"Set out early...passed wood river [today's Dubois Creek near Washington, Missouri] on the Lbd [larboard or south] Side... Camped at the mouth of a Creek called River a Chauritte [La Charrette] above a Small french village of 7 houses and as many families..."
William Clark, May 25, 1804
On May 24 and 25, 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was in the vicinity of present-day Washington. At South Point (the southernmost point on the Missouri River), three miles east of Washington, one of the most harrowing incidents in the early phase of the journey occurred. Here, on May 24, they had a frightening brush with disaster, and in the process learned the limitations of the large keelboat that was the main vessel of the expedition flotilla. William Clark described South Point as a "Verry bad part of the river." The expedition experienced why the Missouri was the most dreaded of all great western rivers for navigators.
To avoid a narrow channel with collapsing banks on the south side of the river, the flotilla attempted to go around the north side of an island. Here, they found that the water was swift, shallow and full of shifting sandbars. The crew tried to tow the boat through this stretch with a cordelling rope, but the keelboat soon ran aground on a shifting sandbar. The powerful current pressed against the now helpless boat, and the tow rope snapped, causing the boat to turn broadside to the current and list to one side. The crew members jumped into the river and managed to hold the boat upright until the moving sands washed out from under it. This drama was repeated twice more, as the boat again grounded and wheeled. Finally, a line was fixed to its stern and the boat was worked into safer waters.
A shaken Clark wrote in his journal that evening that "nothing saved her [the keelboat] but..." He left the sentence unfinished. Clark characterized this stretch, which he called "Retrograde Bend," as the "worst I ever saw." This "worst I ever saw" list would be revised several times in the coming weeks.
After returning to the south side of the river and working the boat through the narrow chute they had avoided in the first attempt, the exhausted crew camped at an "old house" a few miles below present-day Washington, Mo.
The difficulty Lewis and Clark encountered at Retrograde Bend would be repeated numerous times as the expedition made its way up river. This was largely due to the size and design of the keelboat (no one had previously attempted to take such a large boat up the Missouri). The 20-oared boat was 55 feet long and 8 feet 4 inches wide at the beam.
The boat's 3 to 4 foot draft made it susceptible to grounding in the shallow waters of the river the crew of the boat frequently had to navigate through. Once grounded on the dreaded shifting sandbars, the rounded bottom of the boat caused it to roll on its side when struck by the swift currents of the river. On these occasions, the boat was repeatedly saved by the exertions of the crew.