VERSAILLES — Jerry Wilson first became interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition when he read Stephen Ambrose’s book “Undaunted Courage” and watched a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.
Those stories of first exploring the West in the early 1800s inspired the now retired 39-year South Ripley Elementary School teacher and his wife, Janice, also a longtime teacher there, to start taking trips on a good bit of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in 2002. They’ve gone “all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River” between Washington and Oregon.
“Much of it is being on the river itself in remote areas,” he reports. “Probably my favorite spot would be when we were able to drive up to Lemhi Pass, Montana,” with its mountainous views and difficult gravel road to the top.
The couple celebrated the trail’s bicentennial during 2004-06 by attending three events at Falls of the Ohio State Park, Clarksville; Omaha, Nebraska; and St. Louis.
Wilson’s fascination continued as he pored over the explorers’ 13 volumes of edited journals and a book of their letters.
The Wilsons were inspired to join the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. It was incorporated in 1969 to preserve the expedition story and support the trail, which is administered by the National Park Service.
In 2014 Jerry Wilson became one of four foundation members on the Lewis and Clark Eastern Legacy Committee. He explains, “I knew the other people involved and just became part of it.”
Their mission? To get the trail officially extended by 1,200 miles through Indiana and all the way east to Pittsburgh.
President Trump signed the Eastern Extension to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail into law March 12 as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation Management and Recreation Act, which contains more than 100 pieces of land and conservation legislation, according to a foundation news release.
The couple attended the expansion’s official designation ceremony by the National Park Service in Clarksville May 13. He recalls, “It was a big event. A lot of politicians were there, of course,” including Sen. Todd Young, U.S. Rep. Greg Pence (Sixth District) and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch. The trail superintendent, based in Omaha, Nebraska, said, “this was the most enthusiastic and the biggest crowd” of any event he’s attended.
For their five-year effort — longer than it took the explorers to get to the Pacific Ocean — the Lewis and Clark Eastern Legacy Committee received the foundation’s Meritorious Achievement Award at its 51st annual meeting in St. Louis Sept. 25.
According to Wilson, “It was halfway expected, but I was excited” to receive a plaque. The work they had done “was finally recognized.”
Wilson discussed how the committee persuaded lawmakers to lengthen the 3,700-mile Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail by 1,200 miles from Wood River, Illinois, on the Mississippi River, back to Pittsburgh, where Meriwether Lewis and his expedition members launched their newly-built keelboat on the Ohio River.
The committee does not meet regularly. “Most of the time we do emails, sometimes conference calls. Any time we can get together we do, but we live in different states: Jerry Wilson, Versailles; Phyllis Yeager, Floyds Knobs; chair Paige Cruz, Huntington, West Virginia; and Michael Loesch, Mason, Ohio.
The Versailles resident wrote an article about the proposed extension for the foundation newsletter and the committee contacted congressional members, mainly talking with their staffs. “We wrote a lot of letters.”
“A lot of print cartridges” went into the effort, Janice remembers.
Wilson participated in Hike the Hill, which was sponsored by the Partnership for the National Trails System Feb. 12-15, 2017. “I was pretty much a novice.” He met with staff members of then Sen. Joe Donnelly and U.S. Rep Luke Messer.
“Somehow Congressman Messer got the word we were there.” Wilson pointed out there were national historic or scenic trails in 49 of the 50 states. “The one state that did not have a national historic or scenic trail was Indiana. It was time.” Messer agreed and introduced a bill in the House, but then was defeated in the primary. “We couldn’t work through him anymore.” The committee turned to Sen. Young’s office and emphasized tourism. “Hopefully it’s going to bring people into the area ... which means people are going to be spending money in Indiana.”
Of the committee’s work, Wilson says, “I thought the most challenging part was just to make legislators aware of the situation. Once that was done ... they jumped on it.”
Senate Bill 47 was introduced by Young. “Again, unfortunately, it was at the end of the year and before the Senate could act on it, they recessed. But then it was brought up in 2019” as part of a larger act. The couple were glued to C-SPAN, which provides national government coverage, when the legislation was coming up for the vote. “We were happy” when it passed.
The news release noted, “The new trail addition opens the way for tourism, public education and economic benefits throughout the Ohio River Valley Basin.”
What’s next for the group? Wilson reports, “For the past several years, the committee has been trying to locate and designate places along the trail. Through a grant, we’ve obtained signs,” holding up one. They are being placed at various locations along the extended Eastern Legacy.
Now it’s up to the National Park Service to promote the longer trail. The foundation is considered a partner.
The Wilsons learned a lot during their years of exploring and working to extend the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. She observes, “It’s fun to travel, meet people.”
The parents of two (Joanna, New Orleans; and Joshua, Walton, Kentucky) also have volunteered for the Indiana, Ripley County and Versailles bicentennials; Ripley County Relay for Life; and Main Street Versailles. He is a Versailles Lions Club member and she belongs to the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The avid hikers say, “Travel was the thing we wanted to do when we retired.”
While there’s not going to be any new construction commemorating the trail in Indiana, Wilson reports the best spot already is there — Falls of the Ohio State Park.
What do Hoosiers need to know about the expedition in this state? Wilson read aloud page 117 of “Undaunted Courage.” On Oct. 4-5, 1804, Meriwether Lewis was by himself. He pushed his boat back into the Ohio River and headed west to the Falls of the Ohio. On Oct. 14 at the head of the falls with its long rapids he saw the 24-foot drop with dramatic limestone ledges on the river’s sides. The next day he hired locals to pilot the pirogues (flat-bottomed boats) and set off to meet his partner William Clark, who was living with his older brother, Gen. George Rogers Clark, in Clarksville.
“When they shook hands, the Lewis and Clark Expedition began.”