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A Brief History of South Hill

by Carl Vest

The fast growing region of South Hill has a rich history, the physical evidence of which is fast disappearing. There are, however, a few notable relics still in existence, some dating back to the first settlements on Puget Sound.  One early development and still visible landmark is the “Military Road,” built in the 1840s. This road now a Historical Corridor is the path that on October 8, 1853 the famous Longmire-Biles wagon train crossed South Hill having traveled through the Cascade Mountains on the ancient, Native American, Naches Pass Trail.

Just when the first settlers put down roots on South Hill is not known.  But old maps show that by the 1870s several Euro-Americans were living on the Hill, grouped mostly along the existing Military Road.  But other families were arriving, spreading south.

One of the earliest economic endeavors was logging.  There are no Donation Land Claims registered on South Hill, for example, as the first settlers had found South Hill covered with old growth trees.  But by the early 1900s logging operations using oxen, horses, skids, and later railroad spurs, had transformed much of the landscape into a barren wasteland covered with stumps. By 1910, however, low-priced land had attracted an estimated 300 dairymen and vegetable farmers, as well as chicken and rabbit ranchers.

Early transportation methods consisted primarily of ox-drawn wagons that were gradually replaced by automobiles.  By 1909 public transportation was available on the Hill via the Tacoma-Puyallup Interurban Line, a rail system. The Woodland Bus Company followed this in 1935.  North Dakota native, James Sagmiller started the first aviation activity on a gravel airstrip in the 1930s. The Wal Mart store is now located on his former airstrip.   The facility now known as Pierce County Airport, or Thun Field, on the East side of Meridian, was developed later by John Thun.

During WWII (1945) South Hill was bombed by the Japanese, using a balloon bomb system.  Fragments from one bomb were recovered near the present day airport.  Another is believed to have landed in the vicinity of present day Rogers High School.

Early business ventures were concentrated around Kupfer’s Corner (a.k.a. Willows Corner) now the intersection of Meridian Avenue and 112th Street (formerly historic Airport Way).  This location featured a gas station, a grocery, a tavern, and in the 1930s the Willows Dance Hall (admission for men, 75 cents, for women 25 cents).

Explosive growth started with the completion of Highway 512 in 1972.  Housing developments began to sprout up, bringing in as many as 1,000 homes in one plat.  With better access assured, businesses then began to form along Meridian Avenue. 

During the last 30 years the people on South Hill have formed associations, clubs and councils in an effort to channel and control growth, but with limited success.  Also since the 1990s Pierce County has become more active in planning for new roads, parks and recreational projects. But growth continues and it is not clear how South Hill will look in the future.

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