Hub of the West

Travelers' Rest

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interactive aerial photo showing the location of Travelers' Rest

© 2001 Airphoto, Jim Wark. All rights reserved.

Within less than a decade after the Corps of Discovery passed through, American trappers and traders began to mix with Indian traffic through the Bitterroot valley and the Lolo Canyon. A stagecoach road was scraped through the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula to Fort Owen (in today's Stevensville) in 1857. The following year, the discovery of gold in the mountains 150 miles southeast of Lolo drew many prospectors from the overcrowded diggings in Idaho across the mountains by way of Lolo Pass, and revived the earlier dream of a wagon road across the Bitterroots. In 1865 Congress appropriated funds for a survey and construction of such a road, and engaged engineer Wellington Bird and a surveyor, Major Truax, to undertake the job. But the funding was insufficient for anything more than some minor improvements to parts of the ancient Indian trail. At most, the Bird-Truax effort merely fueled greater hopes.

Settlement near the mouth of Travelers' Rest Creek began shortly after Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. The first person to take advantage of the opportunity to file a claim on the allowable maximum of 160 acres, at a price of $1.25 per acre, was a man named John Delaney. In 1865 Delaney claimed a plot of land at the intersection of the two roads, and proceeded to establish a store, a blacksmith shop, a livery stable, a saloon, and a dance hall. The attraction of Lolo Hot Springs grew slowly, until a wagon road was completed from the village of Lolo to the springs in 1888. At first, the intermittent narrowness of the canyon, combined with the meanderings of the creek bed, compelled travelers to ford Lolo Creek 29 times in 25 miles.1

Whence "Travellers Rest"?

Lewis and Clark scholar Donald Jackson studied the explorers' toponymies, or place-naming practices, within the framework of seven types of names:2 descriptive (Big Muddy Creek), associative (Pryor Mountains, from Pryor Creek); incident (Thy Snag'd Creek), possessive (Gass's Creek);3 commemorative (Fourth of July Creek), manufactured (Roloje Creek, which Clark heard in a dream), and shift names. All seven are represented in Lewis and Clark's list of place names except the last, shift names, which evoke nostalgia for, or pride in, a place or a setting remembered from past experience. Lewis and Clark placed 148 names on their map of the land that is now within the state of Montana. Twenty were Indian names; only half of them are still in use. The remaining 128 were made up by the explorers, but only 17 are in use today.

Lewis wrote in his journal for September 9, 1805, the day he arrived at this place: "the weather appearing settled and fair, I determined to halt the next day rest our horses and take some scelestial Observations." The next sentence suggests that something more had crossed his mind: "we called this Creek Travellers rest."4 The Corps had stopped many times before to "recruit"—as a verb the word meant then, and still means in an archaic sense, "to repair, . . . supply"—but never before, nor thereafter, did that name come to mind. Maybe he had been planning this short stopover ever since hearing the Shoshones' warning, back on August 14, that the "Pierced nosed indians" had reported

the road was a very bad one . . . and that they had suffered excessively with hunger on the rout being obliged to subsist for many days on berries alone as there was no game in that part of the mountains which were broken rockey and so thickly covered with timber that they could scarcely pass.

Maybe it was as much a detachment order as a place name. Maybe they rested for only a little more than one day long because they had been told the crossing would take "five sleeps"—six days, which wouldn't seem like too much for this company of seasoned wilderness travelers to handle.

At the same time, maybe the geographical setting—a popular Indian gathering-place on a creek at the head of a road across a range of mountains—reminded Lewis of some place he had known before. There was, for example, an Indian gathering-place ten miles north of Greenville, South Carolina, where, late in the 18th century, a north-south wagon road intersected with an Indian road up Gap Creek and across the Blue Ridge Mountains. Lewis may have passed through it at least four times in his early years on his trips between his Albemarle County plantation and his stepfather's homestead on the Broad River in Georgia. It might have been commonly called Travelers Rest in the late 1700s, although it didn't officially gain the name until the early 19th century. During his years on active Army duty he had traveled many trails and paused at more than one place that might have been locally referred to as "traveler's rest," a place to "recruit" before the effort of a climb, or refresh after the equally tiring descent from a height.

