Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What Is It?

Identifying old wagons, parts, and brands as well as related pieces from period blacksmith and woodworking shops can be interesting.  There’s always some unique tool or vehicle feature that tests our knowledge of what it took to design, build, repair, and operate the wheels from America’s horse drawn era.  Even though the road to discovery can be full of diversions and delays, sometimes it all comes together and a little effort pays off in dividends of knowledge.    
As an example – not long ago, I ran across a heavy, cast iron whatchamacallit (I had no idea what it was)  that sat on four ornately sculpted legs.  The legs were set in pairs at each end of a narrow half-moon-shaped trough that included a threaded drain hole in the bottom.  The top of the trough flared out in the middle with long slots that appeared to be positioned to help bolt something else to it.  As I surveyed the piece, I was told that it was a wheel soaker.  At first glance, I tended to agree but after studying it a bit more, I began to wonder if that assessment was true.  The trough looked too deep and the angle of the ends didn’t seem to exactly fit the curvature of a wagon or buggy wheel. 

This surviving framework was developed in the late 1860’s to hold a grindstone, making the tool more productive, efficient, and easier to operate. 

The other thing that was unusual was the ornate nature of the legs.  I’ve seen a lot of wheel soakers in all manner of sizes but none with such an extravagant support frame.  There was a medallion in the shape of a Union shield positioned on each of the longer sides of the trough.  I could see that the shield was accompanied by some words and numbers.  Unfortunately, it was difficult to read because too many coats of paint had been applied over the years.  The paint had filled in the openings of so many letters and numerals that a measure of patience was required to decipher it all.    

These illustrations of an early grindstone frame are part of a patent awarded to Joseph Douglas on September 1, 1868.

My wife and I spent nearly a half hour analyzing the lettering until we finally pieced together what was cast into the metal.  It read, “W. & B. Douglas   Middletown, Conn.   Patented  Sept. 1  1868.”  After seeing an 1860’s timeframe attached to this piece, I was determined to find out exactly what it was.  A few quick queries into the U.S. Patent files and voila!  We had it.  As it turns out, this was not a wheel soaker at all.  Although, it is something that could easily have been used in a blacksmith or carriage shop.  Turns out, the cast iron piece is the base for an early grindstone frame. 

In practice, the grinding wheel was fitted into the trough while side supports held it in place.  The design was engineered to hold the wheel fast while allowing more control and easier, faster, more efficient use of the stone.  The trough is a water chamber and the slotted upper flange was designed for the inclusion of a tool guide/holder, wheel support, protective guards, a slip-resistant shaft, and the attachment of a treadle allowing for foot operation.  Regrettably, some of the upper support structures were missing from the overall frame.  At roughly a century and a half in age, the piece we came across is certainly not something you see every day so it’s understandable that it could be misinterpreted as a wheel soaker.   
Ultimately, that’s the very point that I wanted to make this week... that not everything is always as it first appears.  Some of America's surviving wagons and early western vehicles are a hodge-podge of parts that have grown together over the years.  As a result, looking only at  one section, such as the name on the seat back or box side, does not always give us the whole story for proper identification and valuations.  Many pieces can be mismatched.  Taking the time to discern even minor differences not only helps provide a proper understanding of the piece but, it can mean all the difference in how well we choose and interpret early vehicles for a collection.   

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Purpose of Stay Chains

Over the years, I’ve talked a lot about the different types of technology employed in early wooden wagons.  For some, these old wheels seem extremely simple.  The original builders and users of the vehicles, though, understood just how difficult it was to keep wood held together correctly and successfully.  After all, virtually all of the outdoor elements worked against it – dirt, moisture, dryness, sun, rough terrain, heavy loads, and more.  With so much stacked against them, I’m sometimes amazed that any of these vehicles have survived.

