Backpacking 1803: Explore like Lewis and Clark

A new toaster museum, a new Waltons museum– whoa, can the area stand any more Americana?
Actually, the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center promises to be the biggest museum of them all. With the approaching bicentennial of that duo’s exploration of America, William Clark and Charlottesville native son Meriwether Lewis are hot historical figures.
Former Charlottesville mayor Kay Slaughter, who’s spearheading the project, became interested in the explorers after reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage.
“I always thought it was something that happened out west,” says Slaughter. “I’d overlooked the significance of its starting in Virginia and its Virginia roots. I thought, we ought to be celebrating that in Charlottesville.”
Plans for the museum are well under way, including a detailed website at lewisandclarkeast.org. Organizers haven’t settled on a final fundraising target, but $15 million was one number tossed out early on.
The exploratory center will feature indoor and outdoor displays– “do not touch” signs are incompatible with its hands-on philosophy. Visitors who think transcontinental travel is challenging now can see what it was like to mount such a major expedition when the main form of travel was keelboats and there were no weather-rated sleeping bags.
 The group is working to acquire a site that has some tie-in with Lewis pal William Clark. Out on Route 20 near Darden Towe Park is Buena Vista, the birthplace of the brother with whom he is often confused, George Rogers Clark, the “Conqueror of the Northwest.” (William was born in Caroline County.) In fact, part of the museum could be on park property, part on Buena Vista, which for six years in the ‘70s was home to the George Rogers Clark Museum.
George, the older brother, could have been the “Clark” in the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he was broken physically and financially after an earlier expedition to Ohio. His conquering of a British fort led to an impressive statue in Louisville, Kentucky, but also, ultimately, to his being overshadowed in history by younger brother William.
Slaughter says 2004 is the target to start building what she believes will be a 30,000-square-foot facility, and she hopes to have a UVA architecture class work on a design this year.
She’s not worried about stiff competition for visitors from the Toaster Museum or the new Waltons/Nelson County museum.
“This is such a different concept,” Slaughter explains. “The idea is very interactive. It’s not going to be an artifact museum like old toasters.”
Indeed, many artifacts from the famous trip were sold off and dispersed across the country at an 1806 auction; Harvard holds the largest known collection of remaining Lewis and Clark items in its Peabody Collection.
Over at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau, director Mark Shore doesn’t think you can ever have too many museums. “As we promote the area as a destination," Shore says, "people are often surprised there’s more here than Monticello."
Back in 1993, City Councilors were hoping and praying that a steam train would provide the magical third attraction– after Monticello and UVA– that would give visitors a reason to spend the night (and more money).
And of course the area’s leading tourist attraction will provide a perfect tie-in with the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center. Foresees Slaughter, “People can go to Monticello, see the Lewis and Clark exhibit in the hall, and then they can go to the Lewis and Clark Center.”
And then go to sleep.