Philadelphia man works to get city on famous trail

He has spent 30 years telling world that Lewis and Clark started in Pa.

July 21, 2002|By Michael Vitez | Michael Vitez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - If life is long and passion is true, one man can make a difference.

Frank Muhly has spent 30 years telling the world that the Lewis and Clark expedition started here.

In Philadelphia.

Most of the world thinks Lewis and Clark paddled up the Missouri River in 1804, heading west to explore the Louisiana Purchase and find a water passage to the Pacific.

But Capt. Meriwether Lewis spent a critical month in Philadelphia in the spring of 1803. He learned about botany, medicine, astronomy and map-making from brilliant scientists.

He bought 3,500 pounds of weapons, wine, clothing, medicine, even cooking supplies, all in Philadelphia.

`Keystone' to success

"I believe the expedition began here and ended here," Muhly said. "And the contributions of Philadelphia were the keystone to the expedition's success. Of course, most people don't know this."

Muhly, 81, has succeeded in getting the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation - a group of 800 of the most zealous Lewis and Clark enthusiasts - to hold its convention here in August next year.

He's fought to have markers put up around the city, and he helped pay to have maps and brochures printed of shops and houses, most long gone, where Lewis learned so much and bought his supplies.

And when the country celebrates the bicentennial journey of Lewis and William Clark, Frank hopes Philadelphia will receive the credit it deserves.

Of course, for much of his life Muhly was clueless like everyone else.

He has spent his life in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia. He fought in World War II, came home, started a family, and spent 35 years working for a company that makes water pumps.

Catching the bug

He caught the Lewis and Clark bug in 1954, when he read Two Captains West by Albert and Jane Salisbury. He said it made no reference to Philadelphia.

In the late '60s, reading the letters of Lewis and Clark, he learned about Philadelphia's role, that Lewis' journals were here, as well as the plant and animal specimens he collected.

"My God," he thought, "people don't know."

In 1971, Muhly finally had enough vacation time to spend a month along the trail. He, his wife, Rose, and their daughter, Linda, hiked and camped and collected plant specimens, just like Lewis and Clark, and stored them in their car.

As he talked about camping in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana, Muhly's eyes grew misty.

"You could almost feel Lewis and Clark behind the trees, lurking," he said. "We were so absorbed in Lewis and Clark."

The more he read, the more he admired the explorers for their superior leadership, commitment to their men, and determination not to exploit the Indian tribes they met along the way.

In the 1990s, Muhly founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation.

"People out West have been trying for decades to pinpoint where the explorers camped, and you just can't be certain," he said. "Well, you can come to Philly and walk where Lewis walked in 1803.

"He walked this street," he said, standing by an umbrella store on Third Street, between Chestnut and Market in the Old City.

On Market Street, he pointed to where Charles L. Wister's shop once sold cloth, beads and butcher knives to Lewis. A SEPTA bus roared past, with a giant poster of Jennifer Lopez on its side.

"It takes imagination," Muhly said, "to put Lewis in this setting now."

On Second Street, he tried to find the spot where David Lapsley had sold milled drab cloth to Lewis. All he could see were Cuba Libre, Nick's Roast Beef and Bleu Martini.

"You're in a fluid society here," Muhly said. "Everything changes year to year."

Muhly stopped at Fourth and Locust, once the home of Caspar Wistar, a physician who tutored Lewis in medicine.

Last year, Muhly persuaded the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to erect a beautiful iron marker - highlighting that fact - on that spot.


In front of the original building, a man approached and pointed inside.

"This is the room where they planned the Lewis and Clark expedition," he said proudly.

"Really!" Muhly said.

"Right in that room," the man said.

Muhly was delighted. The man had exaggerated, but at least he was aware.

Muhly's dream is to have Congress include Pennsylvania and other Eastern states in the official Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail - which now runs west from the Mississippi. He'll need a little more public support.

To prove his point, he approached a group of high school band students from Rye, N.Y., passing Independence Hall.

"How many of you know Lewis and Clark?" he asked.

Every hand went up.

"They explored the West," said Kevin McHugh, 14.

"OK," Muhly said. "What can you tell me about Lewis and Clark in Philadelphia?"

The boy looked bewildered.

"Nothing," he said.

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