Yes, South Hill Has a History

The Woodland Bus Company

by Carl Vest

The public transportation needs of South Hill are presently being served by Pierce Transit.  The company runs buses on a number of routes on many of the Hill’s main arterials and has an on-call service for those who cannot get to its main paths.  But residents of South Hill have not always enjoyed access to such services.  During the early development of the Hill a community transportation infrastructure did not exist.  During the logging period, and the small farm era, transport was the responsibility of each resident.  There was, however, always a need for conveyance for those who didn’t have private means.  And, for about a forty year period that necessity was satisfied by the Woodland Bus Company.  It was not the first transport organization on the Hill as some attempts had been made earlier to provide trolley lines.  But bus service proved to be the most lasting.

The Woodland Bus Company was established in 1934 by W.H. Herbert and Russell E. Smith.  It connected The Willows on South Hill (112th Street and Meridian Avenue) with Tacoma.  The service was through the communities of Midland, Collins, Summit View, and Woodland. 

A labor dispute can be credited as a reason for forming the Company.  In 1934 the franchise for operating buses to South Hill was held by the Tacoma Bus Company.  Drivers of that period were paid about $4.00 a day.  Russell Smith was one such operator.  Thinking the pay was inadequate the workers went on strike, demanding $6.00 a day.  The bus company refused and filed for abandonment of the franchise.  The displaced drivers then got together and divided up the old route structure.  Focusing on the Tacoma-South Hill segment Herbert and Smith (who were related) filed an application with the Washington State Department of Public Works to create a bus route doing business as the Woodland Bus Company.  The application was granted.

During the 1930s the company enjoyed steady but modest business success.  At first only one bus was used, but others were added as resources permitted.  This business model changed in the early 1940s.  World War II was starting, gas rationing was put into effect, civilian driving was curbed and jobs opened up in the defense industries around Tacoma.  This all combined to increase bus ridership throughout the war years.  The company prospered.

After World War II the business remained good, but was no longer growing.  Russell Smith sold his share in the company to Cecil Herbert, his nephew, in 1949, making a father and son team, the Herbert’s, the Company owners.  In 1952 the Company was sold to Stan Ratcliff.  He also owned the Waller Road – Summit Bus Company.  He subsequently merged the two and continued to operate the routes using the Woodland Bus Company as the name.  He managed the enterprise for a number of years.  It changed hands a couple of times in the 1960s & 1970s.  In 1979 the firm was integrated into the newly created Pierce Transit venture which still holds the franchise today.

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