The Corps of Discovery

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THE KEELBOAT

After spending nearly a month with President Jefferson in Washington going over final details of the trip, Lewis arrived back in Pennsylvania in mid-July 1803.

Keelboat illustration

Courtesy of Butch Bouvier

His purpose for coming back to Pennsylvania was to pick up the supplies he had ordered, including the keelboat, which he had hired a contractor in Pittsburgh to build. The boatbuilder said it would be done by July 20, but when Lewis arrived on July 15, he was disappointed to find that the boat wasn't even near completion.

"The boatbuilder was a drunk," explains Butch Bouvier, a Lewis and Clark enthusiast who lives in Onawa, Iowa, and recently built a full-size, working replica of the keelboat.

Lewis wrote in his journals during this time that he visited the boatbuilder daily to impress upon him the urgency of the situation. Lewis needed to navigate down the Ohio River as soon as possible, as the water levels were dropping lower and lower.

For the next several weeks, Lewis nervously and angrily waited for the drunk builder to complete the keelboat. He considered going down the Ohio River in search of an already-constructed keelboat he could buy, but was told by local residents that he would have no luck. All Lewis could do was wait.

Of course, some of the delay could be blamed on the complexity of the job. When Bouvier and a crew of volunteers built the replica in the 1980s, it took a dozen volunteers 100 days to finish the job, and they were using power tools!

While Lewis waited for the boat to be built, he bought a dog in town for $20. Lewis named it Seaman, and it was this dog that would accompany the expedition all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back.

The boat was finally completed on Aug. 31. It was 55 feet long, with a 32-foot-high mast. Crossing the deck were 11 benches, each three feet long, for use by an oarsman on either side. It is not known what wood was used for the boat. "More than likely, they used whatever wood was available," said Bouvier. "Boats like this weren't built to last, so they probably didn't worry too much about the type of wood. And Lewis never made a material list in his journal, so we don't have any data to check."

Lewis set off from Pittsburgh just a few short hours after the final nail was hammered into the boat. While most historians argue that the official expedition of the Corps of Discovery didn't begin until the next spring when the boat left from Woods River, Illinois (near St. Louis), others argue that Pittsburgh should be considered the beginning point. After all Lewis wrote his first entry in the famous Lewis and Clark Journals just three miles downstream from Pittsburgh.

Regardless, the importance of Lewis' time in Pennsylvania and the vital role it played in the subsequent journey cannot be denied. The events that occurred in Pennsylvania, from buying the keelboat, to picking up the supply of rifles and ammunition, to getting his dog Seaman, to coming up with the idea of inviting a co-captain on the expedition, all proved important to the overall success of this magnificent journey.

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