At the beginning of the 19th century, two thirds of the population of the United States lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean and the country ended at the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. During his first inaugural address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson said, "However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole…continent." Already he was looking into ways of expanding the borders of the United States. By the time he negotiated the purchase of the Louisiana Territory with France, Jefferson was ready to send a contingent out to explore this new land and find a Northwest Passage. Although Jefferson, as Secretary of State under President George Washington, had tried three times to organize American expeditions to find the Northwest Passage, his dream was finally realized with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
On July 5, 1803, Meriwether Lewis began what was destined to be the most significant exploration of the American west and perhaps of all time. On this date, Lewis left Washington D.C. and proceeded to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where supplies and other articles had been ordered. On August 31, Lewis and a small band of men left Pittsburgh and began to journey down the Ohio River. On October 15, they reached Louisville, Kentucky where they met up with Lewis' partner, William Clark. Over the next two weeks, the Captains selected the first enlisted members of the expedition. By October 26, the expedition set off for their first winter quarters at Camp Wood, Illinois, near St. Louis where they stayed until May 14, 1804. For the next 2-1/2 years, the expedition traveled the length of the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky and Bitterroot Mountains, followed the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean and back again. A portion of the route followed by the expedition between 1804 and 1806 (Camp Wood, Illinois to Fort Clatsop, Oregon) was designated a National Historic Trail in 1978. This portion of the trail runs over 4,000 miles - most of it through or adjoining lands and waters managed by the Corps of Engineers.
The bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition will begin in 2003 and will continue through 2006. A National Bicentennial Council has been formed; Federal, State, Tribes, and local governmental entities are planning activities; and political interest is rapidly increasing. For the most part, heightened public interest and awareness of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial can be attributed to the Ken Burns PBS documentary "Lewis and Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery" and the nationwide best-selling book "Undaunted Courage" by Stephen E. Ambrose.
The bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition promises to be a huge nationwide event. Although it is primarily a saga of the Ohio, Missouri, and Columbia River basins, the nationwide interest in the expedition continues to astound. Donald Jackson, a noted Lewis and Clark historian, once stated that perhaps the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is so popular and belongs to everyone "…because it is every man's daydream of ordinary men doing extraordinary, improbable things. There is no other story in our Nation's experience that is like this one."
The Corps will be a major player in the bicentennial commemoration by virtue of the fact that the majority of the water trail lies along (or within) Corps projects. The Corps has an opportunity to embrace the tremendous groundswell of public interest generated by the bicentennial and to promote itself by touting the work that is done and the advances that have been made because of the many Corps projects. The positive public relations images that can result from Corps involvement and the increased public awareness of the roles of the Corps and the Army will become a lasting legacy of the Corps of Engineers.
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