Celebration at trail’s end

November 8, 2005 

When all the hoopla about the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s expedition began 10 years ago, there was talk of a national pilgrimage of tourists who would follow the explorers’ footsteps, wallets open and spreading dollars from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean.

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial was going to be a tourism bonanza, filling motels, restaurants, gift shops and campgrounds.

Historian Stephen Ambrose, dressed in a fringed buckskin jacket to promote “Undaunted Courage,” his best-selling 1996 book about the expedition, predicted “crowds beyond any of our imaginings.”

Harry Hubbard of Seattle, the founding president of the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council, suggested Washington could see as many as 10 million visitors.

As it turns out, that was pie in the sky.

The Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration culminates in Washington this week, with several days of activities planned in the southwest corner of the state. The events celebrate the time and place where the exhausted explorers arrived at the Pacific Ocean, spent the winter and turned around to head home.

The celebration sounds like fun, but expectations about attendance have been radically revised.

Pacific County’s bitter November weather has set in, gas prices are high, kids are in school and all indications are that the occasion will be similar to others along the trail in the past 21/2 years.

Generally, they’ve drawn enthusiastic local residents and tourists who happened to be in the area anyway, but no grand rush. State tourism officials say about a million people will visit Washington in 2005, about the same as usual.

“I don’t want to make it sound as if nobody will show up,” said Una Boyle, executive director of the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors’ Bureau and a member of Pacific County Friends of Lewis and Clark for the past eight years.

“The appropriate way to put it would be, we’re expecting a robust crowd, but I just don’t think it will be an enormous number of people.”

Washington’s place in history

Building a buzz for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial took creative work by Washington tourism promoters and revisionist historians.

For most of the past two centuries, Oregon, not Washington, has been regarded as the more historically significant state.

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the 31 others in the expedition floated down the Columbia River, which separates the two states. They checked out the ocean and then headed south to Oregon, where they spent the winter at the hastily built Fort Clatsop near what is now Astoria.

Until a log replica of the fort burned last month in a bizarrely badly timed fire, Astoria had been the nexus of Lewis and Clark interest in the Northwest.

Washington boosters – notably David Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, and Rex Ziak, an amateur historian from the southwest Washington town of Naselle – went to great lengths to convince the world that the Oregon-centric view is misguided.

As the explorers made their way down the Columbia, they camped on the Washington side of the river more than the Oregon side, Nicandri and Ziak noted.

More important, it was in Washington, not Oregon, that the explorers first glimpsed the ocean, thereby completing the mission handed them by President Thomas Jefferson.

And then there was the matter of “The Vote.”

According to the explorers’ journals, the ragged band experienced Washington pinned down by high wind and tides in a little cove which Clark referred to as a “dismal nitch.”

The commanding officers put matters up to a general vote of all present: Where should they spend the winter? Should they stay in Washington, where they were cold and wet and members of the Chinook tribe were robbing them blind? Or should they head to Oregon where they’d be out of the weather and among the friendlier Clatsops?

Not surprisingly, the majority favored Oregon. More notable than the Washington snub, however, was the fact that a woman and a black man were allowed to vote for perhaps the first time in the New World.

Barbara Minard, collections manager at the Ilwaco Heritage Museum, agrees that the vote was significant. But she says the practice of co-opting Lewis and Clark for commercial reasons is as old as the expedition itself.

She’s managing a show at the Ilwaco museum called, “Don’t Bother Me With the Facts: Uses and Abuses of the Lewis & Clark Theme in Popular Culture.”

The exhibit includes more than 800 Lewis and Clark tchotchkes produced over the past two centuries, including liquor labels, candy bars, cast iron pans with images of Lewis and Clark on them, shot glasses, toys, spoons and key chains.

The number of people who have come to see the show has been underwhelming, according to museum director Nancey Olson.

“There may have been a slight increase,” she said. “It’s hard to tell.”

Olson suspects that a slight rise in visitation over the summer had as much to do with the cruise ships that have begun docking in Astoria.

Events attract locals

Plenty of people were expecting too much of the bicentennial, but Betsy Gabel says she was not among them.

Gabel runs the marketing section of the Washington state tourism office, where researchers study patterns and motives of tourists the way biologists analyze the migrating habits of wild animals.

No tourism marketing professionals have been surprised by the turnout for Lewis and Clark events, Gabel said.

