Idaho's Lolo Creek

A Creek for Collins, Lolo Creek (Idaho)

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Lower Lolo Creek: a deep canyon with mountains and farmland above

© 2001 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

The canyons cleave the deep, soft volcanic basalt until they touch bedrock. The sources of Collins Creek—called Lolo Creek since the 1860s—spring up in the mountains east of Weippe Prairie at about 5,500 feet above Mean Sea Level. The edge of the prairie at photo center is at 3,200 feet MSL; its mouth in the canyon of the Clearwater River, approximately 45 miles from its sources, is at 1,047 feet MSL. With a pause on the prairie to water the rich camas meadows, it tumbles an average ten feet per mile.

He had gotten off to a bad start. At River Dubois camp in the winter of 1804 he built an image of himself as a thief, a liar, and a drunk. He was indifferent to rules; he had little respect for authority. He was, in contemporary terms, a dodger. Captain Clark summed him up in another, equally disparaging term, blackguard (pronounced blag-gerd)—in Webster's earliest definition (1806), "a person of foul scurrilous language." Besides all that, he was a slow learner. He earned 50 lashes before the Corps got away from St. Charles in late May, and his back could scarcely have healed before, at the end of June, he was sentenced to another 100 lashes for stealing whiskey and drinking on sentry duty. His name was Private John Collins. He had a lot to live down.

Yet the captains, or at least Clark, apparently saw something in him that was worth saving. On July 8, when he was no doubt still nursing a very sore back, they tested his mettle by assigning him duty as the Superintendent of Provisions for his squad, to be "immediately responsible to the commanding Officers for a judicious consumption" of daily provisions. He was also to cook for both of his squad's messes. Like the other two superintendents, John Thompson and William Werner, he was exempted from pitching tents, collecting firewood, building scaffolds for drying meat. He was also excused from guard duty. The catch was, he was responsible for persuading other men in his squad to stand his tour for each of those duties. His buddies had showed him in two courts-martial that they had little sympathy for him, so it was imperative for him to cultivate a new image for himself. In mid-October Clark appointed him as a member of the court-martial of Private John Newman, who was charged with and convicted of insubordination and mutinous conduct, was flogged, and "discarded from the perminent party engaged for North Western discovery." Collins may have played his role in Newman's trial with mixed feelings, but he must have learned his lesson well.

Greer Grade connects Weippe Prairie with the Clearwater Canyon 12 miles upriver from Orofino. Beyond the rim of the canyon on the southwest side is Camas Prairie, which the Corps saw from Sherman Peak on September 19. The Corps of Discovery did not set foot on it until they returned in May of 1806.

Otherwise, John Collins apparently kept a low profile. While among the Shoshones in late August of 1805, Clark sent him on a short errand in the company of an Indian, which suggests Collins had at least gained some proficiency in Indian sign language. Otherwise, his name seldom came up in the journals any more, except as a hunter. By the middle of June he was comfortable enough with himself as well as his commanders and the rest of the Corps that he could indulge an off-beat but good-natured impulse. He presented Lewis and Clark with "Some verry good beer made of the Pa-shi-co-quar-mash bread" which "by being frequently wet molded & Sowered &c." It seems that by the end of the expedition he had at least neutralized his place in its history; Lewis had no remarks to make about him in the personnel report he submitted Secretary of War Henry Dearborn.1

Collins must have been one of the six hunters Clark selected to accompany him on September 18, 1805, to "hurry on to the leavel country a head and there hunt and provide some provision" for the rest of the hungry crew. By the time they reached Weippe Prairie, Collins's rehabilitation may have been complete in Clark's mind, and the naming of a significant watercourse such as this one for John may have been a suitable token of his respect for the blackguard's admirable recovery.

Lolo Creek at the Clearwater River

Historic photo of a train crossing Lolo Creek at its mouth

Olin Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804—1904, Plate 61

Within less than two decades after the close of the expedition, traveling artists began rendering their impressions of various attractions along Lewis and Clark's route. The first writer to trace the entire route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia and back was Olin D. Wheeler, whose book, The Trail of Lewis and Clark (1904) contained 196 illustrations, more than two-thirds of which were recent photographs of places, persons, and artifacts relating to the expedition. Wheeler was a public relations specialist for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had finished laying track through the Northwest in 1882. One of his purposes in writing the book was "to show . . . the agency of the locomotive and the steamboat in developing the vast region that Lewis and Clark made known to us."

The Union Pacific Short Line was completed in the late 1890s to connect Lewiston, on the Snake River, with Kooskia, 75 miles up the Clearwater. In the photo, a passenger train has just crossed Lolo Creek at its confluence with the Clearwater, and is about to pass through a cut in the mountainside, en route to Lewiston.


1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (2nd ed., 2 vols, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 366, 370n.

Funded in part by a grant from the Idaho Governor's Lewis and Clark Trail Committee