The nearing bicentennial of the historical journey has tourists stopping at sites.
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Midway through the bicentennial of its monumental journey across the unknown West, America's famed Corps of Discovery is once again pushing into uncharted territory.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark have gone mainstream, after decades as the darlings of educators and history buffs. Whether measured in attendance at parks and commemorative events or sales of theme merchandise, the numbers say people from all over the world are paying attention.
As states and businesses along the trail celebrate an influx of tourist dollars, they also hope interest doesn't fizzle before the bicentennial wraps up in 2006.
"The historians know about it, and the teachers know about it. But now other people are picking up on it, and that's going to sustain," said Diane Norton, who sells officially licensed Lewis and Clark trinkets on the Internet.
The bicentennial has been anchored by 15 national "signature" events in 13 states, commemorating the corps' journey, their discoveries and their interactions with various tribes. The signature events are sanctioned by the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, a St. Louis-based nonprofit group chosen by Congress to organize events nationwide.
This year's signature events take place June 1 to July 4 in Great Falls, Mont., and Nov. 11 to 15 in Washington and Oregon. Four more signature events are scheduled for 2006. But other non-signature Lewis and Clark programs also are being held around the country, such as a reenactment of the corps' departure from Fort Mandan, N.D., scheduled for April 6 to 9.
Earlier events have proved fairly popular with travelers. When Nebraska's Corps of Discovery Festival at Fort Atkinson State Park ended last summer, even organizers were surprised that an estimated 65,000 people turned out.
Jeff Deitz, chairman of the Yellowstone County Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission in Billings, Mont., said he hopes the expedition's return journey doesn't get short shrift.
"A lot of scholars remark about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and consider it over once they reached the Pacific," Deitz said. "That's not true. A lot of significant discoveries occurred on the return journey."
Deitz and others planning Montana's second "signature" event in late July 2006 are working with return-trip sites in Idaho and North Dakota to funnel revelers to each other along the trail home.
Also, they're trying to broaden the appeal beyond die-hard Lewis and Clark enthusiasts by tying the event in with other well-established tourist attractions, such as the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.
"We feel that by the time they've gotten to us, the scholarly approach has probably lost some of its appeal. We're going to emphasize families and fun," Deitz said.
The Lewis and Clark commemoration also is being promoted in a series of public service advertisements distributed by the Ad Council, a nonprofit group famous for campaigns that include the crime-fighting canine McGruff.
The campaign focuses on social ideals like cultural diversity, teamwork and environmental stewardship. Personalities of the expedition also are featured, including Sacagawea (Sakakawea in North Dakota), the woman known as the expedition's American Indian guide, and Clark's personal slave York, the only black member of the expedition.
In states along the trail, officials also say they hope the national exposure will generate lasting interest in places not normally considered vacation hot spots.
North Dakota is considered one of the most enthusiastic of this group. Officials are counting on the bicentennial to boost tourism in the state once described by news commentator and native son Eric Sevareid as "a large, rectangular blank spot in the nation's mind."
Lewis and Clark spent their first winter in an area near present-day Washburn, on the east bank of the Missouri River, and in what is now North Dakota on the return trip.
Tourists already seem to be following them.
David Borlaug, who oversees the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, sees a steady stream of visitors from across the country and around the world.
While most historical attractions rarely top the attendance logged in their first year, Fort Mandan's 44,000 visitors in 2003 doubled its opening-year mark. In 2004, it attracted nearly 50,000.
Borlaug said he thinks the Lewis and Clark bicentennial already has fundamentally changed North Dakota's reputation with travelers.
"Our whole tourism strategy has been just to slow people down on the way to somewhere else. We're a speed bump on the way to Montana," he said. "What has changed now, because of Lewis and Clark, is we are a destination."
Lewis and Clark overload
As the onslaught of marketing continues, residents of bicentennial states can be forgiven a certain amount of Lewis and Clark fatigue.
"We're kind of all tired of hearing about it around here," said Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota's tourism director. "But what we have to realize is that the national research ... shows that still, we haven't reached the consciousness of most of America yet."
Norton, who runs her business selling Lewis and Clark trinkets from Yankton, S.D., measures the public interest by the many new hits her Web site gets each day.
Some of those visitors are logging in from the East Coast and foreign countries -- and they're buying stuff.
Last year, sales for Norton's business increased 46 percent, putting a rush on suppliers to crank out more Lewis-and-Clark-themed candles, hiking sticks, Christmas ornaments and chrome license-plate frames.
She doesn't expect the growth to end anytime soon.
"I think it's just beginning," she said.
"We're not even close to the point of saturation."
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