Trails to Rails

Page 3 of 4

The next fundamental change in transportation came with the introduction of wagons drawn by mules, oxen, horses, and even cattle. Euro-Americans migrating westward needed to transport goods much heaver and larger than could be carried by horses or mules. However, wagons didn't have the huge impact on tribal culture that the horse had created, for tribal peoples had no need to transport large, heavy goods. Especially in the Bitterroot Mountains, wagon roads were difficult to build and most travelers of all cultures still transported goods on pack trains made up of horses and mules.

On Jim Brown Ridge Matt Battani, Steve Russell's survey assistant, stands in the tread of the original trail on Jim Brown Ridge, east of Weippe Prairie. This section of the old trail has not been used for more than 140 years.

In the 1860s, the federal government started an extensive program of wagon road development to support westward expansion. In the northwest, the Mullan Military Road and the Lewiston and Virginia City Wagon Road were two examples. The Mullan Road went westward from Fort Benton, Montana to Helena, then down the Little Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers to Missoula, Montana. From Missoula, it went westward up the St. Regis de Borgia River and over the pass into Mullan and Kellogg, Idaho. Passing by Spokane and then heading south, its final destination was Fort Walla Walla, Washington. At the time, it was thought that the Mullan Road would experience frequent wagon traffic but that never happened. Long winter seasons of heavy snows, swampy conditions in the spring, and frequent bridge washouts at high water created a very short and unpredictable travel season. The potential envisioned by the federal government was never fully realized.

The Bird-Truax Trail

Even less productive was the federal plan initiated in 1865 to build a wagon road across the Bitterroot Range to carry supplies from Lewiston, Idaho Territory, to the gold fields of Montana Territory, with Virginia City as its eastern terminus, and to ship gold out. Early in 1866, Wellington Bird, a civil engineer from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, was appointed superintendent and disbursing agent for the project.

Bird recruited several other Iowans to join him, contracted with George Nicholson, a young civil engineer from Cincinnati, Ohio, for the instrument survey of the route, and engaged Oliver Marcy of Evanston, Illinois, to take charge of the earth-science aspects. Bird and his party left New York by steamer on March 10, 1866, arrived in San Francisco via Cape Horn on April 5, and proceeded overland through Walla Walla, Washington, to Lewiston, Idaho, on the Snake River opposite the mouth of the Clearwater. At Lewiston, Bird purchased more supplies and equipment, as well as horses and mules. He also made arrangements for the additional laborers that would be needed.

On May 24, Bird and a small party headed eastward for a reconnaissance of the northern and southern Nez Perce trails. They had heard arguments in Lewiston that supported each trail as the "best" route, so they needed to make a first-hand comparison of the two. On May28 Bird was at Schultz Ferry on the Clearwater near the settlement of Greer. His party included William Craig, Sewell Truax, George Nicholson, Oliver Marcy, and a Nez Perce guide, Tah-Tu-Tash. Craig represented the citizens of Lewiston and also served as a guide. Truax was an experienced builder of wagon roads who also was familiar with the Bitterroot Mountains.

On June 9 they were encamped at Musselshell Meadows, about 12 miles east of Weippe. The weather was so cold and rainy, and the previous winter's snows still so deep, that they could progress no further. It was not until June 26 that the party was able to leave Musselshell and proceed eastward over the old trail, arriving in the Bitterroot Valley on July 7. From there, the main party returned to Lewiston while Nicholson, Truax, and Tah-Tu-Tash went up the Bitterroot River to the head of the valley and then explored the southern Nez Perce trail. Nicholson was soon convinced that the northern route would be the best.