Maybe, then, the name stood for a memory, as well as for the hope that this mountain crossing would be no more difficult than the ones remembered. Lewis was characteristically optimistic, as he emphasized on the day he got his first glimpse of what he had thought were these Rocky Mountains,

when I reflected on the difficulties which this snowey barrier would most probably throw in my way to the Pacific, and the sufferings and hardships of myself and party in them, it in some measure counterballanced the joy I had felt in the first moments in which I gazed on them; but as I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road untill I am compelled to beleive differently. [May 26, 1805]

By day seven of that anticipated six-day journey across the Bitterroots, his illusion began to dissolve into painful reality. In September of 1805 "Travelers' Rest" became one of the bitter ironies of the expedition's history. In July of 1806 it was a symbol of the Corps' return to "the land of the liveing."

Travelers' Rest 360º Panorama

This scene opens on a view toward Lolo (Travelers' Rest) Creek, which is beyond the cottonwoods in the background. Panning toward the left (west) next shows the depressions where the creek flowed through one or more meanders. Still farther to the left (southwest), roughly between the large Cottonwood with low branches and the white room of a distant house, was where the main fire-pit was located. Lolo Peaks, which overlap and appear as one when viewer from the campsite, are barely visible on the southwestern horizon.

Still panning left, we see the terrace where the sentries probably walked their patrols day and night. Still further to the left (eastward) we are looking toward the location of the latrine or "sink" where archaeologists found evidence of the mercury that at least two of the men were taking for their symptoms of syphilis. That evidence provided proof that this was definitely the place where the Corps bivouacked on June 30–July 3 of 1806 and, by simple extrapolation, September 9–11 of 1805.

Reading Rivers

Rivers were, as one might put it today, their business. Lewis, Clark, as well as many of their men, could read rivers like travel brochures, geography textbooks, and weather reports. They lived by those rivers. Rivers ran through their minds, leaving information, instructions, predictions, and more. From the width of a stream where they crossed it (see map), from its depth, velocity, color, clarity or opacity, rise and fall, compass bearing, and the makeup of its bed, they could estimate its length and the quality of the land it "watered." And more. The greater part of the geographical understanding they brought back was learned from rivers.

After descending from Lost Trail Pass into the valley of the Bitterroot River on September 4, 1805, Lewis and Clark had five days to read the new one. Having just been on other headwaters of the Columbia where salmon were seasonally plentiful, they had reason to expect to see them in the Bitterroot too, but they didn't. (see also Tum-sum-lech: No Salmon!) By the time they reached the resting-place and turning-point where Toby recommended a halt, on September 9, Lewis had come to a significant conclusion. Referring to the Bitterroot River—which he had named "Clark's River"—he wrote, "The stream appears navigable, but from the circumstance of their being no sammon in it I believe that there must be a considerable fall in it below."

Old Toby, their Shoshone guide, had never followed that river, and was little help. In any case, these travelers had had a belly-full of waterfalls already, and they had no time to risk against the possibility of another laborious portage.

Early the following May, at Camp Chopunnish over on the Clearwater River, two Nez Perce men, Cut Nose and the brother of Twisted Hair, validated Lewis's river-reading. They drew—possibly with charcoal on a mat—a sketch map of the best routes back to the Falls of the Missouri. Clark transcribed it and included a symbol on Clark's River above its confluence with the Columbia. There he inserted the Indians' remark, "High falls above which the Salmon do not reach." Others—"Sundary Indians of the Chopunnish Nation"—described two falls on the "Lastaw" river, which Clark identified with "Clark's River" and is now called the Pend Oreille (pronounced pond oh-ray). One of the falls was "150 feet and nearly perpendicular," the other "between 4 and 500 feet and leaves a continued Sprey."5

Some misunderstandings or mistranslations must have occurred during those conversations. There were at least seven rapids and falls on the main stem of the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille River system that were impediments to navigation, but none 500 feet high, nor even 150.6 In 1854, however, Dr. George Suckley, the surgeon and naturalist with the Stevens railroad survey, explored the lower Pend Oreille, which he knew as "the Clark river." Suckley determined that the "great falls" located about 25 miles above the Pend Oreille River's confluence with the Columbia, was the terminus of salmon migration in that river basin.7 Explorer and mapper David Thompson was there at the height of the salmon harvest in 1810, and estimated that between 1000 and 2000 fishermen were in action there at any one time during the annual salmon runs. But the fact, which remains unexplained, is that salmon have never yet been seen in the Clark Fork River.

