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Who built the big boat?

One in a series of articles

Sunday, August 03, 2003

By Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It remains, after all these years, one of Western Pennsylvania's most enduring mysteries.

Painting courtesy of the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.
Click photo for larger image.

Related article:

Whiskey and whimsy light up the night in the dry, foggy summer of 1803

An index to the series

Who built the "big boat" of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and where did he build it? Despite the builder's tendency to overindulge in, presumably, good ol' Monongahela Rye, the boat was a durable, dependable craft that took the Corps of Discovery down the Ohio and Mississippi and up the Missouri to North Dakota before parting company with the expedition and heading back downriver to St. Louis, traveling almost 6,000 miles.

The Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, in a Lewis and Clark-related exhibit at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, states that the big boat was built in the boatyard of William Greenough, near what is now the north end of the Liberty Bridge. The History Center commissioned a painting of the event from Robert Griffing, showing Meriwether Lewis in his dress blues helping to load cargo.

But Elizabeth, one of the oldest towns in the Monongahela Valley, has long claimed the boatbuilder was its own highly accomplished Capt. John Walker, and some of the bicentennial's key participants agree.

When the re-enactors begin their journey on Aug. 31, they'll be launching early in the morning from Elizabeth before rowing down the river and relaunching at 11 a.m. from Pittsburgh.

And on the National Park Service's Web site promoting the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, the timeline has this entry: "July 17, 1803 -- Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, in the Pittsburgh area -- Lewis was held up for over a month waiting for his 55-foot keelboat to be built. Modern scholarship suggests that the boat was built at Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh on the Monongehela [sic] River."

But in 200 years, there has never been a deep investigation into who built the expedition's boats, making it one of the few Lewis and Clark areas still open for exploration.

Of course, some might be tempted to ask, what difference does it make? Western Pennsylvania already has only a sliver of the Lewis and Clark pie. Is there anything more at stake here than Elizabeth's pride?

"I usually get involved in this issue from a community development standpoint," said Barry Boucher, an Elizabeth zoning board member who is trying to make the town a permanent stop on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

"It's so hard to preserve history in these towns," said Boucher, who is also the local contact for the Lewis and Clark re-enactors. "We don't have the resources" for research, preservation and interpretation.

Almost 20 years ago, Boucher and his brother Bill initiated the history walk that leads to Walker's hilltop grave overlooking the town. Standing next to the marker that touts Walker as the builder of the Lewis and Clark boats, Barry Boucher broke into a big, mischievous grin.

"It's etched in stone," he said. "It must be true!"

So, whodunit?

The primary documents -- Lewis' letters and the expedition's journal entries -- are silent on the matter. So, too, are the Pittsburgh newspapers of 1803 and 1903.

There are no extant issues of the Gazette on microfilm for the six weeks Lewis was in Pittsburgh, from July 15 to Aug. 31, 1803. But all of the issues of its competitor, the Tree of Liberty, are available for that period, and not one mentions Lewis' six-week stay in Pittsburgh, despite -- or more likely because of -- his close friendship with one of the paper's editors, Tarleton Bates.

The two men had a lot in common. Both came from aristocratic Virginia families with a penchant for giving their sons old, elaborate family surnames as given names. Both were in their late 20s; Bates was 28 and Lewis marked his 29th birthday in Pittsburgh on Aug. 18. Both were first-generation sons of the Revolution; their fathers had fought in the Continental Army. Both were eager to have an impact on their young country, then in the hands of fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, with whom they were allied politically. And both would die tragically before the end of the decade, Lewis by his own hand and Bates in a duel.

In 1803, Bates would have known that Jefferson and Lewis wanted to keep the expedition quiet, so much so that Jefferson's request for funds from Congress was confidential. Jefferson and Lewis even devised a secret code for their communications but apparently never used it. Why so hush-hush? Jefferson wanted Lewis and Clark to favorably influence the native tribes toward Americans before settlers swarmed over their lands, but he also feared that his political enemies might use the expedition against him.

So the newspapers, always the best first place to turn for news of the day, are no direct help.

From Lewis' letters and journal, we know that on the morning of Aug. 31, 1803, he left Pittsburgh with at least two boats -- the big boat and a readymade pirogue. Lewis always referred to the big boat as "the keeled boat," "the boat" or "the barge" -- never "the keelboat."

