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Recognizing Settlers Journey

by Carl Vest

On September 18, 2001, the Pierce County Council issued a Resolution proclaiming October 11th to be “South Hill Heritage Appreciation Day.”  By that act it was intended to recognize the historic significance of a newly designated South Hill Heritage Corridor.  Many new residents to South Hill may not know that such a corridor exists, let alone why it has been so designated.

It all started in the 1840s when the US military felt a need to connect its various outposts.  At that time Fort Steilacoom was the focal point for military presence in the Puget Sound area and it was judged that better communications with other installations was needed.  So among other projects, a wagon road was constructed between Forts Steilacoom and Bellingham.  One section of this road was created across South Hill.  From the south it entered onto the Hill at a point near present day Spanaway.  It exited just to the north of where the Tacoma water reservoir is now located.  For the most part the road builders adhered to the natural terrain and so it is rather meandering in its layout.  And while the road was used by the military for decades it’s most famous use occurred in 1853 when an immigrant wagon train using the Oregon Trail crossed South Hill using the road as a passage.

The story of the Oregon Trail is well known.  What is often not appreciated is that when settlers reached the trail’s end in Oregon City they still had to travel either north or south to find useable acreage for homes.  If the Puget sound area was chosen as their destination, for example, they still faced a difficult journey using both water and land paths.  So a short cut was envisioned.  It was reasoned that it would take less time if travelers could cut directly west from Walla Walla and cross the Cascade Mountains into the Sound area, rather than take the Columbia River to Oregon City and then travel north.

So in the fall of 1853 the leaders of one wagon train decided to make the attempt.  They had left Council Bluffs, Iowa in May 1853.  They had arrived in the Walla Walla area in early September.  The train consisted of 36 wagons and 170 people.  It was co-captained by James Longmire and James Biles.

During September the group worked its way up the east slopes of the Cascade Range.  Their intent was to cross the mountains through Naches Pass before winter snow made the trip impossible.  By October 1st they had reached the summit of the Pass, a place called Summit Prairie (now called Government Meadow).  By October 8th they had crossed the Puyallup River, climbed and crossed South Hill, and were camped by Clover Creek, near present day Spanaway.

So the South Hill heritage corridor is a significant part of the history of South Hill.  And October is the month to remember those early pioneers who preceded us to the area.

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