Because of my intrigue and continual research on this subject, I’m often asked questions related to who did what and when.  I’m also asked the “whys” of different vehicle types and technologies.  Answering some of those questions can be even tougher when the questioner is looking to confirm answers with primary sources.  As an example, some time ago, a reader asked me if I had ever seen references to the purpose of ‘stay chains’ in nineteenth century materials?  It was an unusual question that led me to one conclusion – That at least some of the information many of us believe we know is likely limited to our own modern day experiences or what our grandparents might have passed on.  While both oral history and personal discovery are important, neither can completely take the place of earlier primary sources. 

Even though I haven’t deliberately gone looking for details on stay chains, I have kept the question in the back of my mind.  As fortune would have it, a few months back, while I was reviewing some Civil-War-era records, I came across a reference to a doubletree innovation that mentioned the purpose of stay chains.  For many, the answer may seem obvious.  The fact remains, though, that for any of us to truly connect with the way wagons and western vehicles were looked upon in their time, we must base our understanding in the documentation left within primary sources. 

Stay chains are positioned to work hand-in-hand with the doubletree to optimize the leverage and power efficiencies of draft animals hooked to a wagon.

For those unfamiliar with the location of stay chains, they are typically attached to hooks positioned near the outer ends of a wagon’s front axle.  The other end of each chain (two total) is then attached to the corresponding outer portion of the doubletree. 

The 1865 document I stumbled across detailed the function of a newly-developed doubletree equipped with a counterbalancing center spring.  To digest the full description below, you may have to read it a few times as it does get a bit wordy.  Ultimately, the writer does an interesting job of explaining both the complexity and purposes of a doubletree and stay chains... 

“...From the foregoing description it will be understood that in using my improved doubletree, the changing point of draught will always correspond with the difference in power applied to the ends of the doubletree. In every instance and condition the doubletree will adjust itself upon the fulcrum-block in such a manner as to favor the less powerful horse, because, as the more powerful of the two will keep in advance of the other, the point of draught will correspondingly approach and remain in nearer proximity to the most advanced of the animals.  In other words, the foremost horse will necessarily have the short end of the lever, while the rearmost will draw from the longer end. In the event of the entire suspension of power at one end of the doubletree, then the stay-block will operate to check and hold the doubletree from oscillating to any considerable extent, serving the purpose of stay-chains, which are generally required for the same purpose...”

Simply put, properly-used stay chains help ensure that optimum leverage is available to a team drawing a wagon, thereby allowing for easier pulling and overall wagon operation.  Clearly, the references to technical terms like fulcrums, leverage, power, and point of draught can get a bit complicated.  That said, the description helps demonstrate that quite a bit of math and science went into the design of even the smallest of parts.  Ultimately, the engineered designs were crafted to enable the wagon to function with the greatest efficiency, effectiveness, and longevity while providing the means for draft animals to optimize power.    

Whew!  So much for simplicity.  Sounds more like geometry, physics, science, and algebra classes to me!  I realize today’s blog wasn’t exactly a casual read.  From time to time, though, we’ll share a few pieces like this to help reinforce the contributions of early builders and designers while also highlighting the true complexities of their craft.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Early Sprinkler Wagons

Permeating the American landscape, horse drawn vehicles were manufactured by the millions in the 18 and early 1900’s.  Cities were especially packed with a variety of designs.  From ambulances and coal wagons to ice, petroleum, furniture, milk, bakery, express, grocery, mail, meat, peddler, sanitation, farm, freight, lumber, and even dray wagons, the country’s city streets were once home to an enormous variety of spring-hung and dead-axle wagons.  With such great diversity, it can be tough these days to gather details on all of the makers and styles.   
While some were built for a precise function, others were used for a multitude of purposes.  One of the more clear-cut designs was the “Sprinkler  wagon.”  Often large and heavy, these specially-built wheels carried tanks built to hold as much as a thousand gallons of water.  Some were equipped with heavy duty platform springs while others were supported by bolster springs or even no springs at all.  Strength, durability, ease of maintenance, and fluid draft were among the qualities typically associated with these wagons.  Their purpose was simple; help keep the dust dampened on heavily traveled streets while simultaneously improving the health and living conditions for the populace. 
Among the more prominent builders of these wagons were brands like Studebaker, Winkler Bros., Miller-Knoblock, Etnyre, and others.  Large builders offered numerous vehicle sizes, tank capacities, and sprinkler configurations.  As you might imagine, competition for business was keen with manufacturers' agents regularly engaged in contract negotiations with cities all over the country.
One lesser-known builder from St. Joseph, Missouri applied for a patent on his sprinkler wagon design in January of 1879.  It was granted in 1880 - well before most other patents were issued on these vehicles.  According to an 1881 account entitled, “The History of Buchanan County, Missouri,” J.P. Fairchild had been involved in the street sprinkling business in St. Louis as early as 1866.  After years of experience with the machines, he felt he could improve their designs and set about to fabricate a different system.  With the completion and successful testing of the concept, he gave the vehicle the bold name of “The Boss.”  Thereafter, each of his sprinklers carried that stenciled name.  

