Not far from the St. Louis Arch lies the quaint town of St. Charles, which proudly celebrates its important, yet often overlooked, place in American history. Once the capital of Missouri, today it is a popular tourist destination for those wanting to learn about the early frontier days of America, specifically about Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
St. Charles Boathouse: the Start of Discovery
On May 14, 1804, William Clark set his keelboat and pirogues on the Missouri River to travel to St. Charles, and this date is generally considered the start of the famed journey. They travelled twenty-one miles to the town in a day, but Meriwether Lewis was still back in St. Louis finalizing arrangements, so they waited for him there. At the time, St. Charles was a small French-Canadian village named Les Petites Cotes. It was populated by hunters and engages (or French rivermen) and because of the village’s disconnected location, a number of the men were of mixed white-Native American heritage. Two of them, Pierre Cruzatte and Francois Labiche, joined the Corps of Discovery as some of Lewis and Clark’s most valuable personnel. The co-captains severely underestimated the difficulty of navigating their boats upstream, and needed strong, experienced rivermen to help them all the way up the Missouri (Woodger and Toropov).
On May 20 Lewis caught up to Clark riding to St. Charles on horseback, and the next afternoon at 3:30 PM, the boats departed up the river to the cheers of the locals. Some people consider this the beginning of Lewis and Clark’s journey, for this was the first time the two men travelled together into the frontier (Woodger and Toropov).
The boats they used at this point were a keelboat and two pirogues. Fondly nicknamed “the barge,” the keelboat was the primary transportation vessel and personally designed by Meriwether Lewis. Named after the cutting protrusion on the bottom of the boat, it was 55 feet long, 8 feet wide, and had an abnormally tall 32-foot mast. The hold held 12 tons of cargo and the benches on the deck were designed to allow rowing, poling, and pulling all as ways to move it. Clark even added a swiveling cannon and blunderbusses.
In April of 1805, just as the Corps were leaving Fort Mandan, they sent the keelboat back downstream to bring back reports, specimens, and expelled members back to President Jefferson and they proceeded on canoes. The two pirogues lasted longer and were brought out of necessity to lighten the load of the keelboat. Though less than 30 feet by 8 feet, these flat-bottomed vessels could carry 8 tons of cargo. (Woodger and Toropov).
Today the St. Charles Boathouse and Nature Center serves as a popular tourist attraction and commemorates St. Charles’ value to the Lewis and Clark expedition. The second floor houses a museum detailing the journey, Native peoples, and the various habitats encountered on the way. On the first floor is a full-sized replica of the keelboat used by the Corps of Discovery. It was built by a group named the Discovery Expedition in honor of the original men; they seek to educate the public about American history through live demonstrations (“Welcome”). Through its exhibits and reconstructions, the boathouse gives visitors a taste of life on the frontier.
Lewis and Clark Trail and Katy Trail: Footsteps of American History
The federally designated Lewis and Clark Trail begins in Wood River, Illinois, travelling northwest all the way to Montana and beyond to the Pacific via the Columbia River Gorge. From St. Charles to Booneville, Missouri, not only is it the longest non-motorized, public stretch of the Lewis and Clark, but it is also part of the Katy Trail. While more of a regional attraction than national, the trail nevertheless provides vast open space for Missourians to enjoy the outdoors (Missouri State Parks; Dufer). It is 255 miles long and follows the historic Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad, hence the name Katy (as in M.K.T).
The MKT Railroad was created in 1865. Workers worked for up to 16 hours per day pounding spikes to hold the tracks and were paid $1.50 a day plus food,. The rail’s path was oddly branching as opposed to centrally organized because it was paid for by any towns that wanted it to come to them. Running through the Midwest, it was valuable for people needing to get southwest and back east, with St. Louis being a major checkpoint in the journey. However in 1957 the rails switched to exclusive use for freight shipments. Eventually trucks became the favored transportation method and business suffered (Dufer).
By 1986 rail operation stopped from Sedalia to Machens, and though landowners wanted the land to be returned to them, it eventually became public (Dufer; Missouri State Parks). The National Trail Systems Act of 1968 decreed property owned by defunct rail services could be “banked” for any future transportation needs, and in the meantime could be used for recreational trails. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources quickly acquired the rights (Missouri State Parks). With the addition of a stretch of rails donated by the Union Pacific in 1991, the Katy Trail is now the nation’s longest complete rail-to-trail project (Dufer; Missouri State Parks). It was officially opened September 1996 (Dufer). Most of the railroad tracks have been removed, save for the basic framework; the trails themselves are compacted crushed limestone.
The trail attracts visitors from beyond the borders of Missouri. There are both hiking trails and bike trails of varying intensity. A relaxing morning can be spent visiting a small local portion, but those seeking more adventure can bike from one end to the other in two days, though the record is 14 hours, done by Sam Baugh. The terrain is generally flat and good for biking and cross country running, but nevertheless it does not lack in interesting landscapes. The Katy passes through rural farmland, forests, and wetlands.
Weldon Springs Conservation Area: the Preserved Landscape
Just south of St. Charles, the Katy Trail runs through the Weldon Springs Conservation Area, containing 8,398 acres of glades, wetlands, croplands, forests, and hundred-foot-tall bluffs (Conservation Commission of Missouri). Three hundred and eighty-five acres of this is the Weldon Springs Hollow Natural Area, which preserves Missouri’s original landscape before European settlement. Its old-growth woodlands are home to tree species like the bitternut hickory, sugar maples, sycamores, and a variety of oaks. The pawpaw, one of the United States’ largest indigenous fruits, also grows here (Leahy). One of the more notable habitats is an area of farmland covered with sand brought from floods in the mid 1990s. This area offers nesting and feeding grounds for birds and invertebrates (Conservation Commission of Missouri). Birds that can be found in the area include wood thrushes and American redstarts, scarlet tanagers and ovenbirds, red-eyed vireos and wild turkeys. The ringed salamander, which is endemic to the Ozarks, can be found here as well (Leahy).
The area has a surprising history. During World War II the US government built a munitions plant there; at first TNT and DNT were made there, then in the 1960s it was used to process uranium ore. Afterwards it was converted to an agricultural experiment station by the University of Missouri, before being purchased by Missouri Conservation Department in 1978. Areas affected by the munitions plant were extensively cleaned up and are now considered perfectly safe for wildlife and human recreational use. There are four hiking trails in the Weldon Springs Conservation area, two of which, the Lewis and the Clark trails, should not be confused with the singular Lewis and Clark Trail that spans numerous states. Other allowed activities include biking, fishing, and hunting (Conservation Commission of Missouri).