Yelm Area History
The shimmering, fertile prairie stretched and rolled as far as the eye could see. In the shadow of Mt. Rainier, the pristine Nisqually River carved its path through the endless prairie long before the feet of countless travelers etched their own silent mark.
According to Nisqually legend, the area was first known as Shelm, the name given to the shimmering heat waves which dance and play above the prairie when the summer sun shines hot. A great prairie creates a great haze. This was emphasized by the Nisqually by drawing out the syllable to say “S-S-S-SHELM”. The impatient Euro-American settlers eventually shortened this to Yelm.
The Yelm prairie was the crossroads of Native American trails leading north from the Cowlitz River and the Bald Hills trail leading to Naches Pass over the Cascades. These trails were utilized by the Nisqually Indians, then fur traders, the British operators of the Hudson Bay Company, American settlers and eventually the Northern Pacific Railroad.
A business and residential district quickly grew along the intersection of the railroad and the old east/west Bald Hills Trail.
In 1883 James Longmire discovered “his” springs near Mt. Rainier, built the first wagon road to the future park and established a guiding station. Yelm came into being as the gateway to Mt. Rainier. The Yelm business district became the commercial center for the prairie with a thriving economy based on dairy farms, grain, cattle, saw mills and shingle mills. As Washington approached statehood, Yelm was still evolving as a town.
By 1912, when the Northern Pacific Railroads elevated Yelm to official status, the town had assumed the form still visible today.
The first quarter century also saw the creation of one of Western Washington’s few irrigation districts. The Yelm Irrigation Company was formed, and by June, 1916, the project was complete. The Yelm ditch, as it was popularly called, was viewed as a way to increase productivity and to encourage more families to settle in the area. Farm prices were good and demand for produce was high. The irrigation system allowed farmers to grow red and black raspberries and Bluelake beans in commercial quantities. By 1930 the economics of farming and the problems of maintenance were taking its toll, and in the late 1940’s, the Yelm Irrigation Company ceased operations
Three major fires in 1908, 1913, and 1924 propelled the Yelm Women’s Civic Club to start a movement to incorporate, allowing the construction of a water system to fight fires. On December 8,1924 Yelm was incorporated. One of the first orders of business was to establish a fire department. Many buildings seen today along Yelm’s main street were built following the 1924 fire.
Yelm has given way to modern commerce. Its Native American trails have evolved into highways. Yet the shimmering, fertile prairie still stretches and rolls. In the shadow of Mt. Rainier, the pristine Nisqually River still travels on its path through the endless prairie. And on a summer day you can still see the great haze rise above Yelm Prairie and hear the ancient Nisqually whisper “s-s-s-shelm….”