Reliving the Longmire-Biles Trek Over South Hill
by Carl Vest
Each October, the South Hill Historical Society recognizes a very historic event that took place in this community during that month. It was 163 years ago that a party of immigrants crossed the Hill after a difficult journey through the Cascade Mountains using a gap known as Naches Pass. It was a wagon train that we now call the Longmire-Biles party and they were the first organized settlers to come into the Puget Sound region by that path. The troop crossed South Hill on October 8, 1853.
Pierce County has recognized the physical path used by this party by declaring it a Heritage Corridor and erecting signage at several points. One signpost can be found near the intersection of Shaw and Military Roads. Another is located on 94th Avenue, just south of the new Public Works facility. A third is just east of Rogers High School on 128th Street (right where the new housing area is being constructed). A fourth is on the west side of Rogers High School on 86th Avenue. The final one is on Woodland Avenue, near its intersection with 160th Street.
The phrase Longmire-Biles party comes from the names of its leaders, James Longmire and James Biles. They were the organizers of two different wagon trains traveling the Oregon Trail separately — both headed to the Puget Sound region — when they decided to merge. The exact number of wagons and people involved depends on the account you read, but there were about 30 wagons and approximately 170 people.
In 1853 the customary route to this region was on the traditional Columbia River path to the present-day Portland area; and, then north on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. It was recognized that the distance would be much shorter if a path through the Cascades could be used. And, while resting near what is now Umatilla, Oregon, this group received word that such a corridor had been identified and was passable for wagons.
Several weeks were spent in crossing what is now central Washington State and climbing the eastern slopes of the Cascades — following an old Native American trail normally used by people on foot or horseback, but one that was not friendly to wagon travel. It is recorded they arrived on the Cascade summit in mid-September.
After resting they started down the western slopes. Again, they found that the path had not been prepared for wagons as they had hoped. It was a difficult descent. There is some controversy about how they actually got wagons over certain cliffs. The Puyallup River was crossed at what is known as the Van Ogle Ford. There are numerous accounts of the group marveling at the number of fish in the river. Some claimed you could walk across by stepping on the fish.
After crossing South Hill the group went to the Mahon Ranch on Clover Creek where they disbanded as an organized group. That location is now Brookdale Golf Course.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.