ONAWA, Iowa | The opening of the Lewis and Clark State Park Visitors Center in Onawa marks the end a decade-long process that lasted seven years longer than first planned.
The building, which has an open house Friday, is the first of its kind to showcase the boats used during the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the mission led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri River between 1804 and 1806.
The center grew out of a keelboat model that Alfred "Butch" Bouvier created at the park in the mid-1980s, which led to a full-sized replica called Discovery. Volunteers helped build the watercraft, giving way to the creation of the nonprofit group Lewis and Clark Friends of Discovery.
Russell Field, former Lewis and Clark State Park manager, said the idea for the visitors center came in the early 2000s, when Bouvier's keelboat and pirogue – a simple, plank-and-frame boat smaller than the keelboat -- displays were attracting large crowds.
“They'd come from all over," Field said of the observers. "They'd see the signs and want to ride our keelboats. The natural idea for the next step was that we've got to have a visitor's center."
Crews started construction in April 2004, with completion planned for 2006 – the 200-year anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But funding issues delayed completion.
The state Department of Natural Resources stepped in. Frank Rickerl, a district supervisor for the agency, estimates the project cost $3.45 million.
Friends of Discovery member Bev Hinds said the final pieces of the center are in place, although they expect to continually update it.
"We don't have the last of the exhibits yet, and this coming year I get to finish putting the library together, but the majority is done,” she said.
The center, which was built into the side of a hill, has two levels. The first level contains offices and interactive exhibits. The lower level houses the boats and has ceilings high enough for the boat's masts to be raised while they're inside.
Hinds estimates the area of the visitor's center to be just under 15,000 square feet.
The center has five replica boats, educational displays on plants and animals in Monona County during the time of the exploration and displays showing how the journey was carried out.
Field said he is happy with the result.
"Our way was the rough way. It was a bumpy road," Field said. "We got to our destination, but not without some blood, sweat and tears."