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Lewis and Clark among McLean County's Earliest Visitors

Hollow CanoeIt's October 1804, the first signs of winter are already appearing in the upper Missouri River valley as members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition make camp. They begin to prepare for the impending cold and snow which finds them 1,380 river miles from St. Louis and civilization. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the Expedition must halt its attempt to find and map a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Expedition members now begin a seven month battle for survival in a land few outsiders have seen.

The task begins with visits to nearby Indian villages and establishment of friendly relations with the Mandan Indians. Quickly, Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark put the Expedition to work erecting a fort, named Fort Mandan in honor of the local Indian tribe, which will serve as their winter home. In April 1805, the Expedition continues its trek up the Missouri River under the guide services of the Indian wife of a fur trader, thus enters the Indian woman, Sakakawea, into American history books.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition's winter home was located in a portion of present-day McLean County, North Dakota, about 14 miles west of the county seat of Washburn. Their presence marked the first arrival of white men to the area in any numbers. The historical significance of the establishment of Fort Mandan is documented in American history books and is a source of pride to McLean County residents.

The Expedition marked the mapping of the Missouri River and opened a route for other adventurers to follow. By the 1860's, the United States government, pushed by the desire to open the lands of Dakota Territory to settlement, moved military personnel into the valley of the Missouri River. Forts began to appear along its length to offer protection to both settlers and the Indian tribes friendly to the "Great White Father."

Among forts constructed in what is present day McLean County were Fort Berthold and Fort Stevenson. Both were important as supply hubs for up-river forts and overland forts to the east. The first news of the Custer defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn was delivered to Fort Stevenson by Captain Grant Marsh, in a record shattering run of the "Far West" from the Yellowstone River to Bismarck, as he made a quick fuel stop at the fort.

In much the same manner as the Mandan Indian people aided Lewis and Clark's Expedition six decades earlier, General Regis deTrobriand details in his journals of life at Fort Stevenson in the late 1860's that the Mandan, Arikara and Hitdatsa Indian tribes aided the army fort with foodstuffs grown in river bottom gardens.

Equally interesting are the reports of both Lewis and Clark and General deTrobriand detailing the out-croppings of coal (lignite) along the Missouri River. General deTrobriand conducted extensive tests of the lignite to establish its heating qualities. While early settlers had ample lignite with a minimum expenditure of labor, it would be over 100 years before the importance of the vast lignite deposits in McLean County would gain the attention of industry.

Energy sources beginning with hydropower, and later lignite fired generating plants, came into being in the 1940's and began with the federal government's construction of Garrison Dam on the "Big Bend" of the Missouri. That dam, for a time the world's largest earthen dam, was a multi-purpose project to provide downstream flood protection, water storage for hydropower generation and recreational facilities. The huge dam, over two miles in length, and impounding up to 25 million acre feet of water, spans the Missouri River with portions of the huge dam constructed in McLean County and adjacent Mercer County.

Massive Lake Sakakawea, created by Garrison Dam and named in honor of the Indian woman who served as guide to the Lewis & Clark Expedition, flooded nearly 165,000 acres of McLean County farmland. The process formed a lake second only to the Great Lakes in terms of volume of water and length of shoreline. Stretching over 1,550 miles, the area spans through lands which range from fertile farmlands producing huge grain crops to the rough and mysterious badlands which serve to provide range for thousands of beef cattle. In less than a decade, Lake Sakakawea became widely acclaimed as one of the top walleye fisheries in the world. 

The hydropower, generated by turbines at Garrison Dam, provides up to 240 megawatts of low cost power sold to local and regional electrical distribution companies and cooperatives. Since 1953, McLean County has been a major producer of electrical energy from hydropower but it wasn't until the arrival of two Minnesota based electrical distribution cooperatives in 1974 that McLean County rapidly advanced into the forefront of energy production. United and Cooperative Power Associations began construction in late 1974 of an 1,100 megawatt lignite fired generating station near Underwood. In addition to the $2 billion plant, the county saw the opening of a huge lignite mine, Falkirk Mine, which annually produces nearly eight million tons of coal to supply the nearby Coal Creek generating station.

Although all power produced at the Coal Creek Station is exported to Minnesota, the plant and companion lignite mine provide hundreds of jobs for local and regional residents. Labeled the world's largest lignite fired generating facility, Coal Creek Station requires about 27,000 tons of lignite daily for capacity operation. That translates into about 7.5 million tons of lignite annually. Since McLean County sits atop an estimated 3 billion tons of recoverable lignite, it is easy to see that coal reserves are capable of furnishing a fuel source hundreds of years into the future.

Wide open spaces, clear air and the sparkling waters of man-made Lake Sakakawea and Lake Audubon, and a number of smaller natural lakes, form the backdrop for some exceptional recreational activities within McLean County. Lakes Sakakawea and Audubon provide exceptional boating and sailing opportunities and some of the finest walleye and salmon fishing anywhere in North America.

If upland bird or waterfowl hunting is your bag, McLean County offers excellent pheasant, duck and goose hunting. In fact, we have some of the best hunting for giant Canadian geese on the continent, thanks to a reintroduction of the huge birds at Audubon National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1960's.

McLean County is truly a land of energy which includes immense lignite deposits, the waters of giant Lake Sakakawea and adjacent Lake Audubon and most recently oil, which was discovered in the county in recoverable quantities in 1989. Oil exploration is continuing in the county.

Although tourism and energy development play substantial roles in McLean County economy, agriculture continues to be the major role-player. The county annually grows large acreage's of wheat, durum, barley and sunflowers and cattlemen supply good numbers of topnotch beef to regional processors.

Updated on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 01:15 PM.

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