Early Crossings Over the Nisqually River

A Position Paper by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter

July 28, 1987

There were at least five different locations where one could cross the Nisqually River in the “early days” before bridges were built. Ways to cross the river included wading, horseback, canoe or on a raft or ferry. Places or locations for crossing were as important as how one choose to cross. Climbing into the water at a spot where the terrain or currents were unknown could mean a horrible experience of drenching and/or a possible drowning.

The first to cross the Nisqually were, of course, the local Indian people either by wading, by canoe, a raft or by horseback. The next were the British from Fort Nisqually who used the knowledge and examples set by the Indians. The Hudson’s Bay Company men first used the crossing at Mit-suk-wei with the help of the resident Indian people, then found the “Upper Ford” as a more level place to cross as they traveled the trail to the Cowlitz.

The settlers were the third group. Their ferry systems brought a new dimension to traveling, for now one could go across the river on top of the water and not ft yet. Even his horse and wagon could travel the ferry for a price. The “Lower Crossing” became the popular crossing for the settlers who chose land claims in the Nisqually Delta. The

Packwood Ferry operated on the lower/river and a bit later a similar ferry, the Wagner Ferry, was put into service at the upper crossing. Each ferry changed ownership several times.

The following reports of the crossings will be listed, not by time of us, but proceeding from the mouth of the river upstream to the last known early crossing.

1. The Packwood Ferry T18N R1E S8

Often referred to as the “Lower Nisqually Ferry? William Packwood’s wagon ferry crossed the Nisqually River at a point between his donation land claim on the Thurston County side and the John A. Packard donation land claim on the Pierce County aide. The river dissected the two counties. Begun in the early 1850’s, this ferry changed ownership several times before a durable bridge was built in 1895. The ferry was an important link to the first highway connecting, the towns of Steilacoom and Olympia. Accounts of this ferry can be found in the early territorial newspapers as well as the Fort Nisqually Journal. The HBC men utilized this ferry at times to save traveling upriver to their usual crossings.

A photograph of the ferry operating at this point circa 1893 shows a large wooden platform with siderails. A cable was strung overhead from one shore to the other with lines attached to the ferry. The conveyance could be guided across the stream by letting out or winding up the line on a large windlass.

2. Kit-suk-wei Crossing T18N RIB S21

One of the earliest crossings used by the employees at Fort Nisqually was at the Nisqually Indian village of Mit-suk-wei. Edward Huggins noted the following in his writings of March 3i 1905 about those early days:

The first trail that the H.B.C. used from Nisqually to the Cowlitz was from the old Fort by the lane called Love Lane to the Squally River by Mit-suk-wei, a ford leading to the river from the Squally plain, down a very steep hill, by a small creek, Mit-suk-wei, a half mile through the bottom to the river which generally was crossed with the assistance of Indians and their canoes, although I’ve crossed it once or twice upon horseback, the horse swimming for a short, quite short distance when near the other side. The bottom of the Thurston County side of the river is quite short -about-3/4 mile- to another steep bluff, up to the prairie…..

3. Indian Canoe Ferries T18N R1E S35 T17N R1E Sl

Although the Nisqually Indian people crossed the Nisqually River at many different places, we have accounts of at least two Indian canoe ferries for hire. What the owner received for payment is not known. One ferry was operated by Sam Pyello, the other by Henry Martin. The two men both lived en the upper portion of the Nisqually Indian Reservation.

It is known that San Pyello utilized the river area directly in front of his allotment across the river from the mouth of Muck Creek. The area on the Thurston County side is known as Pyello’s Landing. On the back of a photo of Sam Pyello and his canoe taken by historian Edmund Meany in 1905 the following words were written:

Sam Pyello. He is a veteran hostile of the Indian War of 1855- 1856. Now he runs a canoe ferry over the Nisqually River at the mouth of Muck Creek.

One account places Henry Martin’s canoe ferry on the lower Nisqually River. Another places him above the reservation. The second account written by Yelm historians Richard and Floss Loutzenhiser in 1948 says:

The first ferry across the Nisqually River was a canoe ferry. It was a connecting link in the Indian trail running from Yelm north through the site of the present town of Roy. Here, Henry Martin, an Indian was always on call. He stood erect to pole the canoe across, says D.R.Hughes, who recalls riding with him. If the passenger had a horse, it must swim alongside of the canoe.

4. The Stony Ford T1?N R2E Sl6

The Stony Ford designation applies to the crossing over the Nisqually River where the Northern Pacific Railroad was built according to Edward Huggins’ private journal dated August 24, 1970. There were several places in that stretch of river where crossings were possible if the water was low. This crossing was used mostly by the local Indian people

who knew the water currents well. Huggins attempted to cross here and nearly drowned when he became lost in 1850 when he was on his way to the Cowlitz. He and his horse did gain the opposite shore and found- his way to John Edgar’s home to dry off. Stony Ford was considered “fierce and dangerous.” It connected the prairie called “Thull-hull-illihe” on the Pierce County side to the Yelm Prairie on the Thurston County side, so

wrote Huggins in a letter dated March 22. 1905.

The Upper Ford – Wagner’s Ferry T17N R2E S28

The area of the Upper Ford was the favorite crossing of the Fort Nisqually men who traveled overland to a company farm at Cowlitz. A railroad bridge now crosses the river here as well as a county bridge located a few yards upstream at the townsite of McKenna. The area between the two landmarks would be the area of the Upper Ford, the terrain lending itself to an easy crossing.

This place was also the site of William Wagner’s ferry which began service in 1869. It seems that the ferry must have changed ownership several times. Hazel Price Hawk told me in 1982 about how her father purchased the ferry from Tom Pierce. The first county bridge, a wooden structure, was built in 1883 with funds raised by local settlers. When it was washed away, a second bridge was put in by the county but it was too narrow. In 1919 the present bridge was built, two lanes wide and made of concrete. Again, now as this is being written, change in the bridge structure is going on.

Written and compiled by

Cecelia Svinth Carpenter,

Indian Historian and Author.

July 28. 1987 (Used with permission)

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