A fleet of boats from the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles that are replicas of those used by the expedition will be featured in the production of “Lewis and Clark” which is set to begin filming this summer.
The nonprofit historical re-enactors group will let HBO use its handcrafted 55-foot-long keelboat and two smaller sailing pirogues for the miniseries. Much of the outdoor filming is expected to occur on rivers near Calgary, with interior filming in Atlanta, Georgia.
The keelboat and two pirogues are normally on display at the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center, a museum along the Missouri River at 1050 South Riverside Drive in St. Charles.
The six-hour miniseries is based on the book “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose that follows the journey of the Corps of Discovery and captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark that began in 1804.
St. Charles was the jumping off point for the expedition that took Lewis and Clark up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast and back again.
The executive producers of the series include a number of Hollywood luminaries including Tom Hanks, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Casey Affleck will portray Lewis and Matthias Schoenaerts will play Clark.
Jan Donelson, chairman of the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, said the group had been aware that HBO was interested in doing the miniseries and that specialists from the series had inspected the boats.
“They were highly impressed,” Donelson said. “There is nothing out there like them.”
The boats have had their own journey of a kind. They were the brainchild of the late Glen Bishop, the organization’s founder, who based their design on drawings by Clark, which were supplied by the Smithsonian.
In 1996, Bishop and a dozen re-enactors departed from St. Charles on a trip to St. Joseph, Missouri, to recreate the first seven weeks of the Corps of Discovery expedition. During that time, the boat was filmed for the PBS documentary “Lewis & Clark: The Journey of Discovery,” co-produced by Ken Burns and stories about it appeared on National Public Radio and ABC Nightly News. On Jan. 27, 1996, the group was honored by the Missouri Division of Tourism. Four days later, the boat was destroyed in a warehouse fire. Only the mast and rudder could be salvaged.
Bishop, a retired contractor, had almost single-handedly financed and built the keelboat over a decade. However, donations and volunteers stepped in and the boat was quickly rebuilt in 1997, followed by the two pirogues.
Since then, the boats have been a frequent sight on the Missouri River and other rivers. During the 2003-2006 Bicentennial reenactment from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, to the Pacific Ocean and back to St. Louis, they traveled every river mile of the original expedition.
Donelson said the boats have been temporarily moved from Lewis & Clark Boat House and Nature Center for repairs and work; however, they should be back at the museum around April 1.
HBO is expected to have the boats from May 18 to Dec. 18 for filming and will be doing some work to “age” the boats soon, Donelson said.
While the group is being compensated for use of the boats, Donelson would not discuss the details of that arrangement.
The group also will have a presence during filming.
“We have technical advisors, people who are well-versed in our boats, and they will be watching how the boats are handled and consulting on how those boats should be handled,” Donelson said.
From their own trips, organization volunteers, share a sense of what it was like to travel up the Missouri River in the early 1800s. Expedition members were tough – for example, they had to physically pull or move boats upstream, often barefoot on rocky stream bottoms because their moccasins or shoes couldn’t stand up to being constantly wet. “They were real men,” Donelson said. “They dealt with the rigors of the wilderness and we camped out as well.” But, he said, the group trips cannot completely recapture the first voyage. The river has changed due to dams and being channelized for barges.
“We were dealing with venues of people, tours, students and town events all the way up and down the river,” Donelson said.
The expedition still is remarkable in other ways. It was a military expedition and commercial enterprise as well as a voyage of discovery, Donelson said.
The keelboat not only hauled supplies but trade goods for cultivating the Indian nations, to try to lure them away from the Hudson Bay and Northwest Fur companies involved with the fur trade. President Thomas Jefferson also wanted to discover a Northwest Passage across the continent – one that did not exist.
The expedition closely followed the Louisiana Purchase, and there was curiosity about the land the United States had bought from France. Maps that existed were blank.
“They didn’t know what was out there,” Donelson said. “They had no clue, they had nothing written, it was all word of mouth from Indians.”
The expedition crossed the Rockies and the Continental Divide to the Pacific coast, laying the groundwork for claiming much of the Pacific Northwest, Donelson said.
He said the group and the museum try to share this story with visitors from all 50 states and 44 countries and with local schools. Its members also provide a glimpse into that society.
“You had the aristocracy – the captains. You had the enlisted man – the everyday noncom (non-commissioned officers). You had the long hunters. You had the interpreters. You had the French laborers. You had a slave. You had an Indian woman with a baby,” Donelson said. “It was a total cross-section of the culture of that time; it was just an amazing sort of journey.”