Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rare Stagecoaches & Army Wagons

Across the country, stagecoaches were a prominent part of 19th century America.  So much so that these legendary vehicles have become synonymous with a large part of the country’s early expansion.  It’s a story sometimes told with such romanticized intent that accurate images of thoroughbrace stages hitched to a team of mules might seem somewhat sacrilegious to the more public vision of an elaborately painted Wells Fargo coach drawn by six horses.
Certainly, the simplicity of the ‘stagecoach’ term belies a much more diverse reality.  There were many sizes, types and designs of local and overland passenger and mail transports not to mention a plethora of names for these rolling works of art.  Concords, mud wagons, stages, celerity wagons and mudders are just a few of the labels often attributed to specific vehicles in the broad category of stagecoaches.   

While most surviving coaches today have been restored or reconditioned in some way, there are still a few of these western icons in largely original, as-last-used condition.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity along with master vehicle craftsman, Doug Hansen and noted stagecoach historian, Ken Wheeling to review several western mud coaches built and used in California. 

In particular, within the Carriage & Western Art Museum of Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum collections, there are original stages built by M.P. Henderson or M.P. Henderson & Son of Stockton, California.   

Each of the Henderson vehicles mentioned in this blog post represent one of the larger mud wagons offered by the firm.  Well-known throughout the West for quality built stages, express and thoroughbrace wagons, wagonettes, buckboards, carriages and other western vehicles, M.P. Henderson is a popular maker among enthusiasts still today.  An excellent article on the company, written by Ken Wheeling, can be found in the Fall 1993 issue of The Carriage Journal. 

On another note, military historian, curator and author, Thomas Lindmier, recently shared details of another, perhaps even rarer vehicle he happened upon earlier this year.  It’s a 6 mule army wagon similar to the modern reproduction in the photo below and may date to around 1890 or earlier.  At some point in the very distant past, it’s been over-painted an olive drab but; incredibly, just beneath the box, the rocking bolster still sports the original blue paint and yellow stenciled maker’s mark.  The wagon was originally shipped to Ft. Robinson and the builder is noted as Louis Palm from Chicago.  This is a maker seldom heard of today but worthy of additional study.  In Price & Lee’s 1888 American Carriage (and wagon maker) Directory, the firm’s location is listed as 16 South Jefferson.  At the time, over 200 vehicle manufacturers were represented in the city.  Clearly, there was plenty of competition as well as plenty of work in the immediate limits of Chicago’s then population of 800,000.  So, with the company established as a successful competitor and military vehicle supplier, we’re left to question where other Louis Palm vehicles may be today?    

By the turn of the 20th century, Louis Palm ceases to be shown in the same directories.  So, how long was the company in business?  Perhaps a closer look at census reports could be helpful.  Why did it cease operations?  Is this wagon the only surviving vehicle from the factory?  It’s a study full of questions and yet one more reminder that we have much to learn before we have a complete image of American’s first and largest transportation industry.  Clearly, maker identification of these vehicles continues to be the first step in a very large, intriguing and valuable puzzle.