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The Heritage Corridor Across South Hill

By Carl Vest

Each year in October, we in the South Hill Historical Society pause to acknowledge one of the most significant events that ever happened in our community.  In October, 1853, when the area was sparsely settled and generally covered with old growth timber, a special wagon train crossed South Hill.  It was significant because by this passage an emigrant party completed a transcontinental crossing and for the first time used a new route, the North Fork of the Oregon Trail.  

In the early 1850s the traditional way of using the Oregon Trail to reach Puget Sound was to first journey across the plains until reaching the Columbia River.  When that was accomplished, the trip continued on to the Portland area using that river as a highway.  Finally, the last step was to proceed north on the west side of the mountains using a combination of river and overland travel.  It was a long and arduous journey. 

Consequently, it had been argued by local immigration boosters that if the ultimate destination was Puget Sound a better way to get there would be to take a more direct route when reaching the Columbia River.   Starting at about a point now known as Umatilla, Oregon, the central part of Washington Territory could be crossed and the Sound reached through one of the known mountain passes.  This idea had been extensively promoted and the citizens of Fort Steilacoom had gone so far as to start the construction of a path through Naches Pass on the western slopes of the Cascades.  The intent was to follow an existing ancient Native American hunting trail.

This first emigrant party through Naches Pass actually crossed the plains as two separate groups; one captained by James Longmire and the other by James Biles.  They had left Council Bluffs, Iowa, in May, 1853.  Before heading for Naches Pass, they combined into a single train with joint leadership --- the so-called Longmire-Biles party.  The actual number of people and wagons in this company are really unknowns. Recorded numbers vary slightly depending on which source is accessed.  It is generally accepted that the group had about 36 wagons and 170 people.

The consolidated train left the Columbia River in early September, 1853. It took a month to cross the Cascades.  There are many published stories about the hardships endured during that transit.  It is understood that the party camped and disbanded on October 8, 1853, at Clover Creek, near Spanaway, at the present site of the Brookdale Golf Course.  Some historians feel the date was October 12, 1853.   Whichever, the train crossed South Hill on that same date. 

In 2001, Pierce County declared the path used to cross South Hill to be a Heritage Corridor.   A number of signs were put in place to mark the route.  Physical evidence of the trail has almost disappeared, but Rogers High School is actually located on a portion of the old trail and there are markers showing its location on campus.  We should all celebrate this historic event.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.

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