The Start of Housing Tracts on South Hill
by Carl Vest
As we all know, South Hill is covered with housing developments. Most have a registered name. In size they range from very large planned communities such as Gem Heights and Silver Creek, to smaller sized groupings such as mobile home parks. Each can be considered to be an individual community, existing within the overall boundaries of South Hill. Some are decades old while others were built recently.
How did all this come about? When this area was first settled South Hill was basically a plateau covered with old growth timber. Lumber companies, buying up railroad land grants, logged off most of the trees during the late 1800s and early 1900s. When the logging era was over general land usage then changed into agricultural activities.
It should be recognized that the pioneers and other early settlers generally thought in terms of acquiring large tracts of land: usually square mile chunks, known as Sections. Thus, in the late 1800s and early 1900s most land registration records show ownership in terms of large blocks. As a result, given that space was available, South Hill as a whole gradually became a community of small farmers. The growing of Hops was an early venture. Dairy farms were started. Berry and fruit farms were initiated. Records show that farm products, especially Hops, were shipped all over the world. But it must be recognized that at the same time this was happening some of the Hill’s northern most land was also beginning to be subdivided. This other usage was to accommodate new people arriving by the modern railroads.
The first region to be subjected to a planned increase in density was the Woodland community. Woodland can be defined as consisting of about two square miles, bounded by present day 112th Street on the south, 86th Avenue on the east, 96th Street on the north, and Canyon Road on the west. It was in September, 1890, that Stephen Nolan and his wife, Helen, along with Michael Shea and his wife Eva, platted the Hill’s first high concentration development. It was named the Shea and Noland’s Five Acre Tracts. Five acre lots may not seem like high density now, but at the time it was very close-together thinking. The plan was for about 40 five acre lots, or roughly 200 acres. The project bordered on both sides of present day Woodland Avenue, north of 112th Street.
The second high density undertaking was in 1891 located just to the east of the Shea and Noland venture. It was platted by the Tacoma & Puyallup Railroad Company, and named Fruitland. The community consisted of around 30 four acre lots, or on the order of 120 acres. This property also included the Woodland School site, which had been there since 1885. It was not until 1908 that higher concentrations were registered.
So while most of South Hill’s initial land usage started as farms of various sizes, high density housing areas also began early. Initially such development was not significant, but eventually it forced out agricultural uses.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.