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Narrow Gage Railroad on South Hill

By Carl Vest

There are no working railroads on South Hill.  But roughly a hundred years ago one was built and for a couple of decades operated through the northern part of the community.  It was constructed in the mid-1890s to connect the cities of Tacoma and Puyallup.  Today parts of the old roadbed are known as 104th Street East. 

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the City of Puyallup and the Puyallup Valley in general, were enjoying a prosperous period. Specialized farming was flourishing, with hops and fruit being produced in large quantities for shipment.  As time passed the volume being transported by both road and water began to overload the local transportation infrastructure.  At the time there was only one land road between Puyallup and Tacoma. While it was a well-graded thoroughfare, it did not provide an adequate means for the fast transference required to support the flourishing local agricultural industry. Ultimately local leaders thought that this problem might be solved by building a railroad between the cities.  As a result they formed the Puyallup Valley Railway Company with the proposed mission of building a narrow gauge railroad from Tacoma to Sumner by way of Puyallup. 

The incorporators and trustees of the proposed network were G.C. Bean, W. McAllister, E. Meeker, J.V. Meeker, Charles Rose, Frank Spinning, and L.F. Thompson.  It was estimated the roadbed would be thirteen miles in length and would follow the right bank of the Puyallup River.  That waterway would then be crossed at the Puyallup Tribal Reservation.  The line was never built, however, because the native community voted against a right-of-way through their Reserve.  Alternative routes were then considered.  The only other option was to the south and that’s when South Hill was investigated. It was concluded that a feasible roadbed could be constructed by starting in the vicinity of Maplewood Springs in Puyallup, going south to South Hill, and then west to an existing railroad in the Summit area.  While a bit longer than the original plan, it did connect the cities with a viable rail system.

In Puyallup the route began at about present-day 5th Avenue SW and Meridian (5th Avenue was known as Indiana Avenue at the time).  For a short stretch it went west through the so-called Maplewood Housing Addition, at which point it curved south to the bottom of the South Hill mound, which was about a mile away.  The course continued south through Clark’s Creek Canyon to the top of South Hill.  The roadbed entered onto South Hill at a point that later would be known as Woodland, about two miles west of present-day Meridian Avenue.  It was graded further south for about one-half mile ending near today’s Fruitland Avenue and then pointed west through South Hill to Summit.  These parts of the roadbed later became 104th Street.

There was a terminal at about today’s Woodland Avenue and 104th Street.  It provided access for service to local residents.  This railroad served the citizens of the area until the 1920s.

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

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