CLARKSVILLE — Phyllis Yeager couldn't believe what she was seeing: an historic sign marker near the Falls of Ohio, surrounded by old tires and debris with nothing else around it, stating that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began discussing and putting together their famous Corps of Discovery expedition team there 200 years ago. The westward expedition was the first and would span two years.
That was in 1997 and from that point on Yeager was on a mission to make sure the spot and the role Clarksville played in the expedition would be remembered forever in a more permanent way.
"I got the idea that we had to do something," she said. "I took a picture to the convention bureau and told them 'you don't know what you have here. We have to do something.'"
That "something" finally reached its climax Monday at a ceremony dedicating a 1,200-mile Eastern Legacy expansion of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.
The recognition, which local, state and national leaders have been pursuing for nearly two decades, includes areas in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and new portions of trail in Illinois and Missouri. The total length of the trail spans more than 4,900 miles from Pittsburgh to Oregon.
"This is a magnificent day," U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, said. "It's hard to believe it has been 200 years in the making but today we will make it happen."
Young sponsored the legislation that was signed into law on March 12 by President Donald Trump. Indiana was the last state to get a national trail.
"That made today's event even more meaningful," Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch said. "Indiana and Clarksville played such an important role in westward expansion. It was all about the future of our country. Today we celebrated the history part of it."
Young, Crouch and other dignitaries, including 9th District U.S. Rep. Trey Hollingsworth and Clark's great-great-great grandson, Bud Clark, spoke at the event attended by a few hundred onlookers.
A replica Lewis and Clark keelboat was parked on the Falls grounds for the announcement of the trail's expansion. The boat usually travels by water but had to be brought by truck Friday from St. Charles, Mo., which added another twist to the story. The transporters did not have a special permit necessary to transport the large object, and Crouch's office helped to make sure it arrived in Clarksville without issue.
"We got DNR [Department of Natural Resources] and Department of Revenue involved. We literally had all hands on deck," Crouch said.
The trail designation includes permitting new signage to educate visitors on the historic importance of the area.
Though the two-year Lewis and Clark expedition is known to have officially started in 1804 near St. Louis, it was the previous year when Lewis and Clark actually met at the Falls of Ohio site and put the nine-member Corps of Discovery team together.
Work to get the national designation for Clarksville began in the early 2000s with a bipartisan approach championed by former congressmen Baron Hill and Mike Sodrel.
It took time for the trail to be extended and recognized, but was worth the wait.
"The curiosity of the American people is what we celebrate today," Hollingsworth said. "To explore what was unknown to them ... today we continue that spirit of curiosity, to explore what we can do as a people."
After accidentally coming across the sign and then reading Stephen Ambrose's book "Undaunted Courage" about Lewis and Clark's expedition to the west, Yeager was determined to see Clarksville get its due recognition. A replica cabin is now at the site where the sign stands. She also worked with Jim Keith and served on the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Board to make sure that happened.
Keith, former head of the Clark-Floyd Tourism Bureau, praised Yeager and other volunteers and lawmakers who worked tirelessly to make sure Clarksville took its rightful place in the Lewis and Clark story.
"It's been an 18- to 20-year effort to bring national recognition for Clarksville's role in the military operation," he said. "Since the beginning, the Indiana commission has led the charge for the Eastern Legacy extension.
Bud Clark said it felt like "old home week" coming back to Clarksville to celebrate the extension. He is a member of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Foundation.
"It's very appropriate that we would officially honor the naming of the Eastern Legacy here at the Falls," he said. "It's the essence of what the Eastern Legacy is all about. Many have worked so hard to make things happen here."