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Keelboat trekking from Iowa to save today's celebration of Lewis & Clark expedition's launch from Pittsburgh

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Lori Shontz and Patricia Lowry, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Thanks to the kindness of strangers -- Iowans, to be exact -- Pittsburgh's celebration today of the 200th anniversary of Capt. Meriwether Lewis' departure from the Monongahela River will include a replica of the keelboat that Lewis had built here.

Friends of Discovery, a volunteer group based in Onawa, Iowa, responded to a last-minute plea from Andrew Masich, president and CEO of the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, by pulling its keelboat out of Blue Lake in the Lewis and Clark State Park, packing it onto a custom-built trailer -- which was finished less than a month ago -- and leaving at 4:50 yesterday morning for a 20-hour drive to Pittsburgh.

"It's not on the magnitude of Lewis and Clark," said Rory Conrad, an aide with Iowa's department of natural resources who works with Friends of Discovery, "but it's an expedition of our own."

The keelboat, which was built in 1985, has left its home in Lewis and Clark State Park only once -- to attend the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, three hours away, earlier this month. It is making its 900-mile journey on Labor Day weekend, a time when oversized loads are normally not permitted to travel. And all of the official permission had to be secured Friday morning and afternoon before government employees in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania went home for the weekend.

"You wouldn't believe the strings that have been pulled," Masich said. "The state police in five states are escorting this."

The last-minute flurry of activity became necessary when a group of re-enactors from St. Charles, Mo., the Discovery Expedition, pulled its keelboat out of this morning's flotilla with less than 48 hours notice, citing safety concerns.

"I kind of knew what Lewis felt like when he got to Pittsburgh and found that his keelboat wasn't ready," Masich said. "I felt the same way there for a few hours."

While the flotilla would have proceeded without a keelboat, organizers decided to try to secure the only other 56-foot long, 10-foot wide, 13-foot tall keelboat replica they knew about, belonging to Friends of Discovery.

The History Center already had a relationship with the Iowa group, which built the half-size keelboat replica that has been part of the museum's exhibit all summer. The keelboat coming here today is also well-known, having been used in a Lewis and Clark documentary produced last year for PBS by Ken Burns.

"It's beautiful, as accurate as a replica as you'll find afloat," Masich said.

He began calling Iowa so early Friday that the executive director of Friends of Discovery, Russell Field, hadn't yet turned on his cell phone.

Finally reaching Field after 9 a.m. Friday (Pittsburgh time), Masich asked if the keelboat were available. "There was a long silence," he said. "Then I think I heard an audible gulp."

Field agreed to help if the necessary permits could be secured. This sparked what Masich called a "blizzard" of phone calls, faxes and e-mails as everyone from the Rooney family, Mayor Tom Murphy, Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Allen Biehler and government officials in four other states tried to clear away the red tape.

"At first, we thought, 'Boy, this is a pretty elaborate practical joke somebody's playing on us,' " Conrad said. "And then, we really wanted to help these guys out, but we were wondering if we could pull this off. I was there when the call was coming in and I was saying to myself, 'Three days would have been a rush, and we don't even have three full days.'"

Everything happened so quickly that the boat, which normally weighs 32,000 pounds, is traveling at 38,000 pounds because it was pulled directly from the water and remains soaked.

While the Pittsburgh organizers dealt with the rules and regulations, the Iowans searched for truck drivers, most of whom weren't answering their phones the day before a long holiday weekend. One member of their group is a retired truck driver who kept his commercial driver's license and offered to drive the maximum 10 hours, and finally a friend of the group volunteered his son to drive the rest of the trip.

Six members of the keelboat's 12-man crew put aside plans and made the trip. They will be joined here by six other local crewmen.

"It's kind of a brotherhood type thing," Conrad said, explaining why the Friends of Discovery responded so quickly to Masich's request. "We love the Lewis and Clark story, and you guys are doing Lewis and Clark."

When the boat arrives here in the wee hours, it will be put in the water near Heinz Field on the North Shore and towed to the Liberty Bridge, where it will join the flotilla for an 11 a.m. departure. Will Schaefer, a local social studies teacher, who has played Meriwether Lewis at the Heinz History Center this summer, will join the re-enactors, who will row it to Brunot Island.

The keelboat from St. Charles, Mo., will still leave from Elizabeth shortly after sunrise and head for the Point, where those re-enactors will camp overnight, but have decided to skip the water parade.

"They've got an untested boat and an untested crew on water that they're not familiar with. So, they're nervous. I think we have to respect that," Masich said.

But, Masich added, "You can't change history. Lewis left Pittsburgh at 11 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1803. The people of Pittsburgh have been planning for more than a year to commemorate this with a whole flotilla."

At 11 a.m. Pittsburgh Voyager's Discovery, a floating classroom designed to teach people about the science and environment of the city's rivers, will fire its water cannons in two arcing streams to form two arches over the Monongahela River. All the boats on the water will sound their horns, including motorized pleasure boats, watercraft from the Three Rivers Rowing Association, Coast Guard boats, Pittsburgh River Rescue, the state Fish and Boat Commission, the Gateway Clipper's Party Liner and kayaks and canoes.

Steelers executives Dan Rooney and his son Art, who are Lewis and Clark buffs, will join the flotilla on a pontoon boat along with officials from the history center. The Rooney family traveled West this summer along parts of the Lewis and Clark trail.

After gathering under the Liberty Bridge at 11 a.m., the entire flotilla will move toward Brunot Island, three miles south of the Point on the Ohio River.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590. Lori Shontz can be reached at or 412-263-1722.

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