Lolo Trail: The Historic Land Bridge 1994

Steve F. Russell

On the Clearwater and Lolo National Forests, in the mountains of Northern Idaho and Western Montana, there is an ancient trail system that has been used for hundreds of years as a land bridge between the  Columbia River basin and the Missouri River basin. The approximate route of this trail is westward up Lolo Creek from Lolo, Montana to Lolo Pass and then along the dividing ridge between the North and Middle Forks of the Clearwater River until reaching the Weippe Prairie near Weippe,  Idaho. Recent research, using a combination of historical records, computer analysis tools, and extensive field exploration, has now provided conclusive proof that the erosion trace of this ancient trail system still exists and can be located in many places along the 130-mile length of the trail. The first use of this land bridge, by aboriginal peoples traveling on foot, occurred at least hundreds of years ago and possibly more than a thousand years ago. These people left an  archaeological record that is just now beginning to be examined. When the Native American tribes of the Northwestern United States acquired horses over two hundred years ago, the land bridge increased in importance because of the improved transportation provided by these horses. The use of horses also caused increased erosion along the old trail and created the extensive and deep tread that can still be found today. In historical times, the trail was used primarily by two tribal groups, the Nez Perce on the west end and the Salish or Flathead on the east end. For the Nez Perce, the trail served three purposes. First, it was the main access route to the upper parts of the North and middle Forks of the Clearwater River. Using any of several long ridges, easy access was available for nearly any part of these rivers. Second, it gave access to the "high" country where family groups could go for camping, berry and root gathering, hunting, and spiritual purposes. Third, it was the main route eastward to the buffalo hunting grounds in Central Montana. For the Salish, the trail provided access to the upper parts of Lolo Creek and to Packers Meadow but, what is most important, it was the main route to salmon fishing on the Lochsa River. The historical era for the ancient trail began in 1805 when a government expedition called the Corps of Discovery, under the command of Lewis and Clark, followed the well-worn trail tread from Lolo, Montana to Weippe, Idaho. The purpose of the expedition was to explore the new land obtained by the Louisiana Purchase and to fulfill President Jefferson's dream of finding an easy portage between the two great rivers. In the decades following this expedition, traditional uses by the tribes continued while the trail also became increasingly important to the Non-Indian. Trail use by explorers, trappers, miners, military, and surveyors would bring a new era. In 1831, a Hudson's Bay Company man, John Work, and a large party of people crossed the Lolo Trail eastward as part of fur trading activities. In 1854, John Mullan and a survey party explored the Lolo Trail route as part of the Pacific Rail Road Survey commissioned by the U. S. Congress. Mullan found the route unsuitable. In 1866, George B. Nicholson, a civil engineer, and Tah-tu-tash, a Nez Perce guide, did a distance and elevation survey while crossing the Lolo Trail, then known as the Northern Nez Perces Trail. Later that year, the ancient trail was used as the basis for a wagon road survey and the eventual construction of a pack trail between the Weippe Prairie and Lolo Pass. Today, this trail is known as the Bird-Truax Trail of 1866 and its tread can be found over its entire length. Varied use of the trail by both Indian and Non-Indian occurred in the 1860s and 1870s until the 1877 war. Non-Indian use began to dominate after 1907 when the U.S. Forest Service started forest management and used the trail as the main access corridor. For the next three decades, many fire access trails were constructed down the ridges from the Lolo Trail. In 1934, the Lolo Motorway, from Powell to Musselshell Meadows, replaced the Bird-Truax Trail and motorized travel started along the ancient land bridge. Today, the Lolo Trail System is in a remarkable state of preservation and has the potential of providing a unique experience and connection between the past and present. People exploring the route have the opportunity to experience "self discovery" of the trail treads and the beautiful vistas available along the trail. In many places, the trail traveler will experience the feeling of being the first modern person to follow in the footsteps of the ancient travelers. This ancient land bridge needs to be managed and protected in such a way that travelers can enjoy its primitive beauty. Future generations will appreciate the opportunity to experience a personal connection with the many people and past cultures that have traveled route.

Presented at the 1994 Fall Heritage Resources Program Seminar, USDA Forest Service, Region 1, Powell Ranger District, Idaho, October 31 - November 4, 1994

Permalink - Topics: Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Lewiston to Virginia City Wagon Road, Nez Perce National Historic Trail - Tags: Bird-Truax Trail 1866, Lolo Trail National Historic Landmark

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