The pattern fits perfectly with precedents set during other recent historical events, including the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail and dozens of statehood anniversaries. The sequence, she says, is simple: unreasonable expectation followed by sobering reality.

“We did a ton a research, and every tourism office in the country knew what was going to happen,” Gabel said. “We determined that visitation would follow normal travel patterns. No state was going to see a huge influx of visitors.”

The difficulty, she said, was convincing people outside the profession.

“What often happens is various public officials and agencies look at it, and because they’re not familiar with how things work they say, ‘It’s a great big event. Of course a thousand billion people are going to come.’”

The idea of “heritage tourism” is so outdated, Gabel said, industry professionals don’t even use the term anymore.

“The idea that someone is going to travel all across the country to see Lewis and Clark is not fitting with what we know of travel patterns.”

This week’s events in Pacific County will attract mostly local people, the research says, with a scattered few from adjacent states.

A greater misconception than the one about massive crowds, Gabel said, is that modest attendance indicates failure.

Washington’s $12 million investment in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial will yield long-lasting dividends, she said.

The last thing you want, she said, is for more people than you can handle to descend on you and then all leave, disappointed.

Pacific County, which is struggling from the collapse of the fishing and logging industries, will be a prime beneficiary, she said. The bicentennial has left it with a legacy of new historical markers, roadside attractions, interpretive centers and trails.

“The value is not a zillion people in one year that nobody could have handled anyway,” Gabel said. “The value is in the long term.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693


To learn more about these and other events, go to www.destinationthepacific.com/html/signature.html or www.historylab.org/LCB/findEvents.asp

Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future.

Today through Nov. 15, (Long Beach, Pacific County) and Nov. 19-22 (Seaside, Ore.)

Created and staffed by the National Park Service, this interactive exhibit travels the Lewis and Clark Trail in conjunction with the national bicentennial commemoration. It features a self-guided exhibit and a traveling auditorium called the Tent of Many Voices. Special presentations occur daily with music and dance performances or talks from local tribal representatives, historians, and National Park rangers.

“Destination: The Pacific,” opening ceremony

Friday, 10 a.m., Fort Stevens State Park, Hammond, Ore.

“Destination: The Pacific” is the only National Signature Event in this region sanctioned by the National Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Council. This ceremony will kick off five days of activities in Pacific County, Wash. and Clatsop County, Ore. There will be a pageant of tribal flags, an American Indian veterans’ honor dance, remarks by Govs. Christine Gregoire and Ted Kulongoski and joint participation by the Washington and Oregon National Guard.

Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition.

Friday through March 11, Portland

The Oregon Historical Society is the only museum on the West Coast to host what’s billed as the most comprehensive exhibit of Lewis and Clark Expedition artifacts, artwork and documents ever assembled. At least 125,000 visitors are expected over the course of the four-month display. Oregon Historical Society, 1200 S.W. Park Avenue. For more information, go to www.ohs.org.

“Ocian in View” Speaker Series

Friday through Nov. 14, Hilltop School Auditorium in Ilwaco, Pacific County, and various locations in Astoria, Ore.

These half-dozen programs cover topics including the vote at Station Camp; interpreting the expedition in relation to late-20th century interests; the similarities between arriving at the Pacific Ocean and landing on the moon; and the history of the Northwest Maritime Fur Trade. For more information, visit www.lewisandclarkwa.com/pages/ocian.html. Tickets are $10, with the exception of a few free events, and can be purchased by visiting www.DestinationThePacific.com.

Maritime fur trade re-enactment

Sunday, 9 a.m., Cape Disappointment State Park in Ilwaco

Historic dealings between the Chinook Nation and Euro-American sailors will be brought to life on a Lady Washington longboat and a Chinook canoe. Other upcoming events at the park include “Hiking Through History” (10 a.m., Nov. 15) featuring three re-enactors portraying members of the expedition; and a campsite re-enactment/campfire at Waikiki Beach (7 p.m., Nov. 18).

Maya Lin art dedication

Nov. 18, 10 a.m., Cape Disappointment State Park, Ilwaco

Architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., will place installations from her new Confluence Project at key points of the Columbia River Basin. This will be the first one to be completed and dedicated. For information about the sites in Oregon and Washington, contact the Confluence Project at 360-693-0123 or visit its Web site at www.confluenceproject.org.

Compiled by Matt Misterek, The News Tribune

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