The Nezperce Story
A History of the Nezperce National Forest


The Milner Road, which was only a trail in the beginning, was built in the spring of 1862. It was a toll road. The route followed the South Fork of the Salmon River Divide to Adams Camp, and from there cut across Slate Creek in about the present location of the Florence road. Just when the original trail was developed into a wagon road is not clear from the records.

Not much is said about how Elk City was reached, which likely means that the Nez Perce Indian Trail was followed. The present old Elk City road generally is on that route.

The Leiberg report says:

The three trails extending across the reserve, the Lolo Trail on the north, the trail through Lost Horse Pass in the center and the Nez Perce Trail on the south were laid out by the Indians ages ago and their course was made to coincide as nearly as possible with the primary ridges, the North Fork Lochsa, the Lochsa-Selway and the Salmon River divides, the canyons being utterly unpassable without much grading and rock cutting.

Leiberg's report does not include the area south of the Salmon River or it would have undoubtedly included a fourth route to the south, the Boise Trail which followed the Snake-Salmon divide. This trail was of Indian origin and shows evidence of heavy use in years gone by. Legend has it that many cattle were brought into the mining camps of the region from Oregon by that route.

The map which accompanied Leiberg's report also showed a trail up Red Horse Creek from Elk City across Anderson Butte, then across Meadow Creek at about Toms Cabin, and then to Indian Park and the Bilk Mountain country. This ties in with what Billy Parsons, a Nez Perce Indian packer, remembered as a child when he accompanied his parents over the route on a hunting trip. The map also shows a portion of the Shoup Trail which branched off the Nez Perce Trail in the vicinity of Poet Camp on Bargamin Creek.

The wagon road built into Dixie in 1897 supposedly marked the close of the pioneer days. A wagon road was completed into the Hump country from Grangeville in October of 1900. The trail up the South Fork from Grangeville to Elk City was completed in 1909; the junction was made at Reeds Bar. The Selway Road was completed about 1925 and the South Fork Road was finished to Elk City about 1930. The road to Castle Creek was completed about 1924.

When the Castle Creek Road was being located in the winter of 1919-20, a tragedy occurred when J. B. Adamson, a B.P.R. engineer, who had also located the Pierce-Bungalow Road, accidentally shot himself. He was scouting alone and, at the mouth of a small creek below Castle Creek, had apparently attempted to get a drink when his pistol fell from his holster, hit a rock, discharged and shot him in the stomach. Before he died, he left a note explaining what happened.

In the late 1930's, Ranger V. L. Collins prepared the following article for the Northern Region News which covers some of the early transportation problems of the forest as well as other general information:

Transportation on the Nezperce - Then and Now
By V. L. Collins

During the past 6 or 7 years great changes have taken place on the transportation map of the Nezperce Forest. Roads have been built to approximately 30 regular lookout-fireman stations. Several emergency points have also been connected up to the road system. The additional speed made possible in hitting fires by car, as a result of roads to lookout points, is practically impossible to estimate as values go in dollars and cents. Up to the time truck trail construction began, the approximate mileage of usable roads on the Nezperce was in the neighborhood of 250 miles. The total of our roads today is approximately 715 miles and all of it is aiding and helping to cut down the elapsed time in hitting fires.

The additional area now accessible to sight-seeing auto parties, berrypickers and outers affords abundant possibilities inside as well as outside the Nezperce. Travelers today who want to go into the Nezperce Forest are able to penetrate deeply into almost any section except the upper portions of the Salmon and Selway drainages. Districts which were once heard of by the outside public - out here where civilization is supposed to begin - only through forest officers and occasional miners, trappers and a few others, are now well known to many residents of Camas Prairie and the Lewiston locality. Sunday motor trips over truck trails and other roads and highways are quite the thing and are enjoyed by hundreds weekly.

