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Nez Perce County has a varied, unique, and ancient geology.


Throughout the Lewiston and Nez Perce County area you can see the brown, cliff forming volcanic rocks. The basalt you see today represent a series of enormous lava flows that took place across the Pacific Northwest about 16.7 million years ago.

The lava flows stretch from the Oregon-California border, north central Idaho, and west along the Snake-Columbia River drainage.

     Approximately 4 to 12 million years ago, the structure of Lewiston Basin evolved as layers of materials were bent and folded down. Slump blocks of tertiary (Yakima) Basalt and inter-layered sediments from the Missoula, Montana Floods surged in and out of the Lewiston Basin and induced massive slumping for two miles along the Snake River. During this time, the ancient Salmon River Canyon filled several times with basalt and gravel.

     Finally, about 2 million years ago, a new river, the Snake, eventually cut the current Hells Canyon.


Nez Perce Indians

Chief Joseph's band 1877

The Nez Perce (NiMiiPuu)

Nez Perce is pronounced "nezz purse" in English. It comes from the French name for the tribe, Nez Percé (pronounced nay per-say.) Nobody knows why the French Canadian fur trappers called them this in the 18th century. It means "pierced nose," but the Nez Perce people say that unlike some neighboring tribes, they have never had a tribal tradition of pierced noses. Maybe the French confused the Nez Perce with another tribe, or maybe there was once a Nez Perce band or individual who had nose piercings. The Nez Perce name for themselves is Nimiipuu, which means "the people."

     Long before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark ventured west, before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the ‘new world,’ the Nez Perce lived in the prairies and river valleys of north Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. Here they fished the streams, hunted in the woodlands, and gathered the abundant roots and berries of the high plateaus. The Nez Perce traveled widely on the principal rivers of the region Snake, Clearwater, and Columbia to trade with neighbors.

     The acquisitions of the horse in the 1700s increased mobility, allowing for more frequent travel in company with their Cayuse and Palouse relatives to the Montana bison grounds and Columbia River fishing sites. It’s believed the Nimiipuu were the first tribe to selectively breed horses for specific traits and these horses, the appaloosas, were highly prized and greatly cared for. Lewis and Clark compared them to “the best blooded horses of Virginia.”

     During the 1800s the Nez Perce culture underwent profound changes. The arrival of the Lewis and Clark expedition triggered an era of change that would have lasting consequences for the Nez Perce. Following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark came fur trappers, traders and Christian missionaries such as Henry Spalding. Also, soldiers, settlers, gold miners and farmers moved into or through the area. With the arrival of newcomers looking for land, the Nez Perce, anxious to avoid conflict, met with officials of the US government and agreed to hold treaty negotiations.

     In 1855, the Nez Perce signed a treaty that created a large reservation that included most of their traditional homeland as their exclusive domain. It reduced that from 17 million to 7.5 million acres and the subsequent discovery of gold caused the government to reduce it again to 770,000 acres, Idaho’s largest Indian reservation.

     In 1863, however, following the discovery of gold on the reservation, settlers and miners forced a new treaty that reduced the reservation to one-tenth of the land originally set aside. Some tribal leaders accepted the treaty, but those who stood to lose their land rejected it, giving rise to the “treaty” and “nontreaty” designations of the respected factions. The Nez Perce bands who refused to accept the treaty remained in their homeland for several years. In May 1877, the U.S. government told the nontreaty Nez Perce that the U.S. Army would forcibly move them onto the new, smaller reservation if they did not do so willingly by June 14.



     The leaders of the nontreaty Nez Perce, Cayuse and Palouse bands, including Young Joseph, Looking Glass, and Toohoolhoolzote, not wishing to leave their homes or to go to war, had hoped for a favorable solution. Before the nontreaty bands could comply with the government order, however, a group of young men, angered by the situation and the lack of justice in murders committed against the Nez Perce, attacked and killed several local settlers.

     Fearing reprisal, the nontreaty band and their allies headed south to a more defensible location near Chief White Bird’s village. At White Bird Canyon on June 17, 1877, the Nez Perce inflicted heavy casualties on a superior force of pursuing cavalry.

     Skirmishes at Cottonwood in early July and a battle on the Clearwater River, July 11-12, proved in conclusive. At Weippe Prairie the non treaties decided to cross Lolo Pass into Montana. The bands, totaling about 800 men, women, and children, hoped that their friends, the Crow people, would help them out.