It was built on a keel -- the spine that runs from bow to stern -- but it was not what people in 1803 would have called a keelboat, which had a large cabin called a cargo-box to shelter passengers and luggage. Lewis' boat was more like a military galley -- and understanding the distinction might be a key to untangling the mystery.

Within a few days of launch, the pirogue -- an oversized rowboat with a pointed bow, square stern and a mast and sail -- "sprung a leek and nearly filled," Lewis wrote in his journal on Sept. 4.

So at Georgetown, Beaver County, Lewis purchased a canoe, with two paddles and two poles, which also leaked.

Both boats were repaired and proceeded on. In Wheeling on Sept. 8, Lewis bought another pirogue and picked up the rifles and ammunition that had been sent overland from Harpers Ferry to Pittsburgh to Wheeling.

The first clue

The earliest known reference to a Lewis and Clark boat builder comes by way of Lyman C. Draper, the 19th-century historian who collected the papers, maps, genealogies and oral histories of Western pioneers and their descendants. In 1852, he interviewed Col. George A. Bayard, son of Col. Stephen Bayard, who told Draper that some of the boats for the Lewis and Clark expedition were prepared at his father's boat yard in Elizabeth.

Stephen Bayard and Isaac Craig, both officers at Fort Pitt, were the city's first land speculators, buying three acres at the Point after the fort's demise. They were also two of the town's earliest entrepreneurs, starting a mercantile business, a distillery, a sawmill up the Allegheny and a salt works on the Big Beaver River. But by 1787 Bayard was ready to move to the country, to a hilly, riverfront tract of land 22 1/2 miles up the Monongahela that had belonged to Bayard's father-in-law, Aeneas Mackay, a former commandant at Fort Pitt. Bayard laid out a town and named it for his wife, Mackay's daughter Elizabeth. The following year Bayard established a boat yard there, importing four boat carpenters from Philadelphia to build, as he advertised, "boats of every construction and size."

In 1785, two years before Bayard founded the town of Elizabeth, Samuel Walker, a former member of the Delaware legislature, and his wife packed up their six children and headed over the mountains, along with a party that carried the Gazette's first printing press to Pittsburgh. They settled two miles upriver from Elizabeth, across from McFarlane's Ferry.

By 1800, the Walkers' son John was building ocean-going ships at Bayard's boat yard, in partnership with his sawmill partner John Craighead and ship designer and master builder John Scott. The following year, John Walker piloted the schooner Monongahela Farmer, loaded with flour and picking up whiskey, flax and hemp along the way, from Elizabeth to Philadelphia.

But the Walker yard's main business, until the steamboat age arrived in 1811, was building keelboats.

Connecting the dots

The first notice locally of the Walker-Lewis connection appears in George Thurston's 1859 "Directory of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Valleys," which reports that "Two pirogues or keel boats, used by Lewis & Clark's expedition, were also built at Elizabeth by John Walker."

An 1876 obituary in the Elizabeth Herald of Walker's oldest son, Samuel, who inherited and expanded his father's boat yard, reports that "several celebrated vessels had been built there by the elder Mr. Walker, among them two of the keel boats used in the memorable Lewis and Clark Expedition."

Eleven years later, Antoinette Frew Miller of Allegheny City, a descendant of John Walker, contributed the following to the Elizabeth Herald of Nov. 4, 1887, a centennial edition honoring the town's founding:

"In 1815 Major Walker built at Elizabeth the first steamboat ever constructed west of the Allegheny Mountains ... called the Western Navigator ... the owner hearing [of the Walker boat yard] through Lewis & Clark at St. Charles, Mo., of the famous expedition to the Rocky Mountains."

But is Miller's recollection reliable, considering the first steamboat on Western waters was the New Orleans, built in 1811 in Pittsburgh?

Three local history books published in the late 19th century only muddle things further, with Samuel Durant in 1876 reporting that "two keel-boats" were built in Elizabeth, Thomas Cushing in 1889 writing "two pirogues" and John Van Voorhis in 1893 saying simply that Walker built "the boats." None attributes a source.

Still, it's entirely believable that Walker built one or more of the smaller boats for the Lewis and Clark expedition, and not just because of George Bayard's recollection in the highly regarded "Draper Papers."

