Yes, South Hill Has a History

Meridian, Willamette Meridian, have something in common

by Carl Vest

A few weeks ago the Herald published a column about the historical name of Meridian Avenue on South Hill, i.e., Ball-Wood Road.  Since then some have asked about the evolution of the road’s current name, Meridian Avenue. This is not an easy question to answer.  The word meridian is an astronomical term and is generally used to describe a great circle of the earth passing through the poles and any given point on the earth’s surface.  And that is essentially how the term is used for a road on South Hill.

To understand its use on South Hill, one must first look at the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850.  It was this law that started the land surveys throughout the Pacific Northwest.  First a grid system was established.  To begin, a point was chosen near the intersection of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers in what is now the city of Portland, Oregon.  Then by astronomical observations an imaginary north-south line was created through that point and named the “Willamette Meridian.”  Next, an imagined east-west line was fabricated.  It was given the name “Range.”  So it was from this intersection, along the meridian and range lines, that the Pacific Northwest was surveyed.

From this established central point survey parties subsequently worked in all directions throughout what is now the states of Washington and Oregon, creating blocks of 36 square mile geographic areas called “Townships.”  Records in the Federal archives show that they reached the South Hill area in 1873.  Using this system South Hill is located four township blocks to the east of the reference point and mostly within an area 19 townships to the north of the same juncture.  In real estate and governmental records a shorthand system of notation is normally used to define this area, i.e., T19N-R4E.

Now, a north-south line through the center of Township 19 lies on a meridian that is parallel with the referenced Willamette Meridian, and four townships east of it.  On South Hill this line is named Meridian Avenue. Thus it is appropriately labeled, being both geographically and astronomically correct according to the definition of that term.  When did this name become officially used?  It’s not clear, but sometime during the mid-1930s.  By that time the developments on South Hill had caused the original Ball-Wood road to be extended and modified several times with each change being given a different name.  So you might travel from Graham to Puyallup on the same road but actually be recorded as being on three or four different paths (for example, Farm to Market Road, Puyallup-Graham Road, Ball-Wood Road, etc.).  It was confusing and so the name of the entire thoroughfare was changed to reflect its status as a meridian. 

As an aside, Meridian Avenue actually divides Township 19 into two equal parts and thus is also a median as well as a meridian.  But so far, historical records do not show any attempt to use that designation as part of the road name.

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