The Town of South Prairie – History
South Prairie is situated in the narrow valley of South Prairie Creek, which flows into the Carbon River, which in turn flows into the Puyallup, River. The first known white settler in the South Prairie area was Paul Emery who homesteaded a claim in 1854 on a small prairie-like opening in this valley surrounded by heavy timber. He named it South Prairie because of its southerly location related to Connells Prairie (between Buckley and Bonney Lake) and Porter Prairie (near Auburn).
Paul Emery was forced to flee one year in 1855 when conflicts between settlers and Native Americans erupted into the Puget Sound Indian Wars. The opening and closing battles of the war were fought on Connell’s Prairie and a temporary militia fort, called Fort McAllister, was established at South Prairie. Fort McAllister consisted of a single blockhouse and was located near South Prairie Creek a little north of town. No remnants remain today of Fort McAllister.
In 1859, John Flett, a government Indian interpreter, came to South Prairie to farm. He farmed here until 1868, then moved to Sumner and eventually Steilacoom, Washington, where he started the “Flett Dairy” which is still in operation today. John Flett’s sons (David, William, and John) are credited with discovering coal in 1875 in the Carbonado and Wilkinson areas.
With the discovery of coal came the need for transporting it and soon the Cascade Division of the Northern Pacific Railroad was constructed right through South Prairie. This made an ideal site for a thriving city as it was the gateway to vast riches of coal, timber, and stone as well as a natural starting point for tourists going to the northwest side of Mount Rainier.
Frank Bisson built the first general store in South Prairie in 1884 on $1,000 capital and 384 feet of floor space. Within four years his business had increased to $40,000 and 6,370 feet of floor space. Business came from as far away as Cle Elum because South Prairie had the only mercantile store between Tacoma and eastern Washington along the Northern Pacific rail line. People along the route often sent their grocery list via the train engineer who would give them to Frank Bisson to fill. On the return trip the engineer would pick up the goods and deliver them to the customers.
Frank and his wife Jenny (Wilson) bison settled in South Prairie on Paul Emery’s old donation claim and, on April 16, 1888, Frank Bisson filed a plat for the Town of South Prairie. The town thrived for many years after that. Dairy, poultry, and raspberries were the primary agricultural products and South Prairie supported three sawmills. The town was crowded with mill workers, loggers, miners, and farmers. Merchants and saloons benefited from a booming business and the town’s many hotels were nearly always full. Local club lodges provided social outlets for many of the town people.
In the mid 1900’s the Northern Pacific railroad developed alternative routes and eventually routed its main line trains through Auburn to Seattle and Tacoma, thereby bypassing South Prairie. Initially, this had little impact because the mines and mills were still going strong. As time went on, however, the close-in timber was cut out and the sawmills were dismantled one by one. Later the mines closed down and people gradually relocated elsewhere. By the 1940’s South Prairie found itself located on a branch line, without any passenger rail service, and the railway station was boarded up.
Today, South Prairie is a quite, mostly residential community, that retains its beauty from the wild and wonderful place it was a hundred years ago. The community is committed to preserving its small town character and local heritage in balance with ever increasing growth and development pressures. You are invited to take a step back in time and explore South Prairie as it once was.
Special thanks to Geanellen Kuranko, South Prairie Historian.