This image was taken from a much larger photo showing significant details of the Fairchild Sprinkling wagons.   

One of the primary advantages of Fairchild’s patented design was to regulate the strength and flow of water, minimizing and also maximizing the output with ease.  Within the first year of production, the heavy duty vehicles were used throughout the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri and Keokuk and Oskaloosa, Iowa as well as Atchison, Kansas and other locales.  Regrettably, we’ve found no evidence that the Fairchild business was long-lived.  By the late 1880’s, period directories show no record of the enterprise in St. Joseph.  
With tens of thousands of known wagon and carriage makers and repairers once doing business in the U.S., it would likely be an impossible task to find and gather records of each one.  That said, for the last twenty-plus years, the Wheels That Won The West® Archives have become home for the history of a sizeable number of these builders.  As many of you know, we're on a quest to seek out and preserve as much of this rare history as possible before it's forever lost.  The documentation of Mr. Fairchild’s wagons represents some of our latest efforts to help showcase the contributions of small builders with big dreams.  We feel fortunate to have quality imagery showing multiple angles of the Fairchild sprinklers and hope one day the materials may prove beneficial in identifying a previously unknown set of wheels from America’s first transportation empire. 

The Fairchild sprinkler wagon patent was proclaimed by some to produce results “more natural than a shower itself.”  

Sprinkler wagons continued to be relatively commonplace among larger communities well into the twentieth century.  However, as early as 1904, cities such as Los Angeles were already experimenting with different methods of cutting the dust.  One attempt included the spreading of crude oil on streets.  At the time, it was believed to be a more cost effective and successful way to handle the clouds of dust and dirt in the city’s thoroughfares.  Ultimately, the paving of roads and the popularity of automobiles, themselves, took away the need for horse drawn water sprinklers.  Even so, water trucks with sprinkler systems are still regularly used today in construction projects, dirt race tracks, and other municipal purposes.  They stand as distant reminders of a time when horse drawn vehicle makers were aggressively competing for contracts to water down infrastructures while strengthening the well-being and overall economy of the U.S.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Early Wagon Wrecks and Vehicle Designs

I once had a team of draft horses that were unpredictable and took spells of nervous behavior.  They were great fun to drive but it was hard to tell what might set them off.  One fall day, I had hitched them to an old John Deere wagon.  I had been working them for about two hours and was rolling through the middle of an open 40 acre field.  The day was cool but comfortable and all had been going well.  As I contemplated heading back to the barn, something stirred in the brain of the near wheeler.  Whether it was his imagination or some reality that I hadn’t noticed really didn't matter.  Both horses took flight and I found myself on a ride that connected me firsthand to a part of our horse drawn heritage most would like to avoid. 

In an instant, the serenity of the moment was exchanged for a time of rapt attention and rapid deliberations.  I’ve heard folks say that the human mind can’t ponder multiple thoughts at the exact same time but that day may have been an exception.  The next several minutes seemed like an eternity with plenty of contemplations being hastily tossed around in my head. 