When Lewis came to Western Pennsylvania in 1794 to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion, his unit camped on the Monongahela River, "about 15 miles above Pittsburg where we shall be forted in this winter," as he wrote to his mother. The camp site was Andrew McFarlane's farm at what is now the riverfront town of Elrama, two miles upriver from Elizabeth. McFarlane and his brother James had been among the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion, and James had been killed by federal troops earlier that winter.

Andrew McFarlane's neighbors across the river, the Walkers, ferried the federal troops across the Monongahela. So Lewis, who spent the fall, winter and spring on the McFarlane farm, would have gotten to know the Walkers and the McFarlanes. Buying boats from the Walker boat yard even may have been Lewis and the government's way of saying thanks, nine years later.

Hidden in plain sight

Then there's what Bill Brunot calls "the lost letter."

A research engineer who lives in Brisbane, Calif., Brunot is a great-great-great-grandson of Dr. Felix Brunot, whom Lewis stopped to visit on Brunot's Island after launching from Pittsburgh on Aug. 31. Brunot, who supplied family portraits, papers and other artifacts for the Heinz History Center exhibition, has done considerable research on Lewis' air gun and other aspects of the eastern leg of the expedition. He shared his information about the Draper manuscript (previously unknown here) and "the lost letter" for this story.

The lost letter isn't really a letter but the start of an affidavit Lewis began to draft, presumably in the summer of 1803. It was written in Lewis' handwriting, on the same page that Clark used to record a journal entry in December 1803, in support of Andrew McFarlane's attempt to seek compensation from the government for losses sustained in 1794, when the troops were camped on his farm.

It appears in Vol. One, Page 138, of Gary Moulton's edition of the Lewis and Clark journals: "[Mr] Andrew McFarlane [hav]ing informed me that he was about to make application to the general government to be remunerated for certain losses he sustained on his farm by the troops which were cantoned [stationed] on it under the comd of Genl Mor[gan] during the fall and winter 1794 and spring 1795 and being myself present during the whole of the period -- I am induced to give the following statement [of facts which fell within the purview of my own observation] to be used by him as he may think most expedient."

And there it ends.

Its significance, Brunot believes, is that even though it is undated, it indicates that Lewis may have stopped at McFarlane's farm, or at least was in the vicinity of it and the neighboring town of Elizabeth, in the summer of 1803. It's unlikely Lewis would have written it in 1794, when he was a mere soldier and not in a position to solicit the government on McFarlane's behalf. As Jefferson's former secretary, however, he was a person of some importance.

While the draft affidavit seems to link Lewis to Elizabeth in the summer of 1803, it doesn't prove the big boat was built there -- and seems to reinforce the notion that it wasn't.

If the big boat was built in Elizabeth and Lewis is near Elizabeth, why doesn't he stop to see it? We know his path from Harpers Ferry took him through Brownsville, south of Elizabeth. We don't know what route he took from Brownsville to Pittsburgh, but it makes sense that if the big boat, which he expected to be ready in five days, was being built in Elizabeth, he would have checked on its progress. But he doesn't.

When he gets to Pittsburgh on July 15, he immediately writes to Jefferson, at 3 p.m.

"Dear Sir,

I arrived here at 2 O'Clock, and learning that the mail closed at 5 this evening hasten to make this communication, tho' it can only contain the mere information of my arrival. No occurrence has taken place on my journey hither sufficiently interesting to be worthy of relation........I have not yet seen Lieut. Hook nor made enquiry relative to my boat, on the state of which, the time of my departu[r]e from hence must materially depend: the Ohio is quite low, but not so much so as to obstruct my passage altogether."

David Halaas, museum division director of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, believes there's ample evidence in the letters and journals of where the big boat was built and that it points to Pittsburgh.

There's no mention of Elizabeth in any of Lewis' letters or journal entries. The expedition's supplies were directed to Pittsburgh and stored at Fort Fayette. Lewis visited the boat builder every day and made no mention, in his letters, of traveling about 15 miles by land -- 22 1/2 by water -- to do so. He frequently castigates the drunken boat builder, and the accomplished John Walker is an unlikely lush.

And when Lewis launched on the morning of Aug. 31, he traveled only three miles before arriving at Brunot's Island, which is about three miles from Pittsburgh's largest shipyard at the mouth of Suke's Run. That's where Halaas thinks the big boat was built.