    More and more soldiers came after them, eventually totaling more than 2,000 infantry and cavalry by the time the war ended. At Big Hole, August 9-10, the Nez Perce lost between 60 and 90 people in surprise attack under Col. John Gibbon.      

     The relentless pursuit continued. The expected aid from the Crow people did not materialize. In October 1877, after a 1,100 mile chase, the U.S. Army besieged the Nez Perce and their allies at Bear Paw in northern Montana. Many escaped to Canada or found their way back to the Umatilla and Nez Perce reservations. Others, exhausted from the ordeal, were forced to surrender.

     The last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th were difficult ones for the Nez Perce as white values and culture were forced upon them. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 gave up to 160 acres of land to individual Nez Perce in belief that ownership of land would more swiftly assimilate them into the mainstream of American life. The unallotted land was sold to the general public. Soon more than 90 percent of reservation lands was in white ownership. 

     Today, the Nez Perce Reservation now rests in north central Idaho surrounded by the Snake, Salmon and Clearwater Rivers of 750,000 acres. The Nez Perce Tribe, with an enrolled membership of about 3,500 (2011), is headquartered in Lapwai, Idaho.  The Tribe is administered by the Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee (NPTEC),that consist of nine members elected by the Tribal General Council who are enrolled tribal members of voting age.

     The management of land and natural resources continues to be paramount for the Nez Perce. A strong tribal fish program employs nearly 50 full-time and part-time workers. Nez Perce co-management responsibilities extend to the Columbia, Snake, Tucannon, Grande Ronde, Imnaha, Clearwater, and Salmon drainages. Tribal members fish on the Clearwater River, which runs through the reservation near its northern and eastern borders, and on the Columbia, Rapid, and Selway rivers.

     The Tribe’s enterprises consist of the Clearwater River Casino and Lodge, near Lewiston at the border of the reservation along Highway 12 and 95. It’ Se Ye Ye Casino is located in Kamiah, Idaho along Highway 12.  Transportation services, Appaloosa Express and two gas and conveniences stores, The Nez Perce Express I, II and Camas Prairie.

Lewis and Clark Expedition of Discovery:

Reached Nez Perce County

in Oct 7, 1805.


On October 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark and members of the Corps of Discovery were on their first day in the new canoes built and launched from Canoe Camp in Orofino, Idaho. They traveled 20 miles that day, sustaining some damage to the canoes in the 10 rapids they crossed. Lewis & Clark and the crew camped that night near the present town of Lenore, across the river from Jack’s Creek.

     The next day they covered about 18 miles, passing Fir Island, Upper and Lower Cottonwood Islands, Church Island, Cottonwood Creek and Potlatch River.  About noon they stopped at a small village where there were several small canoes and “considerable” quantities of salmon. After buying some salmon and two dogs they proceeded on past Upper Cottonwood Island.

      At the lower end of the island one canoe hit a rock in the middle of the rapids. Gass went overboard and the canoe nearly split in two. It hung on the rocks in a “doleful situation” with men aboard who could not swim. 

A Nez Perce man took a small canoe to their rescue and they successfully got the damaged boat to shore. They beached for the night, probably on the right bank below the mouth of Potlatch River (named Colter River by Clark). They spent the next day repairing the canoe and drying the baggage.

     On the morning of October 10th the small flotilla was again on the river. They passed Lapwai Creek and Hog Island. Near the mouth of Hatwai Creek they came upon a “very bad riffle” (Reubens Rapid). They landed at a small village of eight lodges to view the riffle and purchase more fish and dogs. They began their assault on the riffle. Two canoes safely made it across; the third struck a rock. It took the men an hour to dislodge the boat before they could begin their final five miles on the Clearwater.

     The Corps of Discovery made camp at the forks of the Snake (Lewis’s River) and Clearwater (Koos Koos Kee) on the right bank of the Snake (opposite side of Clarkston). They described the country as an open plain with a high ridge of thinly timbered country (Craig Mountains) in the distance. There was “not one Stick of timber on the river near the Forks.” The water of the South Fork (Snake) was a greenish blue and the “north as clear as crystal.”

     A small island (Hirzel Island) was at the confluence and at a point of land on the nearby (Lewiston) shore was an Indian cabin. Mounted Nez Perce men, women and children came from all directions to “view” them.