I don’t know how long the run-away lasted but, as I slid sideways around the perimeter of a large circle, I remember seeing good-sized chunks of grass and dirt being cut by the tires and thrown high into the air.  I kept the team turned as much as possible and when they finally stopped, it was hard to tell who was trembling the most – me or the horses.  The next surprise happened when I looked down from my precarious perch.  It appeared that the wagon was quite a bit longer than it had been when I started.  Of course, that didn’t make sense but as I climbed down, I quickly noticed the pin had popped out of the reach and allowed the rear half of the running gear to slide along the coupling pole leaving only few inches before the gear extended beyond the box.  Thankfully, we had stopped just in time to prevent the wagon from coming apart at full stride.  (Moral of the story - always check to make sure the reach pin has a cotter key securely attached and do an overall vehicle safety review before hitching up!)

Surrounded by members of a threshing crew, this lunch wagon may have fallen victim to heavy winds on the plains.

Just as with traffic accidents today, these types of encounters occurred throughout America’s horse drawn era.  The mishaps happened at night as well as during the day and could be the result of a number of different circumstances.  Some took place when a vehicle traveled too close to the edge of a narrow, mountain road.  Others ensued when loads shifted on hilly terrain.  Still more happened in natural disasters, water crossings, sudden animal frights, or when parts broke at seriously inopportune times.

To the point about parts, early vehicle builders knew the dangers of broken or weakened components.  As a result, many designs were created to enhance the performance of a set of wheels while adding to the peace of mind and confidence of the user.  For example, since king bolts were a crucial part subjected to tremendous stresses, many of these sections received extra reinforcement as did the associated areas on the forward axle and sand board.  Reaches were likewise engineered to help eliminate wear or rotate in response to changing terrain.  Some brakes were designed to self-engage when going downhill, aiding with the load on draft animals and helping prevent skittish teams from running when they felt the wagon pushing them.  Steering systems (much like some early autos) were developed to help minimize injuries to horses from a tongue whipping to one side or another after hitting a rock or hole.  Some manufacturers even had specially designed pole caps that minimized the chances of neck yokes accidentally slipping off of the tongue.

In this exclusive original photo from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives, these tall-sided western freighters are being set upright after overturning on a narrow mountain road.

There were countless innovations and features especially designed for the well-being of the vehicle passengers and draft animals.  Some of these traits have been covered in this blog while many more are deserving of discussions as well.  Even the types of wood used in particular areas were often chosen for their safety and security points.  Historically, the designed safety features of early wagons and western vehicles have not received a lot of publicity.  Nonetheless, it was an area that many manufacturers focused on and one that gives us great insight into the unique characteristics that helped set individual makers – and even different eras – apart from each other.

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Choosing Raw Materials for Wooden Wagons

Back in February, I wrote a blog outlining the types of wood often used in early farm, freight, ranch, business, and military wagons.  As with each of the elements in these antique sets of wheels, most builders were not in the habit of haphazardly selecting random wood stock.  Instead, these renewable resources were carefully evaluated and employed in specific areas for particular purposes.  Clearly, since the majority of a period wagon was wood, it was essential for the timber to be chosen and prepared properly.  Only through attention to these details was the vehicle reasonably assured to meet the needs and expectations of the user.    

So, how did a builder determine which wood to use?  Below are at least ten criteria that would have been factored in by early builders.

