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At bicentennial's midpoint, outsiders are starting to catch on

Halfway through the bicentennial of their monumental journey across the unknown West, America's famed Corps of Discovery is once again pushing into uncharted territory.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Halfway through the bicentennial of their monumental journey across the unknown West, America's famed Corps of Discovery is once again pushing into uncharted territory.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are going 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 starting to pay attention to the explorers.

And as states and businesses along the trail celebrate an influx of tourist dollars, they also are hoping the interest doesn't fizzle before the bicentennial wraps up in 2006.

"It's a wait-and-see kind of thing by then," said David Borlaug, a past president of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. "There's some concern of how long we can sustain ourselves, the momentum, from a major event standpoint."

To keep interest fresh, the bicentennial council is relying on a national advertising campaign supplemented by regional efforts to lure tourists to the trail.

People like Diane Norton, who sells officially licensed Lewis and Clark trinkets on the Internet, say the buzz is just beginning to spread.

"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," Norton said.

The bicentennial is focused on 15 national "signature" events in 13 states. Those 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.

The first events have proven fairly popular with travelers. When Nebraska's Corps of Discovery Festival at Fort Atkinson State Park ended last month, 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., 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.

They're also 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 its appeal. We're going to emphasize families and fun," Deitz said.

The centerpiece of national Lewis and Clark promotion is a series of public service announcements distributed by the Ad Council, a nonprofit group famous for campaigns that include the crime-fighting canine McGruff.

The Lewis and Clark spots, produced by New York ad agency Young & Rubicam, garnered more than $11 million in donated advertising space in the first quarter of this year, making them one of the Ad Council's top 10 campaigns.

The ads are aimed at a wide market: families with children under 18, a segment that makes up about 44 percent of American households, Young & Rubicam's Adam Ferguson said.

The campaign focuses on such social ideals such as 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 person on the expedition.

"It's a great story as a historical event, and it's got a lot of storytelling length," Ferguson said.

In states along the trail, officials are also hoping 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 also spent time in what is now North Dakota on the return trip.

Tourists already seem to be following them.

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.

Borlaug 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."

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 from Yankton, S.D., measures the public interest in the thousands of new visits her Web site registers each day.

A growing slice of those visitors is logging in from computers on the East Coast and in foreign countries _ and they're buying stuff.

Last year, sales for Norton's business jumped by more than 200 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."