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Missouri river towns preserve rich Lewis and Clark history

Missouri river towns preserve rich Lewis & Clark history
The Hatchery House Bed & Breakfast includes a Lewis & Clark suite. “It’s one of our most popular rooms,” said owner Drew MacDonnell.

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. — On their exploration of the Missouri River and beyond, Corps of Discovery co-commanders William Clark and Meriwether Lewis took on decidedly different roles.

Clark, the better waterman, spent most his time on the boat, where the never-ending challenges and dangers of navigating the wide, swift, ever-shifting and dangerous Missouri River demanded an experienced eye.

Lewis, whose personality and training leaned more toward a solitary, scientific bent, frequently walked and explored the flanking landscape, where natural, waiting-to-be-discovered wonders seemed to be around every bend.

On May 23, 1804, two days after the party had departed the frontier outpost of St. Charles, the 55-foot keelboat struck a log. Clark noted the event in his journal: “ran on a Log and detained one hour.” This was not usual. After freeing the boat, they continued upriver, stopping to pick up two members of the party who had been dispatched to obtain corn, butter and a few other supplies from a small village.

More: Up the Missouri: St. Charles’ riverside charm

Clark ordered the boats to stop about a mile upriver from a large cave to wait for Lewis, who had scaled the sandstone cliff to get a view of the river and explore the cave, locally known as “the Tavern.”

Lewis scaled the cliff to about 300 feet above the river and, as Clark described it, was “hanging over the water” when he slipped, plunging about 20 feet before breaking his fall with the aid of a knife, a move that likely saved his life.

Clark was succinct in his account of the harrowing event: “Capt. Lewis near falling from the Pencelia of rocks 300 feet, he caught at 20 foot.”

Missouri river towns

What could have been a disaster became a journal footnote. They continued, arriving nearly two weeks later at Moniteau Creek, not far from present day Boonville, Mo., and the quirky community of Rocheport, Mo., both of which, like many river towns, wrap themselves in Lewis and Clark lore.

They camped near the mouth of the creek. Following breakfast, Clark and a few of the men explored the creek, which Clark recorded as “big Monetou.” A limestone bluff towered above the stream. The rock was seamed with what Clark noted as “white red & blue flint, of a verry good quallity” and marked with “Several Courious Paintings and Carveings.” The men took a closer look only to discover there was a “Den of rattle Snakes” in a crevice of the rocks.

This stretch of the Missouri, flowing roughly near the halfway point between Kansas City and St. Louis, is one of the few sections of the lower Missouri that still somewhat resembles the river and landscape the Corps of Discovery might have seen.

I slid my canoe down a muddy ramp into Moniteau Creek, paddled beneath the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad bridge that is now part of the Katy Trail State Park, a 240-mile-long rails to trails project popular with cycles and hikers. I drifted toward a limestone bluff, where a rock ledge forms a narrow shelf that extends about a foot above water. I reached for the rock then recalled a note from Clark’s journal: “had not landed 3 Minutes before three verry large Snakes was observed in the Crevises of the rocks & killed.” A paddle stroke turned the boat downstream, where the creek widens, slows and enters the Missouri. 

More: Hike and bike through history on Mo.’s Katy Trail

Long on history, short on tacky

A few miles north of here the Missouri is joined by the mighty Kansas River, Weston, Mo., is scattered across the landscape of surprisingly steep hills. Main Street flows downhill, splitting a revamped and retooled historic district that is long on history and short on tacky. The road ends at the railroad depot, build in 1922 and now home to City Hall and a city museum. A neighboring sign marks the Lewis and Clark campsite of July 2, 1804. The exact spot of the camp is unknown. What is known is that it was located on the banks on the Missouri at a spot Capt. William Clark thought would make a good location for a town.

“We Camped after dark on the S. S. opposit the 1st old Village of the Kanzas which was Situated in a Valley between two points of high land,” he recorded. “. . . the Situation appears to be a verry elligable one for a Town.”

He was right and about 30 years after the Corps pitched camp here Weston was founded. Today, however, the river is nowhere in sight.

“There was a big flood in 1881” said Drew MacDonnell, who, along with wife Janelle, owns and operates the Hatchery House Bed & Breakfast, “and the river shifted about 2 miles. It was tough on the town.”

A river town that finds itself suddenly no longer a river town sometimes vanishes. Weston did not. It suffered from the river shift but survived and today the town of about 1,700 pulses on its rich history, including, of course, the 1804 visit from Lewis and Clark.

The MacDonnells' bed-and-breakfast features a Lewis & Clark suite.

“It’s one of our most popular rooms,” said Drew MacDonnell.

More: Camp River Dubois: Lewis and Clark history starts here

Gary Garth writes a monthly outdoors column for USA TODAY.