Wednesday, September 24, 2014

California Freight Wagons

I’ve shared a number of specifics related to early American freight wagons in previous articles as well as during presentations at special events.  From giant freighters in Idaho and Colorado to those in California, the Dakotas, the Santa Fe Trail and all points east and west, these designs with their massive size, responsibilities, history, and lore are captivating.  As intriguing as these huge workhorses can be, though, the very nature of the harsh terrain and loads they were subjected to have made them relatively scarce.  It makes every encounter today a little more special and such was the case earlier this year.

This past June, I scheduled another trip to the west coast with a plan to photograph and review several stagecoaches and western vehicles throughout central and southern California.  With a full calendar at work, my time was somewhat limited.  Nonetheless, I felt the planning left sufficient time to study the coaches and still squeeze in a few other family activities.  Now, this is going to sound a little strange but, what’s always surprising about these trips are the surprises themselves.  I mean, no matter how much I travel, I’m amazed at what there is to discover – sometimes when we’re not even looking for it.

The ‘Old Town’ park in San Diego offered an intriguing and family-friendly step back into American history.

Landing in San Jose, we hit the ground running with visits to San Francisco, Stockton, Angels Camp, Wawona, Mariposa Grove, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.  One of the last places we visited was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  With the first human populations in the area dating back at least 9,000 years, the location is often billed as the birthplace of California.  We arrived around 10:30 in the morning and were fortunate to find a parking spot close to the entrance.  Inside, there are numerous shops, museums, restaurants, and curiosities to explore.  The Wells Fargo building is near the entrance and houses a number of impressive exhibits.  Among the historic highlights, the company has a Concord Coach as the centerpiece of the museum.  This legendary set of wheels was originally built by the firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, Massachusetts.  It’s coach number 251 and it was built in 1867 for Wells Fargo.  The coach is one of the famous thirty Concords photographed on flat cars as they were transported to Omaha, Nebraska in 1868. 

I wanted to record measurements and photos of this coach but I knew it would take a little time so we decided to first grab some lunch in the old Cosmopolitan Hotel.  This building started as a single story adobe house in 1827 and, with additions, opened as a hotel in 1869.  While we were waiting a few minutes for the restaurant to open, I noticed the blacksmith and carriage shop just a few yards up the street.  Curiosity overtook me and walking in through the large outer door, I was surprised to see a number of period wagons and coaches on display.  Most startling, was the lead and trail freight wagon.  It was surprising because, in all my travels and discussions, I’d never heard anyone speak of a tall-sided freighter being located in Old Town San Diego.  It was like I had found another long lost friend to compare and share with other surviving freighters.

The exhibits in the Carriage & Blacksmith Shop at Old Town San Diego offer a look at several rare freighting and staging vehicles from days gone by. 

The lead wagon stood 8 1/2 feet in height.  It sat on 5 inch wide tires and 3 inch steel axles.  Other dimensions included a heavy, 1 inch square circle iron, 60 inch wheel track, and 52 inch/44 inch wheel heights.     

Old Town’s lead freight wagon measures 16 feet in length with a 42” wide box.

The trail wagon was smaller, being just over 7 feet in height and an inch shy of 12 feet in length.   Equipped with steel skeins and a flat truss bar beneath the axles, it was more of a heavy farm wagon.  That said, it was not uncommon to see this type of arrangement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  While both wagons have had adaptations, there are still significant levels of originality present – especially with the lead wagon.  In addition to the freighters, there are several original mud wagons, including a reproduction mud coach built by Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota. 

Doug Hansen and his team of craftsmen are well known for producing quality and correctly-styled western vehicles.

Dating to 1806, this extremely rare carreta is one of 

California’s oldest surviving vehicles.

The collection also features a carreta or two-wheeled cart dating to 1806.  Being over 200 years old, it’s one of the earliest surviving vehicles in California.  Finding these additional pieces was the icing on the cake for a trip that revealed literally dozens of other vehicles rarely shown or discussed.  I’ll spend some time in future blogs sharing more details on a variety of vehicles we explored during this trip.  As is almost always the case, the only shortcoming in the venture was the lack of time I had to explore the other intriguing wheels in the area.  Someday I hope to get to the Banning and Autry Museums as well as other local collections.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in California, don’t miss any of the numerous opportunities to get up close to some of the most impressive survivors of America’s early western heritage.  Beyond their individual provenance, each holds clues to further interpret, identify, and preserve some of the most dramatic wheeled history in the continental U.S.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

More 2014 Chuck Wagon Events

Fall is in the air here in the Ozarks.  We’ve finally gotten a reprieve from some of the heat and humidity.  In some ways, it’s been a long, hot summer.  Then again, I keep wondering where all of the time goes?  Over the last few months, we’ve been consumed with work, travel, and even more special projects.  In the middle of it all, we’ve received a number of notices related to upcoming events.  Unfortunately, we’re not able to post everything we receive but in an effort to share some of the announcements, below are details from a pair of press releases sent to us.