     With the map they received from a Nez Perce man, Twisted Hair near Orofino, Lewis and Clark could identify the approximate locations of the Salmon, Grande Ronde and Imnaha Rivers from where they stood at the confluence.

Lewis and Clark

Lewiston, ID 1862

Founding of Lewiston

When the gold rush began, supplies for the mines came by riverboat from Portland via the Columbia River and then overland nearly 200 miles from The Dalles.

     In May 1861, the first riverboat, the Colonel Wright tested the uncharted Snake River and 22 miles up the Clearwater. Due to river conditions, the second boat, the Okanagen only reached the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, so this site was declared to be the boat terminal.

     The ship purser, Charles Frush, suggested the name Lewiston,“As the city would be on the banks of Lewis Fork (Snake River) of the Columbia, it would be appropriate to call it Lewiston, and all voted do, do, do, hence the name……”“….the junction of the two streams (Clearwater and Snake), where now stands the beautiful and thriving City of Lewiston, Idaho…..The Indian name for the place is She-me-ne-cum (Tsceminicum, meeting of the waters).”

     Lewiston eventually was a city of tents housing a transient and shifting population of from 7,000 to 8,000.

     In March of 1861, one of the earliest tent buildings was a warehouse for mining supplies. It was put up by partners Stephen Reuben, a Nez Perce headman, and retired mountain man, William Craig, who was married to a Nez Perce woman.










Through their influence, the city fathers were able to obtain a temporary lease of one square mile of reservation land for the town site. One popular type of building was made by erecting poles upon which rafters were set. The sides, ends, and roof were covered with brown muslin. There were no windows…more than 120 fabric structures of this type lined the streets of Lewiston.

     After 1862, wood became available and Lewiston was not on the Nez Perce Indian reservation, permanent buildings replaced the tents.

     In the early years Lewiston attracted reckless adventurers from around the world. There were fugitives from justice, deserters from the Civil War, and French nobility escaping persecution.

     “This country (Lewiston) is infested with thieves, robbers, murderers, desperadoes and escaped convicts.” (Quote by unknown), Also, Jewish merchants, German brewers and Mexican packers all looking for a new life or seeking a fortune.

     An atmosphere of optimism swept through the Clearwater area to build Lewiston, a town to supply the miner’s needs. As mining failed, gradually the cosmopolitan nature of early Lewiston slipped away, but many entrepreneurs remained a generation or longer to provide stability and growth to a young community.

William Craig 

Stephen Reuben 

Camas Praire Rail

Camas Prairie Railroad

The Camas Prairie Railroad opened on December 3, 1909.

     Two major railroads which had been fighting over the right to control the rail traffic in the Camas Prairie region of northern Idaho agreed to a compromise. In 1883, the Oregon Washington Railroad and Navigation Company (Union Pacific Railroad) built tracks up the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon to Pomeroy, Washington. The Northern Pacific Railroad (Burlington Northern) approached Lewiston from Spokane, Washington, reaching Genesee, Idaho in 1890, the year Idaho became a state.

     Competition between these two railroads was fierce. The chance to haul the valuable timber and farm products of the region meant profits including the prospect of transporting passengers. A railroad in the area would serve to connect Montana and points east with the cities and ports on the west coast. Railroad rights meant fortune. The battle for these rights became known as the Clearwater Railroad War. Survey crews sabotaged each other’s work and there was even talk of hired gunfighters being used to stop work crews.

     Meanwhile, the City of Lewiston, which had been trying to get a railroad into town for years, began construction of a railroad depot. Officials hoped that by offering any railroad who would come into town a free home, they could speed up progress.

     The Lewiston Railroad Depot was completed in 1895.  Unfortunately, there was still no railroad.

     City fathers got quite irritated at all the references to “The only railroad station in the country without a railroad.”

     September 1898 the first train whistled its way into Lewiston. The streets around the depot were clogged with buggies, horses and people. All the saloons were closed and everyone in town was at the depot. Bands were on hand and after speeches from city fathers and officials, the whole town danced on the depot platform in celebration of one of the greatest nights in the history of Lewiston.

     The scene for compromise was finally set when the Union Pacific completed its line to Riparia, Washington and up the Snake River into Lewiston in 1905. Train services began on July 7, 1908 from Lewiston heading East.  Rather than continue the “Railroad War”, and all the expense of duplicate tracks to the same locations, the two railroads agreed to pool their track and form a new company, The Camas Prairie.