  • Strength – While this feature may seem obvious, it was far from the only consideration.  Beyond the ability to bear up under the loads and stresses placed upon it, the wood in wagons also had to work hand-in-hand with other features such as elasticity, weight, and durability to optimize the muscle it possessed.  In fact, too much rigidity and stiffness in certain areas could actually accelerate weakness while contributing to a shortened lifespan for other parts of the vehicle. 
  • Cost / Affordability – As with virtually any manufacturing process today, an element of give-and-take was often applied to what went into a quality wagon.  Properly seasoned, higher grade wood stock was (and still is) more expensive.  In order to be competitive at every level, some makers offered multiple grades of finished work while others might try and pass off one class of wood for another.  For this reason, some major builders would display a vehicle at fairs and exhibitions without paint or finish.  It was a way to reinforce a manufacturer’s peerless commitment to quality while casting doubt on the construction integrity of others.  The age-old adage, “You get what you pay for,” held just as true then as now.
  • Weight – While denser woods often translate into greater strength, they also tend to have heavier weight.  Even though this bulk could be helpful with particularly heavy loads and other stresses, too much mass could also make the vehicle even harder to pull, putting unnecessary pressure and strain on the team.  As a result, these early vehicles were constructed of both hard and soft woods.  The designs were engineered to gain optimum strength and durability without pointless weight. 
  • Elasticity – As mentioned above in the comments related to ‘strength,’ period builders expected some flex and give, even in the densest of woods.  It was a need further emphasized when early iron axles were associated with wagon wheels breaking down on frontier trails.  As surmised in Mark Gardner’s book, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” it is quite likely these axles were too rigid and, as a result, transferred too much shock to the wheels.  
  • Soundness / Durability – Weak and brittle wood had no place in horse drawn transportation – especially in heavy wagons.  Even so, these concerns did not always originate with a particular type of wood.  Other issues related to weather and insect damage could also impact the nature of wood stock.  Even quality woods could become a victim of insect infestation.  Some early makers, like Joseph Murphy, insisted that their timber be harvested when the sap was down and were equally concerned about issues from wood boring insects.**  Other builders chose wood like Bois d’ arc (Osage Orange) due to its natural resistance to insect and water-related damage. 
  • Availability – During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America’s forests were under heavy pressure by countless industries.  Commerce related to transportation, housing, packaging, undertaking, construction, farming, fishing, military needs, and so much more relied on a healthy supply of timber.  With so much of everyone’s daily life tied to wood, shortages occurred.  Some builders even purchased huge tracts of timber to ensure availability for themselves while locking out access to competitors. 
  • Comparisons to Other Builders – Similar to today’s auto industry, buyers during the horse drawn age were educated as to who offered what features in a vehicle.  Competition was keen and perceived advantages touted by one builder were often copied or emulated by others.  
  • Finish / Workability – A pleasing exterior finish on a particular piece of wood could depend on a number of things, including the wood quality or grade.  Wood prone to splintering or unsightly knots would have been objectionable to many builders and buyers. 
  • Area of Use / Purpose – As I’ve shared before, different wood types were chosen for use within different areas on early horse drawn vehicles.  Axles regularly used denser wood types than what would have been chosen for boxes.  This blending of different woods helped optimize a vehicle’s strength without adding unnecessary and overly cumbersome weight. 
  • Experience & Customer Acceptance – Consumer familiarity is always key to any accepted feature on a product.  Whereas many early wagon buyers would have been familiar and comfortable with white oak or black birch hubs, other woods occasionally used for hubs - like gum and elm - may not have enjoyed the same comfort levels with all buyers. 

Ultimately, there were a variety of woods used in the various brands of antique wooden wagons.  Some choices were driven by the economics of merely adequate performance and regional availability while others were chosen as the most reliable wood for a particular part.  Understanding these distinctions is not only helpful for restoration and preservation purposes but it also gives us greater appreciation for the marketing and manufacturing expertise that went into every one of these wood-wheeled workhorses.  

** Wheels That Won The West® Archives 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Studebaker & the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Reporting the true depth of any business or industry can be difficult.  The very nature of large corporations and their focus on commercial success can sometimes overshadow the human element inside.  At the end of the day, though, it’s always people that make the difference in any organization.  People innovate, people excel, people challenge, and people stand in the gap. 

Such was the case when, almost eleven decades ago, the city of San Francisco was violently torn apart; thrust into the headlines as it reeled from the pulverizing power of a massive earthquake and fire.  The first few hours of April 18, 1906 were relatively quiet but just before dawn, the city and everyone inside were turned upside down.  It's estimated that thousands of visitors and residents perished as the earthquake was joined by uncontrollable fires ravaging the remaining rubble. 

