Puyallup: Opinion

Trekkers united to navigate the north fork of the Oregon Trail

It’s October and the South Hill Historical Society would again like to invite all those living on the Hill to pause and recognize a significant happening of 162 years ago.

It was on Oct. 8, 1853, that the Longmire-Biles wagon train crossed South Hill — the first emigrant party into the Puget Sound area by way of the Naches Pass through the Cascade Mountains.

As is well known, this was a period of great migration and for various reasons settlers were attracted to the Puget Sound country. Overland, from the east, the traditional way of traveling to this area was by using the so-called Oregon Trail, basically a 2,000-mile journey. In general, these travels started in the Midwest and ended at Oregon City — at the union of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

Then, those coming north to Puget Sound endured another arduous voyage of several hundred miles alongside the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. Planners of that day looked at the geography and decided that a route starting from about present-day Umatilla, Oregon, across today’s Washington state and through the Naches Pass would reduce both the time and distance for the trekkers.

The federal government had done some work to encourage this new route by undertaking selected surveying and clearing. Local citizens in the Puget Sound area also contributed both money and labor to help start it. And while there was some work done by everyone, the road was not really completed by the early 1850s. Nonetheless the status of the proposed route was not really understood by some emigrant parties then on the trail, and so they elected to use it to complete their passage.

The first wagon train was actually an ad-hoc group formed just before it headed for the Cascade Mountains. One part consisted of a company headed by James Longmire. It had left Council Bluffs (now Iowa) in May 1853 and arrived at the Columbia River on Aug. 15. The other band was led by James Biles (sometimes spelled Byles). They were both leaders of separate wagon trains that arrived in the Umatilla area at about the same time. Both sets were headed for the Puget Sound area so they decided to merge. That’s why the historical record usually refers to this unit as the Longmire-Biles party.

As planned, the wagon train did cross what is now central Washington. Traversing the mountains was very difficult as no road actually existed and they had to essentially build one as they went. There was a path, but not one wide enough to accommodate wagons.

The Cascade’s summit was reached on Oct. 1, 1853. It then took about a week to descend the western slopes. On Oct. 8 the party left the Puyallup River and crossed South Hill. Members camped that night at the Mahan Ranch (now Brookdale Golf Course), which had been their destination. Pierce County has erected five signs to mark several points of their path across the Hill — one alongside Rogers High School.

Carl Vest is the research director for the South Hill Historical Society. He is a founding member of the society and can be reached at cvest0055@aol.com.