“He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes — he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them.”
— Stephen E. Ambrose, writing of Capt. Meriwether Lewis in Undaunted Courage, 1996
About 150 miles of the 225-mile-long Katy Trail State Park track the Missouri River, the waterway used by Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery to explore the vast land west of the Mississippi River acquired from France in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.
When Lewis and Clark stopped at a place called La Charette on May 25, 1804, only 12 days into their westward journey from the mouth of the Missouri, the village of seven French families was the last white settlement that the members of the Corps of Discovery would see until they stopped again on their way back from the Pacific Coast on Sept. 20, 1806.
“The people at this Village is pore, houses Small, they Sent us milk and eggs to eat,” Clark wrote of La Charette on May 25, 1804, on the Corps of Discovery’s outbound trip. On their return, the sight of cows along the river bank at La Charette prompted the men to raise a shout of joy and spring to their oars, Clark wrote, because they knew they were back in home territory.
At the time, La Charette was at the western edge of the frontier. From there westward, the journey of Lewis and Clark was like a trip to the far side of the moon — terra incognita to Americans in the 17 states east of the Mississippi in 1804. The westernmost state at the time was Ohio, admitted to the Union on March 1, 1803.
The Katy Trail, which I rode with a cycling friend from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, crosses La Charette Creek near where the village once stood. The Missouri River washed away La Charette in 1841, 24 years after the nearby town of Marthasville had been founded on higher ground by Dr. John Young, who named it for his wife.
The story of the epic journey of Lewis and Clark is well told along the Katy Trail with informational signs, maps and graphics, from Boonville, Mo., where the trail joins the Missouri River, to St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis that is the trail’s eastern terminus.
Snippets of later history can also be read at every trailhead, beginning at Clinton, Mo., the trail’s western terminus that calls itself the “baby chick capital of the world.”
A trailhead sign in Green Ridge, Mo., for example, proclaims that it was the birthplace in 1889 of silent movie actress Pearl White. She, her parents and four siblings lived on a farm at Green Ridge and moved to Springfield, Mo., when Pearl was about 10.
“She went on to act in Hollywood serials, including the 20-episode Perils of Pauline, in which White, as Pauline, fended off a villain trying to kill her for her inheritance,” the sign says. “She was famously dangled from a cliff (the word ‘cliffhanger’ came from this kind of dramatic close to an episode) and tied to a railroad track before an oncoming train.”
Pearl would have been familiar with railroad tracks as a young girl; the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (MKT) passed through Green Ridge. And it’s from that railway that the Katy Trail takes its name. The state of Missouri began purchasing the right-of-way of the MKT when the railway ceased operations in 1986 and turned it into the longest and narrowest state park in the nation — 225 miles long and about 100 feet wide.
Dean Wisleder, a cycling friend from Springfield, Ill., rode the Katy Trail from St. Charles to Clinton, Mo., where he met me on Aug. 28. The next day, we set out together to ride the trail back to St. Charles, with overnight stops in Pilot Grove, Hartsburg, Hermann and Defiance. At St. Charles, Dean squeezed his recumbent trike into his Prius and headed back to Springfield. I rode another 36 miles or so — for a total of 273 miles — through the flat farmland of St. Charles County, crossed the Mississippi River on the Clark Bridge and rode into my hometown, Alton, Ill., for a reunion of the Marquette High School Class of 1960 over Labor Day weekend.
At our ages, we, too, were old enough to be part of the history of the region. But Lewis and Clark were before our time.