Travel to Elk City before 1930 was over the old Elk City wagon road, at that time a somewhat rebuilt model of the old Nez Perce Indian trail which terminated in the Bitterroot Valley. A trip to Elk City by stage in winter over the old road with a sleigh and two or four horses took 2 days with an overnight stop at Newsome House. Snowshoes for the horses were often used at the higher elevations. Passengers were treated to a continual spectacle of rugged mountain peaks draped in an over-abundant blanket of snow. The entire picture was one vast expanse, glistening white, except where broken by forest-covered slopes not covered by snow. Keeping horses up and going was no job for an amateur "skinner." Occasionally a horse stepped off the 18-inch beaten track and failed to get back. What took place from then on proved the worth of a teamster as well as of each horse. The problem was to get the down horse up and at the same time keep the others on their feet. With only one horse down, the other three could drag it along by jerks with a good probability of getting it up. Two down increased the difficulty somewhat. Three horses down out of four was very bad, but they never gave up until all four went down. It was then up to the teamster to get into the game and work the horses up, one at a time. The prospects of the passengers getting in to a late supper, if any, increased immediately.

During mining boom days in the Elk Basin at Orogrande, Buffalo Hump, and Dixie, as high as 80 teams were said to have put up at Elk City on the same night. The population of the town itself was variously estimated at from 3,000 to 5,000 people, with 2,000 more up and down Newsome Creek. A large portion were Chinese. The pay streak in the east was at its best about this time. Mining machinery was shipped to the end of the railroad and from there taken by team. The industry boomed along with its characteristic lack of any planning or efficiency. Numerous stampmills were installed. Some were operated then. Others have not turned a wheel since. Practically a complete mill was installed at the Wiseboy near 7,500 feet in elevation. It was to be electrically powered. Most material was hauled over the snow to a low pass between Buffalo Hump and North Pole mountains. Both peaks are over 8,000 feet in elevation. The machinery was taken down the west side of the divide to the Wiseboy and there it is today, motors, belting, wire, buildings and all.

When the boom ended, the bulk of the population scattered. The remnant, resourceful enough to make a living in the country, settled down gradually at whatever they could do, reluctant to believe the boom was over. Some were determined and have been long-lived enough to take part in the present boom which started in 1930.

Today the trip to Elk City from Grangeville can be made in about 2 hours' driving time. It is hardly necessary to go out of high gear. An auto stage makes daily trips to Elk City. Daily papers, fresh milk, vegetables, and even ice are delivered to Elk City, Golden, Fall Creek, and other stops along the South Fork. The State keeps a maintenance crew working practically year-long and snow is removed during the winter. The number of people in this region today bears no resemblance to the original population estimates. Elk City is quite a busy little village with one fair hotel, three or four beer parlors, a couple of grocery stores, and several other establishments. Settlements have also sprung up at Orogrande, Golden, and Fall Creek. Dixie is a thriving headquarters for the numerous mines surrounding it.

Let's consider the handicaps and obstacles the oldtimers encountered: The oldtimer packed most of his provisions from the end of the road on his back, whipsawed his lumber or used timber; built roads and trails up one side of the mountain, down the other - and used them; fought his way over many a weary mile on snowshoes or skis; built hundreds of miles of ditch for conveying water to his placer workings, and did it all for about $20 an ounce for his gold. The present generation of miners hauls most of his supplies into the mine with a car, or finds another mine where it can; drives into the show at Grangeville on Saturday night or goes to the dance at Fall Creek or Elk; takes few, if any, long snowshoe trips and whipsaws no lumber. If the road gets rough, the forest supervisor or county commissioner is complained to, or a Senator written to. Present day miners find life difficult enough with gold at $35 per ounce and with the daily paper and baker's bread thrown in.

In the late thirties G. I. Porter had an enlightening article in the Northern Region News concerning the early activities in the Hump strike:

Who Says?
by G, I. Porter

With all due respect to Earl McConnell as author of The Early Miner and His Transportation Problem in the October 21 issue of Northern Region News, I must take issue with him on his statement that Roy Headley knows more about the early transportation activities in the Buffalo Hump District than any other man in the Service. Yes, Roy drove a freight wagon over the old road, but the undersigned pulled the first freight into the Hump, freight which made possible the building of the road over which Roy herded his "sopeyes" more than a year later. Here's the story.

