On Aug. 31, 1803, an expedition set sail down the Monongahela River and eventually explored the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made their mark in history and in the expansion of the young nation westward. They also helped put Elizabeth on the map.
In the spring of 1803, Lewis made a contract with shipbuilder John Walker of Elizabeth to build a keelboat for the journey. Despite numerous delays, the boat was ready for the journey.
In recognition of Walker and Lewis & Clark, the seventh annual John Walker Dinner is Thursday at 6 p.m. in Rockwell’s Red Lion restaurant in Elizabeth. Folks will have a chance to “meet” Major John Walker, who not only had a reputation as a boat builder, but he also operated a ferry and owned a tavern. During the dinner Corps of Discovery re-enactor Ed Falvo will discuss “Boats of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.”
Cost for the dinner is $20. Reservations are required and can be made by calling the restaurant at 412-384-3909.
After dinner, folks can mosey outside to Plum Street and listen to the New Freedom Band from 6:30-9 p.m.
The dinner kicks off the third annual Lewis & Clark Gateway Festival Friday from 6-9 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 9 p.m. along Plum Street in Elizabeth. The event is sponsored by the Monongahela River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.
Following is a schedule of activities for each day:
Friday River Conditions Then & Now by John McNulty, 6 p.m.; High Rider Band, 6:30-9 p.m.; “Some Significant Surveying Sites in Six States” by Lorna Hainesworth, 6:30 p.m.; learn fire starting like Lewis & Clark did with John McNulty, 7:15; “The Boats of the Expedition” with Richard Prestholdt in the Grand Theatre, 7:30; and “Medicine of the Lewis & Clark Expedition” with Ed Falvo, 8.
Saturday Noon, displays and demonstrations begin with “Manual of Arms” with wooden rifles for children; flag raising ceremony along Water Street at Riverfront Park, 12:30 p.m.; visit with re-enactors, 1-3 p.m.; “Medicine on the Lewis & Clark Expedition” with Ed Falvo, 3 p.m.; presentation by the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors, 3:30 p.m.; Native American presentation of singing, dancing, artifacts and demonstratins by the Pittsburgh American Indian Center, Grand Theatre, 4 p.m.; “River Conditions Then and Now” with John McNulty, 5 p.m.; Music of the Trail with Ed, John and Friends, 5:30 p.m.; “Medicine of the Lewis & Clark Expedition” with Ed Falvo, 6 p.m.; flag lowering ceremony, 6:30 p.m.; learn fire starting like Lewis & Clark with John McNulty, 7:15 p.m.; sing-along with the re-enactors around a campfire, 8 p.m.
Richard Prestholdt, the official photographer of the Corps of Discovery, will display his photographs both days.
Also, the Elizabeth Township Historical Society will sell funnel cakes as a fund-raiser for the log cabin project.
“When we did the ‘Manual of Arms’ last year, the little kids really seemed to enjoy it. So we’re doing it again this year,” Falvo said. “We also include them in the flag raising ceremony, having them march with us up to the park. It’s really nice to get the kids involved.”
Referring to his presentation about medicine during the Lewis & Clark era, Falvo said that, through a grant, the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation was able to acquire a replica of the medical kit they would have had on their expedition.
“The kit has all the medicines and tools that were used in that time period and some of the tools are actually pre-1800s,” Falvo said. “I’ve presented the medical side of the expedition around the country for National Park Services, and the Foundation thought it would be nice to be able to have the medical kit for presentations around here.”
While the westward journey is well documented, there remains uncertainty in some circles about where the keelboat actually was made Elizabeth or Pittsburgh. Falvo has newspaper articles that reference Walker’s shipbuilding business and his role in making the vessel.
One of those documents is in the Directory of the Monongahela and Youghiogheny Valleys 1859.
“It was the earliest city directory and in the section about Elizabeth it states the keelboat was built in Elizabeth by John Walker,” Falvo said.
Other references are in articles published in the Elizabeth Herald.
“In an article July 8, 1876, it talks about the research done by C.H. Norfolk of Elizabeth and how his work was respected,” Falvo said. “A week later, on July 15, 1876, he writes about two keelboats built in Elizabeth by John Walker for the expedition. In a special boat building edition of that paper in 1900, a descendent of John Walker talked about his shipbuilding.”
He cited another reference where folks in St. Louis, one of the places Lewis stopped on the journey, knew about John Walker and his shipbuilding skills.
“The only way anyone in St. Louis would know about him was if Lewis told them,” Falvo pointed out.
Martha Bradley of the Monongahela River Chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation said, “When you have everything down in black and white, it’s frustrating that people refuse to say John Walker of Elizabeth is who built the keelboat. Elizabeth is a small town don’t take that away from us.”