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Longmire-Biles Wagon Train Crossing

by Carl Vest

Each October the South Hill Historical Society recognizes a specific and important event in local history --- the South Hill crossing of the 1853 Longmire-Biles immigrant wagon train (Biles is sometimes spelled Byles).  It happened on October 8, 1853.  In today’s terms the group crossed the Puyallup River near the intersection of the Orting Highway and Military Road.  They proceeded up the eastern slopes of South Hill (essentially on today’s 122nd Street), emerging at about the intersection of Military and Shaw Roads.  Pierce County has placed a marker on Military Road to recognize the location.  It’s that brown sign beside the fence of the LDS church playground, on the south side of Military Road near the intersection.

The wagon train crossed South Hill moving generally east to west along a ridgeline.  Pierce County has placed a second marker at the approximate location where the party crossed present-day 94th Avenue (the sign is currently down for repair but the supports are there).  It’s near the new government complex now being constructed.  At about this location, the group turned generally southwest and went through the neighborhood now partially occupied by Rogers High School.  Three markers are in place showing this course.  First, there is a sign on 128th Street near its intersection with 94th Avenue.   Secondly there is a “manhole” type plate on the Rogers campus, flush with the ground, at the entrance to the athletic complex.  Third, there is an additional signboard on the west of the Rogers property, on 86th Street, to show where the trail exited the site (this sign too is currently being repaired).

After crossing present-day 86th Street, the wagon train moved generally southwest.  It crossed what later became known as Starvation Valley and emerged onto what is now Woodland Avenue (Starvation Valley is that dip you go through when you’re driving on 160th Street between Woodland Avenue and 78th Street.)  Again, county government has placed a notice on Woodland Avenue showing about where the immigrants came out of the valley and maneuvered to a southerly direction.  This placard is on the eastern side of Woodland Avenue, near its intersection with 160th Street.

The wagon train essentially left South Hill in the vicinity of the current Tacoma Gun Club, situated on Canyon Road.  At that point the group again turned west, toward Clover Creek.  The path would have been along contemporary Military Road.  The creek was then followed a short distance to the Mahon Ranch, which is now the Brookdale Golf Course.  It was at the ranch where the wagon train was disbanded as an organized entity, the families and individuals going their own way.  There is a marker on the golf course commemorating this point.

Pierce County has designated the path of this wagon train a Heritage Corridor.  Unfortunately, most of the original path is gone, the result of settlement, progress and development.  One spot does remain, however, near Rogers High School.  It is on private property and not accessible to the public.

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