Camp Chopunnish Revisited

The Camp Chopunnish Site, 1902

A flat forested bottom covered with snow

Olin Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804—1904, Vol. 2, p. 272

Olin Wheeler took this photograph of the site of Camp Chopunnish in 1902. Situated "within 40 paces of the river in an extensive level bottom thinly timbered with the longleafed [ponderosa] pine." Wheeler scraped the snow away to show the remains of the raised perimeter.

He also shot the photo below of a typical Nez Perce lodge made of sticks and grass.

Nez Perce Lodge

Nez Perce brush lodge

Olin Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark, 1804—1904, Vol. 2, p. 272

The site of the Corps of Discovery's camp from May 14 until June 10, 1806 is believed to have been located near the left (north) end of the turn-span bridge pictured below.1 They set up camp around an old foundation for a Nez Perce lodge, which in Lewis's judgment was "a very eligible spot for defense"—as if that were necessary with the congenial Nimiipuu as neighbors. Furthermore, it situated them "in the vicinity of the best hunting grounds from Indian information." They stacked their baggage in the hole, which was about 30 feet in diameter and four feet deep, with its perimeter enhanced by a dirt wall some 3-1/2 feet high. They built a shelter over their stores, then erected their tents of sticks and grass in the Nez Perce style just outside the perimeter. It was a crossroads of sorts. They drove their horses safely across a shallow ford, even though it was "150 yds wide at this place and extreemly rapid."

The journalists had no name for their camp, but Elliott Coues, who annotated Nicholas Biddle's 1814 paraphrase of the journals in 1893, dubbed it Camp Chopunnish.

The captains ordered a detail of soldiers to carve a canoe to use for fishing and to commute across the Clearwater to the Indian villages. A few days later the craft, which had a capacity of 12 persons, struck a rock, split open, sank, and defied even the efforts of a group of concerned Nez Perce men to raise her.

In the latter part of the century, a ferry was established here to carry wagons loaded with freight and agricultural products back and forth across the river. Late in the 1890s, a bridge was built to carry the rails of the Union Pacific Short Line to the south side of the canyon, where it terminated in the South Fork canyon at Stites, a few miles south of Kooskia. A wagon road up the head of the steep and narrow South Fork canyon—more or less on the Indian road Ordway and his companions descended on June 2, 1806—was the principal conduit carrying freight and agricultural produce to and from the Nez Perce and Camas prairies.

The bridge is a classic example of the "turn-span" or "center pivot" type that was engineered late in the 19th century to accommodate the locomotive and the steamboat, the two main modes of steam-powered transportation that were vying for the increasing traffic in the West during the 1880s and '90s. It could be turned on its central pivot to let boats pass through, then closed to accommodate railroad trains. On May 8, 1896, the sternwheeler Lewiston became the first and last steamboat ever to reach Kooskia. The bridge, built at great expense by the same company that owned the railroad, was completed in 1899, opened and closed once just to be sure it worked, and never opened again.

Ironically, a counterpart to this turn-span structure was built at about the same time on the Missouri River a short distance upstream from Fort Benton. It is as if, despite Lewis and Clark's most important discovery to the contrary, American entrepreneurs acted for the next century as if there really was, as Jefferson had hoped, "a practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."

1. Research Associate Robert N. Bergantino, of the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in Butte, Montana, has estimated its location at 46° 14' 31" N, 116° 02' 04" W. Find it on Google Earth.

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