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Two places lay claim to laying a keel

Monday, October 28, 2002

A funny thing has happened on the way to the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Two places, Elizabeth Township and Pittsburgh, both claim to be the place where Meriwether Lewis had his famous keelboat built in the summer of 1803. Each will have commemorative celebrations next August.

Working for a newspaper that traces its lineage to the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies, I felt some responsibility for getting to the bottom of this boat business. I made some calls.

"We're going with what we have no matter what Pittsburgh says," Ron Morgenstern, executive director of the Elizabeth Township Historical Society, said.

According to the society's records, Samuel Walker, recommended by no less a figure than President Thomas Jefferson, built the keelboat in an Elizabeth boatyard.

The director of the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Andy Masich, says otherwise.

"We believe the boat was built at the shipyards in Pittsburgh that would lie about where the Liberty Bridge is today, at a place called Sucks Run," Masich said. "That's pronounced 'Sooks.' "

This much we do know. The boatbuilder, whoever he was, was a drunken layabout who got the boat to Lewis six weeks late. Nobody seems to dispute that, but it does not diminish the desire to claim bragging rights. In fact, when I brought this up to Morgenstern, he indicated that Lewis's documented disgust with the drinking habits of the boatbuilder he never named only strengthened Elizabeth's claim.

"Evidently, from what we found out, this Mr. Walker liked his liquor," Morgenstern said. "This is another reason that makes us believe the boat was built in Elizabeth, the stories circulated about Mr. Walker and his whiskey."

So what we have here is that rare case of two towns fighting over a long dead drunk. This one just happened to build a 55-foot keelboat before keeling over.

I decided to try to find someone who didn't have a horse in this race, so I called Dr. Gary Moulton, professor of history at the University of Nebraska and the editor of a 13-volume set of the journals of Lewis and Clark.

Moulton had heard of the competing claims.

"I have no indication from any original source that would give any indication the keelboat was built in Elizabeth," he said. "That does not mean it was not. I just do not know of any."

If folks in Elizabeth have evidence, he'd be happy to see it and possibly learn from it. But he suspected that they might be dealing with "folk stories and folklore," and "historians are sort of tied to documents."

I asked him to go to Lewis' journal to see what the man himself wrote the day he set out. The Pittsburgh claim rests on the reference, but I hadn't seen it. So Moulton read from the journal:

"Left Pittsburgh this day at 11 o'clock . . . arrived at Bruno's Island three miles below."

Lewis, a carefree speller, was referring to Brunots Island, about three miles from where the Liberty Bridge is now. Throw in a letter that Lewis wrote to Jefferson on Sept. 8 from Wheeling, where he mentions that the boat was completed and loaded from Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, and the city's claim looks hard to beat.

Morgenstern said Elizabeth's plans will go on "irregardless of what Pittsburgh says."

Masich, acknowledging Elizabeth's great boat building tradition, hopes everyone can work together. There are only about 20 winding miles on the Monongahela River between Elizabeth and Pittsburgh anyway. This remarkable transcontinental journey of exploration began in Western Pennsylvania's keelboat, either way.

The Lewis and Clark Center of St. Charles, Mo., is supporting Elizabeth's claim, but otherwise isn't playing favorites. It will truck its 55-foot keelboat to the history center in the Strip District next summer, where it will stay for six weeks "like a ship in a bottle," according to Masich. The boat will then be trucked to Elizabeth for a launching, and return downriver.

The history center's long list of commemorative events also includes a lecture by Moulton next July.

"I probably won't go to Elizabeth," Moulton said with a laugh. "I might not be welcome."

Brian O'Neill can be reached at 412-263-1947 or boneill@post-gazette.com

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