In the late winter of '98-'99 (about March) the "deal" on the "Big Buffalo" had reached the point where it became advisable to see what was under the ground. Incidentally, the contract price of this prospect was $800,000, the biggest price ever paid for a 10-foot hole in the ground up to that time. Or probably since. And that price was PAID!

Walter Hovey Hill, a civil and mining engineer, now in Boise, was in charge of transportation at that time and wrote me at Elk City to manufacture some toboggans and hire men to freight supplies and tools into the Hump. About 30 men were to be employed in development work at the Hump and the road to the Old Badger Mine (now the Penman), 2 or 3 miles up the creek from the present site of Orogrande, and then another mile or two up the hill to the mine, was to be the base of the toboggan route. Supplies were freighted by sled to the Badger. Then the two-man toboggans came into play (?). That was a rough sled track along the divide between Big Creek and Crooked River and down to Fish Lake nestling under the Hump Range. An 8-mile drag, two men to a toboggan with 200 or more pound loads, and, of course, snowshoes all the way.

From Fish Lake it was backpack (again webs) straight up for thousands of feet, and 6 miles to the camp at Big Buffalo.

The night camp at Fish Lake, used as a swing-camp for sledders and packers from each end of the trail, was as comfortable as canvas, blankets, sourdoughbread and beans could make it, and we had a good cook. Tents, buried in the snow, Sibley stoves, brush beds on the ground, seven or more in a bed, where, if one wanted to turn over, everyone turned at the signal, "flop." On colder (they were all cold) nights, watches kept the Sibley going.

Several of these men later made fortunes from the Buffalo Hump Mines, but not one of these died with money, and they all died.

One of the toboggan crew didn't believe in pulling a sled. He was a Turk built like a concrete pier, name forgotten but called "Atlas" but he didn't mind. This behemoth would put three sacks of flour in his pack, eye it critically, put on another, then tie a caddy of "Star" or "Horshoe" atop of all to hold it down, and stalk off as if he were just out for a nice stroll. He would loaf along with as much load as two of us had on a sled, rested standing up, and could beat us to the end of the trail if he wanted to. But he was a gentleman, and never let slip a word to show us up - doing as much as two men, a sled, and much picturesque and lurid English.

Grub and tools went in over this route for a month or more, when we put some horses on snowshoes until the snow trails broke up in the spring.

With the supplies "horsed" in thus, the "Big Buffalo" development was started, and work was continued on a large scale on this and other properties for several years.

Apropos of those oldtime transportation problems a story comes to mind.

Nevada Jack was dogsledding the mail from Adams Camp to Callendar. The snow was yards and feet deep and one evening, after a heartbreaking day in the soft snow, he pulled into a mining camp still several miles from the end of his "star route." A Boston lady, wife of a resident engineer, appeared on her porch about 14 feet above the ground but on a level with the sled track, gazed tearfully upon and spoke sympathetically to the "poor dear little doggies," went back into the house and reappeared with a plate of doughnuts.

Jack watched (without particular evidenced sympathy) the disappearance of the exotic dainties and exploded, "Lady, I've come as far as these poor little doggies, they haven't had to break trail or herd me, and the coffee that should have gone with those sinkers wouldn't have poisoned me. MUSH, you so-and-so's!"

* * *

The Free Press of October 17, 1901, says, "Gardiner I. Porter, a merchant at Elk City was in town this week and informs us the old camp is prospering nicely."

G. I. was a ranger on the Nezperce from 1907 to 1912 and later a member of the regional office for many years. He passed away about 1957 after a lengthy retirement.

The early forties saw the end of the CCC camps and with them the end of any appreciable road construction except that done by operators in connection with timber sales. Some of these operator-built roads were of much higher standard than the so-called fire roads, and the first graveled surfaces began to show up.

Now and then a spur road to a heretofore trail chance lookout would be built, mainly by contributed time. In 1956 a new bridge was built at Lowell and another across the Selway at the mouth of O'Hara Creek, Plans were in the making for timber access roads to be built into new areas with appropriated funds, but none were built prior to 1957.

The once large mileage of trails is gradually being reduced as the more accessible areas are opened up by logging roads. However, in the Primitive Area trails are still the only means of ground travel.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 11-Nov-2008