While the city was almost totally shattered, the quake was not limited to the immediate area.  It’s tentacles of death and destruction also wreaked havoc throughout a good portion of the state.  Below is an article published mere weeks after the April quake.  As a tribute to the character of the American West and the people of our great nation, it seems appropriate to share this account.  With so many heart-wrenching stories in the news these days, this May 1906 report in “The Carriage Monthly” is a reminder of the power of the human spirit and the resolve of the American people.

Charles Author Carlisle, of the Studebaker Bros. Mfg. Co., writing concerning the recent earthquake and fire in San Francisco, says:

“Immediately upon receipt of the news of the earthquake we sent our sales manager, L.F. Waver, who was previously our manager at San Francisco, to Sacramento, Cal., and we directed our field managers in the various sections of California to go at once to the city of San Francisco, and seek out our people there and do everything possible to relieve suffering and distress.  It was several days before we got any definite information from our San Francisco manager, C. N. Weaver, and then the glad report came to us that he and his family and all members of our own force, which numbered considerable, were safe, although deprived of their homes and comforts of living.  The distress locally, however, was intense, and our managers called for additional funds, asking us to send $5,000 in currency overland by special messenger, which we did, and succeeded in reaching them in time to be of continued service.

It is hard to adequately appreciate the distress and suffering of those who were inside of the city, but they were brave and generous to one another, even in their great distress – big-hearted and self-sacrificing, and this is one of the beautiful tributes to which the American people have so generously responded.

We have been inspired by the undaunted spirit of the Californian himself, and have laid plans for re-establishing ourselves in San Francisco and of co-operating in the desire and effort to rebuild the city.  As stated above, temporary headquarters have already been established with our branch agency at Sacramento, where we will be able to look after our California trade and take care of the local business that will come to us.”

Even though the article above was shared with the transportation industry over a century ago, the front-line report still feels fresh with sentiment.  Perhaps it’s because today's readers are so eerily familiar with natural disasters that this story is equally relatable today.  

Account after period account shows that the city’s rebuilding process began immediately.  Thousands upon thousands of horses, people, and wood-wheeled vehicles dug in, moving tons of rubble and replacing devastation with dreams. The city came back stronger and even more vibrant than before.  It’s an overwhelming reminder of the purest history of America; a melting pot of people, holding on to hope and repeatedly choosing to see opportunity over obstacles.    

This 1907 catalog contains a number of early work vehicles that were likely used in the cleanup of the San Francisco quake.  In fact, the company is reported to have built twice as many dump wagons in 1906 than 1905.  Much of that business undoubtedly came from California.

For some readers, this blog may seem to be a departure from the type of stories we’ve shared in the past.  In reality, I think the topic may be among the most relevant we’ve ever posted.  Why?  Because it goes to the heart of what gives any brand lasting desirability.  It highlights the point that the reputation of any business ultimately goes beyond the course of competition to the personality, care, and commitment of its people. 

Thanks for stopping by.  Remember, if you haven’t signed up to receive this weekly blog via email, you can easily do so by typing in your address in the “Follow By Email” section above.  You’ll receive a confirmation email that you’ll need to verify before you’re officially on board.  So, don’t forget to verify.  We’re looking forward to your visits each week. 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Giant Western Freight Wagon Built By M.P. Henderson

Some things are hard to forget.  To that point, almost twenty years ago, I purchased a book by Don Berkebile entitled, Horse-Drawn Commercial Vehicles.  With over 250 images packed into 150 pages or so, the book is chock full of details related to America’s first and largest transportation industry.  In fact, the diversity of vehicle types shown on almost every page provides a great overview of that era, making it a must-have reference for any enthusiast’s library.

Beyond those accolades, one of the things that has always struck me about this book is a photograph it holds of a giant western freight wagon.  From the first time I saw it, I’ve never forgotten the massive scale of the piece.  To me, it’s a reminder of just how big the challenges and opportunities were on America’s western frontier. 

