Anyone who’s ever worked with a building contractor knows that projects don’t always go smoothly. Meriwether Lewis found that out the hard way in the spring and summer of 1803, when he was making preparations to embark down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to join up with Clark. For Lewis’s primary means of transportation, the U.S. government had contracted with a boat-builder to build a large keelboat, capable of carrying the 30 tons of supplies and equipment the Corps of Discovery would need for their cross-continental journey. There was only one problem. The contractor wouldn’t finish the job.
Lewis arrived in Pittsburgh in mid-July 1803, having spent months training in scientific methods, procuring arms and equipment, and boning up on everything known about western geography and native peoples. He wrote to Jefferson immediately to let him know he would soon be making final preparations to embark down the Ohio River. On Lewis’s mind was the water level in the Ohio, which was unusually low due to lack of spring rains. “I have not yet seen Lieut. Hook nor made the enquiry relative to my boat, on the state of which, the time of my departure from hence must materially depend,” he wrote to Jefferson on July 15th. “The Ohio is quite low, but not so much so as to obstruct my passage altogether.”
As it turned out, the water level was the least of Lewis’s problems. He had expected the boat to be ready to load within a week, but it was far from finished. On July 22, Lewis wrote to Jefferson again:
The person who contracted to build my boat engaged to have it in readiness by the 20th inst. [July 20th]; in this however he has failed; he pleads his having been disappointed in procuring timber, but says he has now supplyed himself with the necessary materials, and that she shall be completed by the last of this month, however in this I am by no means sanguine, nor do I believe from the progress he makes that she will be ready before the 5th of August; I visit him every day, and endeavor by every means in my power to hasten the completion of the work; I have prevailed on him to engage more hands, and he tells me that two others will join him in the morning, if so, he may probably finish the boat by the time he mentioned: I shall embark immediately the boat is in readiness, there being no other consideration at the moment which detains me.
He added hopefully: “The current of the Ohio is extreemely low and continues to decline, this may impede my progress but shall not prevent me from proceeding.”
The identity of this recalcitrant boat builder has, unfortunately, been lost to history. According to the Discovering Lewis and Clark website, historians of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania insist that Lewis’s boat was built there at the boatyard of Captain John Walker, but stronger evidence suggests that it was built at William Greenough’s boatyard in Pittsburgh. It is not known how much the U.S. government paid for the keelboat, though an early estimate of Lewis’s expenses – that optimistically pegged the estimated cost of outfitting the expedition at a mere $2500 – lists “Means of Transportation” at $430. It is possible that this sum could have represented the cost of the keelboat.
Regardless of who the boat builder was and how much he was paid, he was in no hurry to finish the work. On August 3rd, Lewis wrote to Clark to give him an update on when he would arrive in Louisville. “The articles of every discription forming my outfit for this expedition have arrived in good order; my boat only detains me, she is not yet compleated tho’ the work-man who contracted to build her promises that she shall be in readiness by the last of the next week,” Lewis wrote. He expressed concern about the low water but concluded optimistically, “I have been detained much longer than I expected but shall be with you by the last of this month.”
Unfortunately, Lewis’s worst ordeal with the contractor was yet to come, and instead of reaching Clark on August 31st, he was just leaving Pittsburgh. In a letter to Jefferson from Wheeling, dated September 8th, Lewis describes what happened. His anger, frustration, and stress are palpable.
“It was not until 7 O’Clock on the morning of the 31stUltmo. that my boat was completed,” Lewis wrote. “She was instantly loaded, and at 10 A.M. on the same day I left Pittsburgh, where I had been moste shamefully detained by the unpardonable negligence of my boat-builder.” Lewis told Jefferson that when he realized that the boat was not going to be done by the first week of August, he considered abandoning it and buying several large pirogues to get his supplies downriver, taking the chance that he would be able procure a larger and more suitable vessel somewhere along the route.
But the difficulty of finding a suitable boat discouraged Lewis, and the boat builder promised Lewis he would mend his ways and finish the keelboat by August 13th . “However a few days after, according to his usual custom he got drunk, quarrelled with his workmen, and several of them left him, nor could they be prevailed upon to return,” Lewis wrote. Furious, Lewis threatened the boat builder with a breach of contract charge, which “exacted a promise of greater sobriety in future which, he took care to perform with as little good faith, as he had his previous promises.” Lewis spent most of August with the workmen, “alternately persuading and threatening,” but it did little good. Lewis explained to Jefferson that”neither threats, persuasion or any other means which I could devise were sufficient to procure the completion of the work sooner than the31st of August.”
By this time, the water level in the Ohio was so low –only six inches deep in places –that Lewis had to buy a pirogue to lighten the keelboat’s load and hire teams of horses and oxen to drag the boat over sandbars as he descended the river. A worn-out Lewis finally reached Cincinnati on September 28th. “After the most tedious and laborious passage from Pittsburgh I have at length reached this place,” he wrote to Clark, then expressed his relief at having finally left the Pittsburgh boatyard and its “set of incorrigible drunkards” behind.
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