't know. But the Cape Girardeau Lewis and Clark site remains closed most of the time due to lack of interest.
There have been about a hundred books written by writers who have driven, hiked, biked or paddled the Lewis and Clark Trail. People follow the trail, and they buy the books about the trail, but they don't attend the hoaky historical reenactments. The modern Corps of Discovery has had almost as many trials as the original expedition. Members quit because of the working conditions, the dog portraying Seaman died.
In Astoria, Oregon, standing like a lighthouse on a 600 foot hill is a Trajanic column built in the 1920s celebrating the founding of the town. Called the Astoria Column (pictured), the concrete frescoes that wrap around it offer a pictoral history of the first American settlement west of the Rockies. The Lewis and Clark encampment is only part of the city's story that began in 1792 with Englishman Robert Gray's expedition. Climbing to the top of the column affords stellar views of the surrounding landscape and the not-so-distant ocean. Down the coast from Astoria are magnetite beaches, recently littered with tons of kelp (pictured; I was floored by the kelp.) and debris following the recent storms. Lewis and Clark markers are scattered up and down the Oregon coast, and Oregonians had them in place years before the commemoration. People come to Oregon for the great scenery, Mt. Hood, Portland, the pinot noir, but it appeared to me that people were reading the Lewis and Clark markers, too.
Astoria is a very liveable city. The landscape, however, is changing; ten years ago it was a port city with a hardware store and a couple of restaurants. Now, it's a getaway town for Portlanders, a small town with chowder shops, rocky beaches and awesome Craftsman-style homes. Astoria would be a great place to spend a few years, or, like Lewis and Clark, at least a winter season.