Historical Markers
Pittsburgh [Lewis and Clark] Historical Marker
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Pittsburgh [Lewis and Clark]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Pa 60 at Thornburg

Dedication Date:
December 18, 1946

Behind the Marker

East met West at Pittsburgh in 1803. Indeed, the frontier town's location at the confluence of three rivers west of the Allegheny Mountains won Pittsburgh the first, unofficial title as "Gateway to the American West." Philadelphia was separated from the nation's interior by the Allegheny and Appalachian mountain ranges, which could only be crossed by muddy, rocky, and rutted coach roads. From Pittsburgh the whole of the new American West was accessible by boats moving down the Ohio River. Here was the logical starting point for the expedition that markerMeriwether Lewis would lead into the American west.

Pittsburgh watercolor 1817
"View of the City of Pittsburgh in 1817"
In 1803 Pittsburgh was a booming port town of some 2,400 people, nearly 2,000 more than had been recorded in the first national census of 1790. The town supported two glassworks, a glass factory, a paper mill, powder, iron, and saltworks, lumber and flour mills, a brewery, and eight boatyards that comprised its third largest industry. Coal from Pittsburgh - sent down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico - arrived regularly at the port of Philadelphia.

Lewis knew Pittsburgh well. After volunteering for military service in 1794 he had spent five years on the Pennsylvania and Ohio frontier. There Lewis had acquired the military and diplomatic experience that made him an especially appealing choice when Thomas Jefferson was considering who might lead the Expedition across the American continent. In fact, Lewis was stationed in Pittsburgh when President-elect Jefferson in 1801 had asked him to become his secretary. There, too, he had served with Moses Hooke, now commander of markerFort Fayette. Lewis had been so impressed by Hooke that he planned to invite him to help lead the expedition should William Clark not be able to go.

When Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh on July 15 he intended to stay for only a few days. Instead he ended up staying for six long, frustrating weeks.

Painting by Robert Griffing of Lewis and Clark's keelboat being loaded for the expedition.
Lewis and Clark's keelboat being loaded for the expedition, by Robert Griffing....
Before coming to Pittsburgh, Lewis had commissioned construction of a 55-foot long, 8-foot wide keelboat - perhaps through Hooke - that would carry the expedition and its supplies up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Lewis had designed the boat himself, with a spacious cabin on the back, twenty-two oars, a square-rigged sail on a detachable thirty-two foot mast, a hold capable of carrying twelve tons of provisions, trade goods, and scientific equipment, and gun mounts for defense. Unfortunately, the boatbuilder - who had promised to deliver the keelboat by July 20th - marker "according to his usual custom" got drunk, and drove off his workmen. Every day Lewis would go to the shipyard to check on the progress of his keelboat, "endeavor by every means in [his] power to hasten completion of the work," and watch the river's waters sink lower and lower.

Forced to wait, Lewis anxiously planned his departure, rechecking inventory and repacking wagonloads of supplies that arrived from Harpers Ferry and Philadelphia. When the third and final wagon arrived from Harpers Ferry on July 22nd, Lewis began recruiting the first eleven volunteers for the early stages of the Expedition. Eleven men, Lewis reasoned, were enough to navigate the vessels and supplies downriver to Louisville, Kentucky, where he would join up with William Clark and his team of volunteers.

As the weeks passed, Lewis could only watch as an extended drought dropped the river to a record low level. If the river continued to drop, there would not be enough water to navigate the fully loaded keelboat. To spread out the weight of the supplies, Lewis purchased one or two pirogues, (shallow, flat-bottom boats pronounced pee-rowgs). Lewis then reduced the weight even more by packing some supplies in a wagon headed for Wheeling, West Virginia, further downstream on the Ohio River.

Lewis never identified his boat builder by name and no one knows exactly where the keelboat was constructed. Citizens of Elizabeth, a small town twenty-two miles up the Monongahela from Pittsburgh would later claim that the keelboat was built there. (It is possible that one or both of the pirogues that Lewis departed with from Pittsburgh was built there.) More likely the builder was William Greenough's boatyard near the present-day Liberty Bridge in Pittsburgh. It is also possible that the keelboat was built at Fort Fayette.

Finally, on the morning of August 31st, Lewis and his eleven volunteers stood on the riverbank and watched as the final planks of the keelboat were nailed into place. Lewis" team then quickly packed the keelboat and launched it. The first leg of their journey toward the Mississippi had finally begun. During the 981-mile, two-and-a-half month journey down the Ohio, Lewis joined Clark and his recruits at Louisville, Kentucky. Together for the first time, the Corps of Discovery then headed for the Mississippi River and their epic 8,000-mile expedition.
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