Bird learned of Nocholson's advice on July 23, and immediately sent laborers and supplies over the Pierce City Wagon Road to the Weippe Prairie, to begin construction, while Nicholson and his crew went ahead to conduct the instrument survey. The dense forest and the rugged terrain proved to be serious obstacles to progress. Nicholson and his crew had to shout to each other and hack through the dense brush merely to shoot their bearings. Truax followed with the laborers, who removed trees and brush to clear a bed wide enough for the wagon road. Work continued until the end of September, when the weather turned bad, and the project had to be halted until the following summer. They had cleared the timber and brush as far as Lolo Pass, yet little if any excavation or grading had been done, and no bridges had been built. Bird notified his superiors in Washington that additional funding would be necessary.

Bird wanted to return to Iowa and his family, so he made arrangements for Truax to take over as superintendent. However, this met with stern disapproval from Washington, and Truax was not approved for the job. Bird was severely criticized for leaving his post; some of the men even accused him of issuing fraudulent pay and equipment vouchers, although government records do not indicate any resolution of those issues. At any rate, federal funds were not available – even to improve the existing wagon road between Lewiston and the Nez Perce Reservation headquarters at Lapwai.

In 1877 the route that Bird's crews had surveyed and cleared was used by the Non-Treaty Nez Perce bands for their ill-fated flight toward freedom east of the Rockies, but thereafter, traffic quickly declined, and the forest soon reclaimed it. In the early 1900s the U.S. Forest Service re-worked the 1866 trail for use by firefighting crews. In 1934 a single lane road for motorized vehicles was built over parts of the route, becoming known variously as the Lolo Divide Road, the Lolo Trail Road, or the Lolo Motorway. Meanwhile, some historically-minded people began calling the abandoned remnants of the intended Lewiston and Virginia City Wagon Road the "Bird-Truax Trail." Today, some 40 miles of it have been designated by the Clearwater National Forest as a recreation trail for use by hikers and horseback riders.1

Impossible Dream

Into this mix of wagon roads and pack trails came the railroad builders. Their quest was to bring heavy-duty, long-haul transportation to every inhabitable area of the United States. The Bitterroots and the Lolo Trail were no exception. Railroad surveys were started in 1854 with the travel of Captain John Mullan over the Lolo Trail as part of his work for the Pacific Railroad surveys under the command of Isaac Stevens. What Mullan did could hardly be called a survey. He followed the Lolo Trail as fast as possible, recording infrequent, and somewhat inaccurate, notes of the route. This was quite uncharacteristic of Mullan, who was a skilled and meticulous survey engineer. It's probably just an indication of how hopeless the route actually was.

The next railroad building efforts occurred in the early 1900s with a survey of a route up Lolo Creek, Montana and down the Lochsa River to Kooskia, Idaho. This route was highly impractical, as the Lolo Trail had been, but the railroad companies were looking to claim alternate sections of government land containing timber and minerals, which was given to companies in return for increasing access for homesteaders in the plains and valleys. The railroad was never built over Lolo Pass, but the Northern Pacific Railroad gained ownership of the land anyway, which accounts for the checkerboard ownership that is reflected in the pattern of logged-over land on both sides of Lolo Pass (see Landsat Over Lolo Pass.)

Forest Park

Looking westward at the original trail east of Lolo Pass. This flat area does not hold a tread very long, but it was used so heavily and so long by travelers – and later by cattle and sheep – that the swale still remains open and park-like today. It is now frequented mostly by deer and elk.

Forest Service Trails

Between 1907 and 1945, the Forest Service created an extensive system of trails to give fire control access to the region. This was really the golden age of the developed horse trail. Whereas the Nez Perce had limited their trail system to a few essential routes, the Forest Service needed access to all places within the national forest. They added extensively to the Nez Perce trail system and reconstructed many Nez Perce trails to make them safer for pack strings. An extensive system of fire lookouts was constructed on many of the highest peaks and pack trains traveled the trail system providing supplies to these lookouts. Starting in the 1930s, these trails were abandoned in favor of the easily-built one-lane roads still used today.


1. Steve F. Russell, "Virginia City and Lewiston Wagon Road: Microfilm Records 1865-1870," Ames, Iowa: Historic Trail Press, 2001, 3-4.

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