Wagon Train Crossing
by Carl Vest
The upcoming month of October will have special meaning for people living on South Hill. It was on October 8, 1853, that a small wagon train crossed the Hill, north to south, bringing settlers to the Puget Sound region. That event is noteworthy in that it was the first emigrant wagon train through the Naches Pass of the Cascade Mountains, traveling on what is now being called the North Fork of the Oregon Trail. Several years ago Pierce County designated the South Hill portion of the path a Heritage Corridor. Markers were also placed at several points to identify the passageway.
For historical identification this wagon train is generally labeled the Longmire-Biles party. It was formed near Umatilla, Oregon, when two separate groups arrived from the east, both moving along the Oregon Trail, decided to combine and complete their journey together. Both were headed for Fort Steilacoom in the Puget Sound area. One had been captained by James Longmire and the other by James Biles.
The number of vehicles participating in the journey still remains in dispute, but a collection of about 35 wagons appears to be a reasonable estimate. Also, the number of people in the party is not accurately known but 170 is an approximation, that number having been used by a number of historians.
The James Longmire party left Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in May 1853. Some five months later, on September 8th, they crossed the Columbia River, near Umatilla, Oregon, having travelled about 2000 miles. It took another three weeks to cross that area we call central Washington. Summit Prairie, now named Government Meadows, was reached about October 1st. That location put the pioneers at the summit of the Cascade Mountains, in Naches Pass.
The trip down the west side of the Cascades, across the Puyallup River, and over South Hill consumed another week. It is recorded that the party reached the Mahon Ranch on Clover Creek on October 8th. Today that location is the site of the Brookdale Golf Course. At that point contact was made with Fort Steilacoom and after some period of rest the group disbanded as an organized entity.
The settlers climbed onto South Hill after crossing the Puyallup River through the ford at Van Ogle’s homestead. Not much of the path up the Hill still exists, but their point of arrival on top is identified by a marker near Ridgecrest Elementary School on Military Road. From that point the direction of the old trail was generally west, toward present day Rogers High School. In fact the school was built directly on the path. There are markers at Rogers, and on both sides of the campus, that show where the road existed. From the school site the path was generally in a southwesterly direction. It left the Hill near Woodland Avenue and 160th Street.
So the month of October has special significance for the people of South Hill. A happening that took place 158 years ago, during that month, is part of our heritage. It should be remembered.
Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.