"Entrance to the Bitter Root Mountains,
by the Lou Lou Fork"

Chromolithograph by Gustavus Sohon (1825-1903)

historic painting of a wide valley

Reports of Expeditions and Surveys, Vol. 5, Plate 57.

Sohon, one of two artists with Isaac Stevens's railroad survey of 1853-55,8 was attached to Lieutenant John Mullan's detail, which Stevens ordered to explore the well known northern Indian trail across the Bitterroot mountains, and assess its practicality as a possible route for the proposed rail route. In his report to Governnor Stevens, Mullan noted that before proceeding up the trail they halted a few minutes to allow Sohon to make a sketch of the "entrance to the Lo-Lo's Pass."9 Sohon waited until he returned east to paint the scene. An Indian road corresponding roughly to the present U.S. Highway 93 is indicated in the foreground by two pack horses driven by a packer. The ancient trail westward up Lolo Creek, which began at the north-south road, is represented by the long, orderly pack train heading west into the Bitterroots.


1. Lolo Women's Club, Lolo Creek Reflections (Reprint, Stevensville, Montana: Stonydale Press, 1999), 10-17.

2. Donald Jackson, Among the Sleeping Giants: Occasional Pieces on Lewis and Clark (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), Chapter 7, "Lewis and Clark and Place-Names in Montana," 75-123. Jackson credited George R. Stewart with originating the classification system in Names on the Land (1945) and American Place-Names (1970). See also "Gritty Names."

3. Arlen Large, "All in the Family: The In-house Honorifics of Lewis and Clark," We Proceeded On, Vol. 25, No. 4 (November 1999), 6-10.

4. The name was consistently spelled with two lls in the press during the first several decades of the 19th century.

5. Moulton, Atlas map 98; Journals, 7:316. The Clark Fork-Pend Oreille River system is composed of the Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Blackfoot, Flathead, and St. Regis. The Pend Oreille River begins as the outlet of Lake Pend Oreille, which Clark identified on his maps as Wayton Lake—possibly his phonetic spelling of an Indian name for it.

6. Falls and major rapids on the Clark Fork and, below Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River, include Thompson Falls, Noxon Rapids, Cabinet Gorge, Albeni Falls, Metaline Falls (actually a long, rough rapid), Box Canyon, and Kettle Falls.

7. Dr. Suckley described the site: "The Squeer-yer-pe [Colville Indians] name for the Kettle Falls is Schwan-ate-koo, or deep-sounding water. Here the Columbia pitches over a ledge of rocks, making a fall of about fifteen feet perpendicular." In 1810 David Thompson reported the name as Ilthkoyape, derived from a Salish word for "kettle" combined with the Salish word for "net." Other explorers and fur traders such as Alexander Ross and Gabriel Franchère called the falls La Chaudron—"The Cauldron." Since 1940, Kettle Falls have slept beneath the waters of Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir impounded by Grand Coulee Dam. Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, Made Under the Direction of the Secretary of War (12 vols., Washington: Thomas H. Ford, Printer, 1860), 1:299. T. C. Elliott, "David Thompson's Journeys in the Spokane Country," Washington Historical Quarterly, IX (1918), 11.

8. The other artist was John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), who was born in Canandaigua, New York. In the 1840s and 50s he painted landscapes during the Mexican War and the Stevens railroad survey, as well as Native American and Hawaiian life.

9. Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, 12 vols. (Washington: United States War Department, 1855-60), Vol. I, Supplement, p. 529. Today a "pass" is the point at which a mountain range is crossed. In 19th-century topography, however, the entire valley or defile leading to a notch or gap where a crossing could be made was called a pass.

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Cultural Trust