About 70 people lined the Yellowstone River on a sparkling Friday morning to dedicate the place where Capt. William Clark sent a small contingent from the Corps of Discovery to cross the river with their horses exactly 209 years earlier — on July 24, 1806.
The next day, Clark would chisel his name and the date on the only location that bears proof today of his being there — Pompeys Pillar. History buffs will mark that event with the Clark Days celebration at the national monument Saturday.
A year ago, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved the naming of Clarks Crossing, without the apostrophe.
Together with the Billings Chamber of Commerce, city and county leaders plan to use the site, available through the Dick Harris Access, to help complete the 26-mile Marathon Loop throughout Billings. They plan to make permanent signs that temporarily mark the spot, at 3176 S. Frontage Road.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said he looks forward to the day when the Marathon Loop is complete. “We can thank Lewis and Clark for choosing this particular path,” he said.
Three members of the Pompeys Pillar Elk River Brigade — John Moorhouse, Ralph Miller and Mike Lamphier — got the ceremony going by firing a volley from period-appropriate rifles.
Among the dignitaries gathered for Friday’s celebration is one who was there for the original river crossing — Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor, as portrayed by Laurel veterinarian Don Woerner. As Pryor, Woerner told the story of Pvt. Hugh Hall, who was afraid of the water and couldn’t swim — and yet was tasked with helping with the crossing.
As it turned out, the horses made it across the river but were stolen shortly after making their crossing.
John Brewer, the chamber’s president and CEO, told the crowd that Friday was an opportunity to “celebrate open access and the connectedness with our Heritage Trail System.”
“This is to me a very historic site, as is every place (Lewis and Clark) camped and separated,” said Ralph Saunders, who has spent much of his career studying the morphology and history of the river. “We’ll never know exactly where the horses crossed — only the proximity, but it doesn’t matter. What’s phenomenal is that (the Corps of Discovery) survived with all they encountered.”
Following the ceremony, Saunders led a three-quarter-mile hike to show attendees the spot on Clark’s map that denotes the crossing. It turns out it was across the river from the South Hills, where this weekend’s Great American Championship Motorcycle Hill Climb is being held.
The horses that were stolen were valuable when traded for certain items, including “kegs of spirits and tobacco,” Saunders said. They also could have helped lure more chiefs to join Lewis and Clark as they headed back to Washington to meet with President Thomas Jefferson.
Ella Mae Howard, a board member with the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, encouraged attendees to pat themselves on the back, because “this is a special moment.” She suggested they take their children and grandchildren to the crossing to share a picnic lunch with them, teach them some history “and help them enjoy this spot.”
Mike Penfold, conservation programs director for Our Montana, invited the crowd to gaze at the river from a vantage point even further back than Lewis and Clark times — about 13,000 years ago, when saber-toothed tigers and short-nosed bears both posed dangers to the Native Americans.
“Those people may have been looking across the river wondering what’s on the other side,” he said, noting that what’s on the other side was nearly a continent’s worth of land.
Trapper and guide Jim Bridger camped one winter at just about the spot where the crowd gathered, Penfold said.
“Our forefathers,” Hanel said, “would have been proud of us” for developing the historic location.