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Lewis & Clark expedition got slow start from the banks of the Monongahela

Last in a series

Sunday, August 31, 2003

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Before embarking on his famous expedition, Capt. Meriwether Lewis pored over maps, planned logistics, refigured a long list of supplies and spent hours learning about celestial navigation, plants and animals from leading scientists in Philadelphia.

Then he came to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1803, where he fumed for six weeks over the glacial progress of a surly, drunken boat builder.

Dan Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration
Click photo for larger image.

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Keelboat trekking from Iowa to save today's celebration

Index to previous articles in series

Finally, he awoke early on the morning of Aug. 31, 1803, and began loading the 55-foot-long keelboat as soon as the last plank was nailed in at 7 a.m.

Two hundred years to the hour and day Lewis set sail from the banks of the Monongahela River, a flotilla of boats will gather at 11 a.m. today under the Liberty Bridge to commemorate the start of his remarkable adventure.

In 1803, Lewis made little progress on the first day of his voyage because the Monongahela River had fallen to a record low level.

He recorded in his journal that he was accompanied by "a party of 11 hands, seven of which are soldiers, a pilot and three young men on trial they having proposed to go with me throughout the voyage ... ."

A Newfoundland dog named Seaman that Lewis acquired in Pittsburgh completed the crew. Lewis stopped at Brunot Island to see an old Army friend, a French physician named Dr. Felix Brunot.

During the visit, Lewis demonstrated his newest weapon, an air gun, to the amazement of onlookers. Then he handed it to a local man named Blaze Cenas, who fired it, accidentally striking a woman in the temple.

The woman recovered and Lewis and his men quickly resumed their journey.

Nancy Cain McComb, director of programming at the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, said members of the flotilla will be able to see the re-enactment of Lewis' air gun being fired from a channel on the back side of Brunot Island.

"All the boats will be directed to a viewing area on Brunot Island around the back side. . . . When they get there, I am already going to have a crew of re-enactors on the island," McComb said.

Will Schaefer, who has portrayed Meriwether Lewis all summer at the history center, will be on the island along with McComb's husband, David, who will portray Blaze Cenas.

The re-enactors will re-create the air gun incident several times so that everyone on the water can see it.

For safety reasons, boats can't anchor and people can't disembark onto the island, which is owned by Reliant Energy.

After the re-enactment, visitors can tour a Lewis-and-Clark-themed barge, docked at the Point and sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers. The barge will be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and admission is free. The barge leaves the Point tomorrow morning for Rochester Borough.

A mobile auditorium set up in Point State Park by the National Park Service features a condensed version of the Ken Burns film about Lewis and Clark and a presentation about the weaponry used by the Corps of Discovery 200 years ago. Known as the Tent of Many Voices, this exhibit will be at the Point through Sept. 7 and open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day. Admission is free.

Lewis made slow progress that first day on the water because the keelboat encountered three sandbars between McKees Rocks and Neville Island. To better maneuver the boat, the crew unloaded it twice and transferred supplies to a pirogue, a flat-bottomed boat.

After the boats were moored somewhere between McKees Rocks and Neville Island, Lewis gave all the men some well-earned whiskey, and the exhausted crew retired at 8 p.m.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.

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