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The Northern Pacific Railroad & South Hill

by Carl Vest

There are no railroads on South Hill.  At one time there were trolleys providing service to some areas but those tracks are long gone.  During the logging era there were also some temporary rail installations for moving cut timber.  They have also disappeared.  Nevertheless, it should be recognized that railroads have had a significance influence on the use of land on South Hill.

The impact can be traced to Federal actions in the 1860s and 1870s.  During that period transcontinental railroads were thought to be the way to connect the US east and west coasts for commerce and the movement of settlers to newly acquired lands.  In 1869 the first line was completed, named the Central Pacific/Union Pacific.  It linked San Francisco and Chicago.  That track did not serve the Pacific Northwest.

In 1864 Congress produced a second Bill that brought railroading to the northwest.  It was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln.  This act authorized a program to develop a railroad and telegraph line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound.  The port on Puget Sound to be the terminal was Tacoma, Washington Territory --- not Seattle.  The company formed to carry out this effort was named the Northern Pacific Railroad.  The line was completed in 1883.

Paying for this proposed railroad was also a part of the law.  It authorized, for example, that certain public lands along its right of way be granted to the Northern Pacific which was then to sell this acreage to pay for construction costs.  The grant was every other square mile of land along the route, to a depth of either 40 or 80 miles depending on location.  In Washington Territory the depth was 80 miles.  This created the so-called checkerboard pattern of allocations along the railroad’s path.

The Northern Pacific’s way through the Cascade Mountains was Stampede Pass.  On the western side the line passed through the present-day towns of Enumclaw, Buckley, and Orting, and then along the Puyallup River to Alderton, Puyallup, and Tacoma.  This route put the railroad just north of South Hill between Orting and Puyallup.  South Hill was, as a result, subject to the land allocations given to the railroad.

The Northern Pacific disposed of its lands on South Hill in a number of ways.  Some parcels were sold to individual investors, but most of it was acquired by Frederick Weyerhaeuser.  A 1915 map, for example, shows Weyerhaeuser, at that late date,  still owning either all or parts of Sections 1, 15, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, and 35.  That’s ten Sections out of the 36 on South Hill, a total approaching one-third of the Township.  A Section is one square mile and the numbers illustrate the checkerboard pattern of the railroad’s titles.  As for sales to individuals, title abstracts can be found, even now, that illustrate land transfers. 

Many land owners probably do not know the historical roots of their holdings. But many of their titles can be traced to the original grant awards to the Northern Pacific Railroad.

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