Northern Pacific Railroad influenced early development of South Hill

South Hill Historical SocietyJuly 9, 2014 

According to land transfer records, settlements on South Hill started in the 1870s. Land was purchased by some pioneers but most of the early settlers used the Homestead Act to acquire real estate at almost no cost.

During the 1870s, however, only a handful of people were recorded as moving onto the Hill. It was in the 1880s that the influx increased significantly. And, when settlement began to increase, a noticeable pattern also developed. Clusters of farms came into existence rather than being generally distributed across the area. This bunching came about because of land grants to the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) was a transcontinental line intended to connect the northern Midwest to the Puget Sound. It was chartered in 1864. To help pay for its construction, Congress authorized land grants to the company extending for 40 miles on both sides of the proposed undertaking. The NP did not reach the Puget Sound area until the 1880s. Its path into Tacoma, from the east, came across the Cascade Mountains, through Stampede Pass, and down the western slopes of the foothills to the Puyallup River and then on to Tacoma. When the route was approved, all of South Hill was included in the railroad’s land grant allocation.

South Hill was surveyed in 1872 and assigned the Township number 19. A Township is 36 square miles, divided into one-mile areas called Sections. The railroad’s land grant authority assigned to it every other Section in the townships within its allotment. So, on South Hill the railroad claimed ownership to Sections 1, 3, 5, 7, etc.

As the Hill was heavily timbered at the time, the railroad sold most of its ownership rights to Weyerhaeuser, a tree harvesting company. These areas were not available for settlement, therefore, until after it was commercially logged. Many maps of the Hill show property ownership by the Weyerhaeuser Logged-Off Land Company, the organization that acquired the land after it was cleared. It took several decades for all this land to become available to settlers.

Pioneers could buy, or use the Homestead Act, to acquire land on the half of South Hill not given to the railroad, about 18 square miles in Sections 2, 4, 6, 8, etc. So, during the 1880s clusters of farms and settlements were established on this land since it was all that was available. Section four was a cluster, settled mostly in the mid-1880s. In modern terms, it is the area above the city of Puyallup about where the South Hill Mall is located. Section six was also a crowded area, settled mostly in the 1880s and located off Canyon Road near Summit. Section 10, located at about the intersection of 112th Street and Meridian filled up in the late 1880s. Included in this group was the original Kupfer family, which gave the location its name — Kupfer’s Corner.

The Hill was settled gradually over several decades. But the railroad land grant program influenced just how the development progressed.

Carl Vest, PhD, 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.

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