"There's the smoking gun," he said.

He believes the big boat was built at the shipyard that appears on an 1805 map drawn by Pittsburgh sailmaker William Masson. The map, which is in the historical society's collection and appears on Page 75 of Stefan Lorant's "Pittsburgh," shows a shipyard within a tract of land that bears the name William Greenough.

Greenough, a merchant who ran a store on Water Street, also owned building lots in the triangle. Given that the names of other property owners are written within adjacent tracts on the Masson map, and that Greenough's name is never associated with boat-building or shipbuilding in Pittsburgh, it can be said with some certainty that he owned the land, not the shipyard.

The shipyard was begun in 1800 or 1801 by Louis Tarascon, a French-born Philadelphia merchant looking for new markets; he set up his brother John and James Berthoud, one of his clerks, on the Monongahela under the cumbersome name John A. Tarascon Bros., James Berthoud & Co.

On April 29, 1803, Tarascon-Berthoud launched its first two sea-going merchant vessels, the schooner Amity and the ship Pittsburgh. At least the latter was built under the direction of Eliphalet Beebe, who, like Walker, was an experienced ship captain.

The Tarascon-Berthoud yard was Pittsburgh's best-equipped ship yard in the first decade of the 19th century, and Lewis' boat undoubtedly could have been built there.

But was it?

No gentleman

Somewhere on the banks of the Allegheny, at Pittsburgh, two armed galleys -- the President Adams and the Senator Ross -- were built under the supervision of Bayard's former business partner, Maj. Isaac Craig, in 1798. They were to be used on the lower Mississippi in the event of war with France and Spain, and they were unlike anything that had ever been built in Pittsburgh.

"On Saturday the nineteenth, precisely at 2 p.m., the first galley was launched at this place," Tarleton Bates wrote to his brother Frederick on May 25, 1798. "It was said to be a very beautiful launch, she slid a most unusual distance, I believe 126 feet."

We don't know for certain that those two gunboats were built at Fort Fayette, which straddled Penn Avenue between Ninth Street and Garrison Way. But an 1872 military pension request indicates that boats were being built there in 1812.

The pension application, unearthed by Brunot, was made by Peter Shouse, then 83, who was, "on or about the 10th day of October or November 1812 enlisted by Hezekiah Johnson Commander of Fort Fayette at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania together with nine others as Boat builders."

Now consider again what Lewis wrote to Jefferson on his arrival in Pittsburgh on July 15: "I have not yet seen Lieut. Hook nor made enquiry relative to my boat."

Perhaps Lewis, in his haste to get a letter as soon as possible to Jefferson, stopped first to see his old friend Bates, who lived and worked near the postmaster's house at the corner of Third and Market, on the way to Fort Fayette.

On Sept. 8, Lewis wrote to Jefferson from Wheeling that at one point progress on the construction of the big boat was going so slowly that he had considered abandoning the boat, leaving Pittsburgh in two or three pirogues and buying a big boat downriver, "there being none to be had in Pittsburgh." But the city's "best informed merchants" told him "the chances were much against my being able to procure a boat below."

Everyone knew boats of all sorts were being built all along the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio -- just not, at that time, the kind of military galley or "barge" Lewis was looking for.

If military or other records someday show that the boat was built at Fort Fayette, also about three miles from Brunot's Island, it would resolve a couple of inconsistencies in the attribution to the Tarascon-Berthoud yard or any well-known boat builder, such as Walker or Beebe.

For one thing, no established, reputable boat builder was likely to have behaved the way Lewis' boat builder behaved and stayed in business for long. He was, Lewis wrote Jefferson, "constantly either sick or drunk." He "quarreled with his workmen, and several of them left him." He was "disappointed in procuring timber." Lewis "prevailed on him to engage more hands, and he tells me that two others will join him in the morning."

"That indicates it probably isn't one of the better-known companies, or a 'gentleman' like Beebe," Brunot said.

He sounds more like an independent contractor than a big-time shipbuilder, perhaps one of the men who worked on the President Adams or Senator Ross.

It also would explain why Lewis never made note of the boat builder's name in his letters -- neither Jefferson nor anyone else would have recognized it.

There are, to be sure, other plausible scenarios.

And while it appears that Lewis and Clark's big boat was built in Pittsburgh, its specific origin remains as murky as the Mon.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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