The wagon was handcrafted in 1899 by legendary wagon and coach maker, M.P. Henderson of Stockton, California.  It was ordered by C.D. Lane, a millionaire mine owner and, at the time of its completion, was billed as the largest wagon in the world.  Looking at how it dwarfs those in the photo, the wagon was clearly built to haul massive loads.  In another way of thinking, it was also crafted to make a statement. Detailed striping, custom hardware, and the host of folks gathered in the photo all reinforce the point that this was far from a run-of-the-mill freighter.  Ultimately, it was created to promote and service the Fortuna Mine – one of the most prosperous and productive gold mines in Arizona at the time.  The proprietor, Charles D. Lane, also owned the famed “Utica Mine” at Angels Camp, California and the “Wild Goose” in Nome, Alaska.

This photo from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives shows the massive Fortuna freight wagon.  It was built in the shops of M.P. Henderson & Son in Stockton, California.

Mr. Berkebile includes a brief description of the vehicle in his book.  He credited an 1899 issue of The Carriage Monthly for the details.  Since the original write-up on the wagon actually included a bit more information than the book, we thought it would be interesting to highlight some of that in today’s blog.  Below is a portion of that article taken from original materials in our Archives...

“M.P. Henderson & Son, Stockton, Cal., have just completed the largest wagon that ever was built.  The height from the ground to the top of the seat is 13 ½ feet.  The seat had to be removed before it could be shipped on the railway.  The hubs are 16 x 20 inches, and the spokes 4 5/8 inches.  The width of the tire is 6 inches, the depth of the rim 4 ½ inches, and the thickness of the tire 1 inch.  The front wheels are 5 feet in diameter, and the rear wheels are 8 feet.  The most notable feature of the wagon is these rear wheels.  The idea of having such enormous wheels is that the wagon will roll easier on the sandy roads of that country.  The wagon bed is 20 feet long, and has a regular width of 3 feet 8 inches.  It is 5 feet high inside.  The axles are 3 ¼ inches.  The complete wagon weighs 6,515 pounds, and has a carrying capacity of twelve tons.  It measures 33 feet from tip of the pole to the back of the bed, and required for shipment the longest railroad flat car in use...” 

Some time back, I was cataloging a few early articles in our Archives and came across yet another – even earlier – written account covering the same set of wheels.  To the best of my knowledge, this discovery marks the first time this earlier report has been pointed out to modern audiences.  The significance of the find lies in both the affirmation of details in the later piece identified by Don Berkebile as well as the uncovering of previously unknown information.  Both reports include similar statements but, the earlier piece also shares that the vehicle was to be pulled by 18-20 draft animals.

This close-up image reinforces the impressive scale of the Fortuna freight wagon.

Additional features of the massive wagon included steel standards, double spoke rivets, 14 spokes on the front wheels and 16 on the rear, box brakes, heavy rub irons, and an adjustable brake rod.  In some ways, the giant wagon looks a little like an overgrown California rack bed.  Centering the bed on the lowermost sill, the insignia of M.P. Henderson & Son identifies the firm as the maker.  Just above the Henderson name is a rarity for freight wagons – a hand painted scene featuring what looks to be a western landscape.  Reminiscent of still life paintings embellishing the doors of period Concord stagecoaches, the extravagant painting on this freight wagon was clearly meant to reflect the wealth being uncovered in the Fortuna mine; Hence, the christened name lettered in the top center of the vehicle box – La Fortuna. 

Further capturing the lucrative nature of the mining operation, an 1896 report showed that within a four month period, 6,300 tons of ore had been extracted from the Fortuna mine with the resulting gold for the brief period valued at almost a quarter million dollars.  In another report, the August 16, 1900 issue (p.9) of the Los Angeles Herald newspaper indicates that the mine was still running strong at that time, producing $140,000/month. 

Clearly, the wagon was part of a remarkable enterprise.  Looking at the century-plus-old photo, it’s easy to be impressed by the size of the vehicle.  Just as engaging, though, is the thought of what may have happened to this particular wonder of the west.  With so much attention given to its debut, it’s tough to think that such a magnificent icon has likely been lost to time.  Fortunately, we have the written reports and the photo above to remind us of some very ‘big’ moments in western transportation history.  Have a great week!

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