     Ownership of the new company would be shared half and half by the parent roads. The formation of the Camas Prairie was one of the first joint operations of its kind in the US. The operating company, The Camas Prairie handled cars for the benefit of both parent companies. The expenses of the CPRR were shared on the basis of compared car miles. If 60 percent of the car miles moved were Union Pacific, then 60 percent of the expense involved is paid by the Union Pacific.

The CPRR owned no locomotives or freight cars of its own. It used and paid rent for the equipment the parent companies provided.    

     The Camas Prairie Railroad was divided into four regions or sub-divisions of 67 miles. The first and second regions covered most of Nez Perce County. The tracks of the first region followed the Clearwater River from Lewiston to Spalding, Arrow, Lenore, Peck and Ahsahka. It continued to Clearwater and Idaho counties of Orofino, Greer, Kamiah and Kooskia.    

     The second region from Spalding to Grangeville passed through Lapwai, Sweetwater, Culdesac and Reubens. After Reubens it entered into Lewis and Idaho Counties which included Craigmont, Ferinand, Cottonwood and Grangeville. Trains usually ran once a week on the Grangeville branch.      

     This region was the most picturesque in the country with a number of tunnels and 23 trestles. One spectacular trestle named Halfmoon is 685 feet long, 141 feet high and contains nearly one million board feet of lumber. The bridge over Lawyer’s Canyon is 1,523 feet long and 280 feet high. This portion of the railroad helped earn the Camas Prairie the nickname, “Railroad on Stilts”.     

     The region was known for winter snows, and the Camas Prairie had maintained a rotary snow plow for use on the Grangeville line. Even with the snow plow a normal trip of five or six hours could take three days or more during heavy snows.   

     The Camas Prairie was the setting for the movie, Breakheart Pass, starring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Ben Johnson, and the former light heavy-weight boxing champion of the world, Archie Moore. In addition, Wild, Wild West which starred Will Smith was filmed on the tracks of the Camas Prairie.    

     Passenger service was an important part of Camas Prairie operation. Trains left Lewiston for all local Camas Prairie points. Passengers could leave Lewiston for Portland, Oregon via the Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific provided services to Spokane.     

     The first diesel locomotive arrived on the Camas Prairie in 1954. In 1956, the last steam engine on the Camas departed, bound on top of a flat car. Local Camas Prairie passenger trains ended operations on August 24, 1955.    

     February 28, 1966 saw the end of the passenger era of railroading on the Camas Prairie.The railroad had seen discouraging days. Tracks have been removed, abandoned and stations closed. On September 14, 2000, the Surface Transportation Board in Washington D.C. backed abandonment of the only rail line connecting Spalding to Grangeville, substantially narrowing the options of grain and lumber shippers who would like to keep the tracks open. There was not enough business to keep Spalding to Grangeville stretch open.     

     The high cost of maintaining a rail line was compounded between Lewiston and the Camas Prairie with many trestles built over ravines, plus many cuts in the hillsides that cause rocks to fall onto the right of way.      

     Currently, the tracks are completely abandoned due to one trestle destroyed by fire, September 2011.

River Nav

River Navagation

Sternwheelers navigated the rivers of Nez Perce County from 1861, when the Colonel Wright brought 300 passengers to the Idaho gold fields, until 1940, when the steamer Lewiston made its last downriver trip to Portland.

     Riverboats hauled grain, wool and fruit from valley landings to Celilo and Riparia, and provided Nez Perce County with a valuable transportation link to Portland and West Coast markets.


Slack water navigation today recaptures in part the essence of those 79 years when river navigation was in important part of community life.


The two rivers have been vital to the economic history of growth and development of the region. Water was pumped or ditched onto the adjoining lands, bringing forth vast orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens.

     They provided a transportation outlet for dryland farming in the higher regions and transformed the stepped flats at the rivers’ confluence into the towns of Lewiston and Clarkston, providing a power source as well.

     Commercial fishing and ferryboat service created some employment for valley residents, and logs were driven down the Clearwater to the mills until 1971, providing the area with a sound economic base for the past 50 years.

     Life in Nez Perce County has been directly or indirectly influenced by the rivers for as long as people have lived along the valley shores. Residents have sought ways of overcoming the region’s geographic isolation; while at the same time they have relished the unique life style, the magnitude of the surrounding countryside, and the many recreational advantages that only such a locale can bring.

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