Lewis and Clark Expedition Boosts North Dakota's Image

 

It's long been considered the least-visited state in the nation. Its image as frigid, bleak and barren has been so hard to shake that business leaders keep lobbying the Legislature to change the state name to "Dakota."

North Dakotans, who graciously put up with being the butt of jokes for neighboring states, are the first to admit that their state is in dire need of an image makeover.

That's why their state leaders have been among the most aggressive to capitalize on a national frenzy of interest being generated by the 200th anniversary of U.S. Army Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's legendary expedition into the unknown West.

"It isn't that North Dakota's unattractive. It's just that nobody thought about us before this," said Annette Schilling, Lewis and Clark coordinator for the state Division of Tourism. "I firmly believe the bicentennial has already changed that and we are no longer the least-visited state."

Like the 15 other states that Lewis and Clark passed through on their trek to find a water passage via the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, North Dakota has spent millions of dollars promoting and preparing for the onslaught of tourists it hopes to attract during the three-year bicentennial of the expedition.

Although it's too soon to tally Lewis and Clark travelers, the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, based in St. Louis, Mo., estimates up to 30 million Americans will drive, paddle boats, bicycle and even walk parts of the expedition's trail, participating in hundreds of local and national events commemorating the anniversary.

The bicentennial kicked off January 2003 in Charlottesville, Va., where President Thomas Jefferson dreamt up the trip at his home, Monticello. March 2004 marked the anniversary of the launch of the expedition's 8,000-mile journey, which started in St. Louis, Mo., and followed the Missouri River to North Dakota, where the expedition spent the winter of 1804. After crossing the Rocky Mountains the following year, the expedition reached the Pacific Ocean, then returned to St. Louis in the fall of 1806.

Today, until reaching the open plains of Nebraska and the Dakotas, driving the Lewis and Clark trail from St. Louis, Mo., to Omaha, Neb., means traveling four-lane interstates sometimes through suburban blight, passing numerous super-sized casinos, firecracker stands and adult entertainment emporiums.

But from the Dakotas over the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, much of the expedition's route along the Missouri River and over the Continental Divide still passes through pristine prairies, rugged badlands and jagged mountains.

This unspoiled stretch of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the most remote and untouched, is expected to draw the largest numbers of tourists who wish to see the West as Lewis and Clark did 200 years ago.

While Montana is famous for the Rocky Mountains and South Dakota for Mount Rushmore, North Dakota has had to live down its description by the late CBS news announcer and native son Eric Severeid as "a large rectangular blank spot in the nation's mind." For once, long-overlooked North Dakota hopes to become a prime destination for thousands of history buffs and tourists who will visit the state where Lewis and Clark spent one-quarter of their journey.

In carrying out President Jefferson's instructions to find "the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent," the expedition, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, ascended the Missouri River May 14, 1804, near St. Louis, Mo.

After a grueling, five-month journey dragging, sailing and poling a 55-foot keelboat and two wooden rowboats called pirogues 1,000 miles against the Missouri's current, the Army officers and their 31 enlisted men plus crew decided to spend their first winter 146 days -- with the friendly Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Indian tribes near present-day Bismarck, N.D.

Crossing North Dakota today on Interstate 94, billboards jokingly advertise that "Lewis and Clark slept here (146 times)" and invite travelers to visit the state's newly renovated, multi-million-dollar Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and a full-size replica of Fort Mandan, the Corps' winter lodgings.

"This will be the focal point of tourism in North Dakota," said David Borlaug, director of the Interpretive Center and president of the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Foundation.

The bicentennial has generated global attention for North Dakota, Borlaug said, with 44,000 visitors in 2003 from all 50 states and more than 50 foreign countries.

North Dakota state Rep. David Drovdal hopes to see even greater numbers in 2004.

"We want (tourists) to know that Lewis and Clark stayed here more than any other state," Drovdal said.

Drovdal, a Republican from Arnegard, N.D., helped pass a controversial 1 percent lodging tax last year to raise $2.9 million - more than doubling the state's average tourism budget - to spend on commercials, billboards and other advertisements to promote the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.

Passed by one vote, North Dakota's first-ever lodging tax was one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in 2003, Rep. Arlo Schmidt of Maddock, N.D., said.

"We hate to raise taxes, but in this case I thought it was real necessary that the state do all it could to capitalize on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial year," said Schmidt, a semi-retired auctioneer and Democrat.

Coordinated with the bicentennial campaign, North Dakota's department of tourism launched a new state brand name two years ago: "North Dakota Legendary." The state invested more than $775,000 to give the state an image face-lift, promoting North Dakota as a land filled with Western legends such as Gen. George Custer, President Theodore Roosevelt, and of course, Lewis and Clark.

The state estimates that tourism revenues have increased 14 percent in the past five years despite the lagging economy and flat tourism industry nationally, generating $3 billion last year and edging out energy to become the second largest industry in the state. (Agriculture remains the No. 1 industry.)

A recent study commissioned by the state tourism office estimated that every dollar invested in promoting North Dakota has generated $83 in tourism revenue, a major boon for the state, Tourism Division Director Sara Otte Coleman said.

"It shows our legendary message is certainly motivating people to come to North Dakota," Coleman said. "Once people come and visit us, we always exceed their expectations."

American Indians, on whom the Corps depended for survival during much of its expedition, are taking part in many of the events, although they strongly oppose the word "celebration" for the bicentennial, noting that the arrival of white explorers not only brought smallpox but marked the beginning of the end of their way of life.

"Native America is truly justified in feeling resentful in everything we've been through in the last 200 years," said Amy Mossett, tourism director for the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa) in New Town, N.D., and national coordinator for tribal involvement with the National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.

The bicentennial has been an economic boon for Native Americans, whose traditional art forms, crafts and music can provide the "authentic experience" that many tourists are looking for, said Mossett, who is a national expert on Sacagawea, the teenage Native American mother who joined the expedition in North Dakota and acted as a guide and interpreter.

Besides selling pottery, basketry, quill and bead work, the Three Affiliated Tribes have contracted with the U.S. Mint to make 15,000 traditionally crafted and tanned leather pouches to hold commemorativeLewis and Clark Westward Journey Nickels. The nickels, the first new design to be minted in 66 years, feature a rendition of the Jefferson Peace Medal, which was given to Native American chiefs by Lewis.

Dave Hinze, a professional historian and tour guide for the American History Education Association, recently finished conducting his first Lewis and Clark bicentennial tour at North Dakota's new Interpretive Center, located about 40 miles north of Bismarck in Washburn, N.D.

After taking 30 people on a two-week bus tour of the Lewis and Clark trail from Missouri to North Dakota, Hinze said that North Dakota has out-done other states in making the trail accessible to the average tourist.

"North Dakota has really gone to great lengths to prepare for the onslaught of tourists who will be following the trail for years to come," said Hinze, who has been researching and exploring the Lewis and Clark trail for about five years. 

 
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