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August 23rd, 2006 Christian Gaston | News Stories
 

The Great White Hype

     
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Before the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration began, expectations soared in Oregon and elsewhere along the explorers' meandering 3,700-mile route.

In 2004, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton predicted that celebrations marking the two-year trek would draw 35 million to 40 million tourists to some part of the trail traversed from 1804 to 1806 by Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery. But in this age when Thomas Jefferson is as well known for being a randy slave owner as the president who sent Lewis and Clark trudging west, the 200-year-old story of dead white guys who persevered into Oregon hasn't really ignited imaginations.

Lewis and Clark event organizers don't have total numbers yet but say the bicentennial has turned out to be kind of a flop. They say it failed worst in mid-trail states like Montana and Idaho, but add that events in places such as the trail's end in Clatsop County, Ore., didn't exactly exceed expectations either.

Barbara Allen, who headed Oregon's official bicentennial outreach organization, offers a simple postmortem: Expectations were overblown.

"Forty million people are going to stop what they're doing and travel across the country from St. Louis to Oregon? Not going to happen!" she says.

As summer ends and the bicentennial celebration wraps up, here's how it played out in Oregon, a place Clark described in one journal entry as having a "repeated fall of rain which has fallen almost constantly...."

At Fort Clatsop in Astoria:

Probably the most successful local bicentennial story began last October, when fire destroyed the replica of the fort at which the Lewis and Clark expedition wintered. Promoters had hoped the fort five miles outside Astoria would be a focal point.

Realizing that a smoldering heap of timber wouldn't prove too popular, Park Superintendent Chip Jenkins, his staff, and volunteers improvised a solution: Visitors would see re-enactments of the first nights at the site in 1805, before the fort's construction.

The bottom line: Jenkins had expected an attendance of 250,000 during the bicentennial; the damaged fort managed to get 275,000 over the past year. The secret, Jenkins says, between sites that did well and those that didn't: "For those people who were oriented toward selling collectible spoons to the natives, the bicentennial was not as successful as they wanted. For those that were oriented toward using the bicentennial to leave a lasting legacy for the next generation, they were very successful."

On the air:

Oregon Public Broadcasting joined with Lewis & Clark College to tap bicentennial "fever" by producing a 13-hour radio documentary this year called Unfinished Journey: The Lewis and Clark Expedition. OPB producer Morgan Holm called the program a modest success, picked up by 100 public radio stations nationwide. (In comparison, OPB's hourlong documentary in 2005 about York, Clark's slave and the 33-member expedition's sole black man, was picked up by 200 stations.)

At the Oregon Historical Society:

The museum hosted a November 2005 to March 2006 traveling show of Lewis and Clark tools and documents, for which it forecast 150,000 visitors. But only 65,000 people showed for the four-month event. (In comparison, the September 2003 showing of a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence brought 26,000 people in 10 days.) Society spokesman Ken DuBois couldn't explain the numbers other than to say some people may have put off visiting until it was too late.

At Lewis & Clark College:

And if you're wondering about Portland's eponymous school of higher learning, enrollment applications have risen an average of 10 percent annually over the last two years, only a slight uptick from the prior two years.

Conclusion:

History buffs will still travel far and wide for a glimpse of Lewis and Clark's footprints. The rest of us? We're content with the view from the back of specially minted nickels (see above).


WHILE THE U.S. MINT RELEASED these nickels to commemorate Lewis and Clark, the flow of tourist dollars for the bicentennial never met expectations.
 
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