Longmire-Biles Wagon Train Crosses South Hill
by Carl Vest
One of the more historic happenings on South Hill took place in 1853 in the month of October. It was on October 8, 1853 that a major emigrant wagon train made its way across the Hill, carrying several groups of colonizers. This particular wagon train is usually called the Longmire-Biles party.
The Longmire and Biles groups, as two separate wagon trains, left the Council Bluffs, Iowa, area in May 1853. They traveled separately on the well-established Oregon Trail, reaching the Umatilla River, near Walla Walla in August. Their mutual destination was the Puget Sound area so the two groups decided to combine and deviate from traditional practice and take a new route to the Puget Sound. Instead of using the Columbia River to the Portland, Oregon, area and then traveling north on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, they would try a new route across what was then Washington Territory. They would traverse the Cascade Mountains through the Naches Pass, on a trail that Native Americans had used for centuries. In the past this ancient trail had been little more than a footpath but the immigrants had received word it had been improved to accommodate wagons.
The route across what is now central Washington was difficult but the transit was made without serious incident. The 4,800 foot elevation of Naches Pass was achieved by mid-September. Descending the west side of the Cascades was very difficult as they found the trail had not been prepared for wagons as they expected. However, the party made the Puyallup River near Alderton in about one week.
It was on October 8th that the party crossed the Puyallup River and started climbing South Hill. They reached the top at about where present day Shaw Road and Military Road intersect. Pierce County has erected a marker to show this place. They proceeded westward. There is a sign on present-day 94th Avenue that shows a crossing point. Next they advanced through what is now the campus of Rogers High School. Signposts on both sides of the campus show the path.
The immigrants then followed the old Military Road westward, crossing Starvation Valley, and onto what is now Woodland Avenue. A placard near the intersection of Woodland and 160th Street shows the spot. They then proceeded to the established homestead of Christopher Mahan, at the current Brookdale Golf Course, where the train disbanded.
In 2001 and 2003 both Pierce County and the City of Puyallup recognized the accomplishments of this first group to use the Naches Pass route. The Pierce County Council by resolution (R2001-143) designated the path across the Hill as a Heritage Corridor and assigned October 11, 2001 as “South Hill Heritage Appreciation Day” to honor the event. The City of Puyallup in 2003 also took note of the occasion by Proclamation. On October 7, 2003 Mayor Kathy Turner designated October 7, 2003 as “Settler’s Day” in honor of this journey across South Hill.
This is an anniversary that’s worth celebrating each year.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.