Can a Rogersville visitor from 1809 breathe new life into local historic tourism?

Jeff Bobo • Jul 29, 2019 at 12:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — A forgotten visit that happened 210 years ago may help breathe new life into one of the city’s oldest structures that has long been dormant and overdue for restoration.   

On Nov. 9, 1809, the Rogers Tavern, which is located on Rogers Street downtown, played host for one night to William Clark — of Lewis and Clark fame — along with his wife, Julia; their 9-month-old son, M. Lewis Clark; and two slaves.

A Rogersville connection found in Missouri

It’s a fact that was apparently lost to history for two centuries before Kentucky historian Jim Mallory “blindly stumbled on William Clark’s 1809 journal” two years ago.

Mallory, who is vice chairman of the Lewis and Clark Trust, based in Lexington, Ky., was conducting research on other routes traveled by the Lewis and Clark expedition. He found the Rogersville connection in Clark’s 1809 expense journal, which is part of the archive at the State Historical Society of Missouri in Columbia.

Mallory is now attempting to convince the National Park Service to extend the Lewis and Clark Trail to include relevant travels that occurred after the pair returned from their historic 1804-06 exploration west into territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

William Clark travels east

In November 1809, Clark traveled from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., to settle his year-end accounts and expenditures with the federal government. He moved east through Illinois and Western Kentucky to the Ohio River; on to Louisville and Frankfort; south through the Cumberland Gap; and then east along the Wilderness Trail to Bean Station.

After spending a night in Bean Station, the Clark party spent the night of Nov. 9 in the Rogers Tavern before stopping again in Kingsport, Bristol, and then continuing up through Virginia en route to Washington, D.C.

Although the Netherland Inn as it exists today wasn’t built until 1818, Mallory notes that Clark’s journal indicated he and his family stayed on what was to become the Netherland Inn property in one of the original buildings.

Rogers Tavern is in rare company

The Rogers Tavern dates back to 1786, but the Old Tavern that exists today on Rogers Street was built in the 1790s by Rogersville founder Joseph Rogers. He built the Big Tavern House next door between 1800 and 1810. 

Both are log structures, and both are currently covered with a white clapboard exterior.

Mallory told the Times News Friday that the Lewis and Clark connection to the Rogers Tavern is especially important because it’s one of only about a half-dozen structures east of the Mississippi River still standing that Lewis and/or Clark stayed in while traveling during their expedition era of 1804-09.

Earlier this year, Mallory contacted Tennessee State Historian Dr. Carroll Van West to see if he could find out more information about the Rogers Tavern.

Two studies for the price of one

As luck would have it, West was already involved in an architectural and archaeological study of Rogersville's Powel Law Office, which is also a 1790s structure, located on Washington Street only about two blocks from the tavern buildings.

West subsequently informed Rogersville Building Inspector Steve Nelson of the Clark connection to Rogersville.

Nelson, who is spearheading historic restoration efforts for the city, then requested that West add Rogers Tavern to his study, which is intended to help design the restoration of the law office and the tavern, with the goal of returning the buildings to their original appearance.

It’s also hoped that a completed study with West’s name attached to it will help attract grant funding for those restoration efforts.

“Hopefully attract more tourism into Rogersville”

Nelson told the Times News last week he believes the Clark connection will assist in the grant process.

“We’re hoping that with that tie-in there would be access to a lot more grants so we can take that building back to the way it would have looked at that time (when Clark stayed there),” Nelson said. “We would take the 1900s addition off the back. Of course, we would take pictures and document everything that happened in the 1900s. But we’re taking the building back to the 1700s. That’s going to draw a lot more interest, and hopefully attract more tourism into Rogersville.”

West was doing field work last week and was unavailable for comment, although he did state in an email to the Times News Friday, “I agree that the core of the tavern is there, and can tell the William Clark story.”

That’s Mallory’s goal.

“Local connections to Lewis and Clark”

Adding Clark’s 1809 route from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., to the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail may be an uphill battle. But at the very least Mallory believes impacted communities like Bean Station, Rogersville and Kingsport should petition the state for historical markers.

“We really support what’s going on in Rogersville, and we’re extremely grateful to Dr. Carroll Van West for what he’s doing to push these restoration efforts forward,” Mallory said. “This is an opportunity to teach about Lewis and Clark to the next generation. Not everyone has the resources to travel out west and experience the Lewis and Clark Trail in person. But I think these local connections to Lewis and Clark make their experiences more personal and might inspire people to learn more about this important aspect of our history.” 

West’s study on the Powel Law Office is expected to be completed in September. There is no timeline as of yet for his Rogers Tavern study.