Lewis and Clark Across the Mountains

An Engineer Tracks the Trail  

Preservation of a National Historic Resource


As the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial approaches, the nation's interest is focusing on the exploits of the Corps of Discovery. The saga of their journey and its importance to our nation will be celebrated in films, television programs and books. Their passage, through the Bitter Root Mountains and over the Lolo Trail in northern Idaho and western Montana, was rugged and difficult. Many people will join in this celebration by visiting the same places visited by Lewis and Clark.

As you enjoy the Bicentennial and travel along the Lewis and Clark route, I hope you will join me in preserving the fragile ecology and beautiful landscape of the Lolo Trail.

Steve F. Russell
Iowa State University

Lolo Trail Background

The Lolo Trail was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1962 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. There are three Nez Perce National Historical Park sites on the Lolo Trail; Musselshell Meadows (site #22), the Lolo Trail (site #23) and Lolo Pass (site #24). The Lolo Trail is also a segment of both the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

The Lolo Trail spans a land of history, exploration, courage, and danger. It is regrettable that we will never be able to fully learn about its early history but we must learn all we can through our research as well as our first-hand experience while travelling the trail. We can imagine that the early travelers faced hunger, potentially fatal accidents, enemies, fire, isolation, the grizzly bear and the mountain lion as they traversed the trail. However, we will never truly know of the joys and sorrows of the people that travelled this ancient route.

We are now embarking on a decade of discovery and preservation for the Lolo Trail System. Surveys and inventories conducted in the next decade will reveal the geographic extent of this system of trails and its many uses. Its importance, to the history of the Northwestern United States, remains to be fully discovered and documented by historians, archaeologists, and other researchers.

Over the centuries, the Lolo Trail has played a significant roll in the cultural heritage of the Nez Perce Tribe. Now, many tribal members are actively involved in the process of recovering and expanding their knowledge of this heritage. It is important that the process of discovery continues to involve the tribe.

The Lolo Trail also played a significant roll in the exploration of the early west. The Corps of Discovery under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark travelled the route in 1805 and 1806. It was the toughest part of their journey. Today, the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation is a major organization involved in the research and preservation of the legacy of the Corps of Discovery. Their members will be keenly interested in the results of the surveys and inventories for the Lolo Trail.

Historical Preservation

The Lolo Trail routes, historical camping places, and artifacts are outstanding archaeological treasures of western U.S. history that deserve our most diligent preservation efforts. The actual routes themselves, and not just the archeological sites and artifacts, should be preserved. Many archaeologists, historians, and local residents are unaware of how important the Lolo Trail routes have been and how amazingly well they have been preserved for much of their length. Successful cooperative efforts will produce important historical and archaeological preservation that applies to the Nez Perces, Lewis and Clark, early explorers and traders, gold miners, early commerce, the first railroad explorations, the very early USFS, and several generations of Clearwater Country residents. Future historians and archaeologists will find the Lolo Trail to be an excellent resource for research on the groups mentioned above.

General Comments about Preservation

I am very concerned with the preservation of all the separate trail routes in their present condition, the geographical features, and the artifacts and archaeological sites. Well-meaning trail renovation by the USFS and historical groups could significantly reduce the historical and archaeological value of the routes. Another item of concern is the preservation of the Lolo Motorway. It has existed since 1934 and deserves to be recognized and prized for its historical value. It was a fulfillment of the wagon road "dream" of 1866. In addition, the Lolo Motorway directly overlays the Bird-Truax Trail for many short segments throughout most of its route. This is testimony to the quality of the 1866 survey for the Lewiston Virginia City Wagon Road. In many other places, the trail is only a few feet above or below the Motorway. In some places, a part of the trail can still be seen on the very edge of the upper part of the Motorway. Widening the Motorway will destroy the historic trail in these places.

The ancient route of the Lolo Trail System deserves the public's best efforts toward the preservation of its cultural resources. Some of the campsites along the trail have been used for at least a thousand years. In addition, the early explorers, trappers, and miners used this route for nearly a century. Should you discover information such as trails, camp sites or artifacts during your travel along the trail, please make detailed notes of the location and report your findings to the Forest Archeologist, Clearwater National Forest, 12730 Hwy 12, Orofino, ID, 83544 or to the Forest Archeologist, Lolo National Forest, Building 24, Fort Missoula, Missoula, Montana 59801. Other agencies that would also appreciate your information are the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, PO Box 305, Lapwai, Idaho 83540, the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office, Boise, and the Director, Orofino Historical Society Museum, Box 1454, Orofino, Idaho 83544.

1997-98 Steve F. Russell. All Rights Reserved (Rev 03/25/98)


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