Stay tuned as we have another early vehicle discovery we’ll be reporting on in the next several weeks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Carriage Association of America

Locating detailed information on early wagons and stagecoaches isn’t always an easy task.  Some particulars can only be found in period catalogs and materials produced by vehicle builders while other data may have to be mined from scarce periodicals, old government records, or other references.  While many folks use the internet as an immediate ‘go-to’ resource, the very nature of massive amounts of data being posted online can make it tough to confirm reliability in all instances.

Equally important is the point that there is a host of well-researched information not currently available on the world wide web.  In fact, many materials originally published decades ago have never been posted on line.  A good reminder of this can be found by perusing early issues of “The Carriage Journal.”  The magazine, published by the Carriage Association of America (CAA), is well-known for producing quality, well-written, and well-researched details on a host of vehicle styles, including America’s heavier wagons and stage coaches.

The Carriage Association of America is involved in much more than carriages and light vehicles.

A few years ago, I acquired a hardbound collection of the earliest years of this magazine.  Within the Summer 1965 issue, I came across a multi-page story covering the famed 20 Mule Train and giant freight wagons used to haul borax through Death Valley.  The article includes an overview of the wagons as well as discussions related to the mule teams, muleskinning, the desert terrain, and the early Pacific Borax Company. 

The Wheels That Won The West® Archives includes countless unpublished and rarely seen photos from America’s first transportation industry.

In another article from a half century ago, the CAA covered the restoration of Abbot-Downing’s coach #431.  A 1964 write-up highlighted the wagons and carriages built by James H. Birch of Burlington, N.J. and still another in 1967 focused on the firm of Hoopes Bro. and Darlington in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  At the time, they were still busy building wagon wheels; a business started 100 years earlier in 1867. 

More than quaint stories from another time, these are touch points in history; allowing us more opportunity to learn about specific vehicles while potentially reinforcing provenance documentation.  Likewise, such articles can be helpful within identification and authentication work.  With a history dating to 1960, the Carriage Association of America is a strong organization helping bring like-minded folks together while promoting horse-drawn vehicle history and modern day applications.  They’re located at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’ve never been there, it’s well worth the visit.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Uncommon Wagon Patents

There are a number of early vehicle-related patents that were so well accepted that they became common in commercial use back in the day.  The successes of inventors with last names such as Sandage, Comstock, Burr, Archibald, Stoddard, and Sarven are well documented and were equally well-known by vehicle builders in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.  You may have heard of the ‘Sandage skein’ or the ‘Archibald hub’ or even the ‘Comstock end gate’ as I had covered earlier this year.

There are countless other expired patents that most living souls have never heard of and, if it weren’t for this blog, they might be completely forgotten.  That’s not to say that you’re missing much as many of those patents never got off the ground.  Some failed completely while others saw only a glimmer of success.  As a result, the odds of finding most of them today are in the neighborhood of ‘slim to none.’

That said, several years ago, I came across a device clamped to the hub and spokes of a wagon wheel.  It looked like a steel spider with the wooden wheel firmly in its grip.  To understand its purpose one needs to look no further than the weaknesses faced by wooden wheels.  No matter the end user – farmer, rancher, miner, business owner, freighter, etc. – many faced the eventual challenge of loose spokes, felloes, and tires as well as shrinkage and unsoundness in the hubs.  As with the multitude of vehicle problems that can surface today, the issues often occurred when help was not close at hand.  This particular spider-like clamp was engineered to stiffen and reinforce the entire body of the wheel – hub, spokes, and felloes – while helping temporarily fix a serious concern.  Even though I’d stumbled upon the device in the 21st century, it’s an idea with roots over 130 years old.  The following illustration outlines the concept.  It’s from a patent applied for in 1883.

Many issues can cause weakness in wooden wheels.  Sometimes a quick fix was needed before a more permanent repair could be made.


A few years earlier, in 1880, another gentleman believed he had the answer for strengthening and stabilizing wagon bows.  This design called for framed slots made of cast metal that would contain the ends of a wagon bow, preventing it from over-flexing or slipping down on the box lower than it should.  Both scenarios could result in breakage and other problems.  The image shown below is from that patent.


As reflected in this 1880 wagon bow innovation, patents and special design innovations covered virtually every aspect of a wagon's construction. 

While patent applications related to wagons did slow down after the introduction of the automobile, there continued to be those willing to spend money to register their ideas well into the 20th century.  Below is an approved patent that combined box tighteners with rub irons – two features with totally different functions.  Essentially, a box tightener is a large clamp that helped seal the side(s) of a wagon box equipped with multiple sideboards.  On the other hand, a rub iron is a metal shield designed to protect the lower box sides from being damaged when the front wheel is turning.

This idea for a combined rub iron and box tightener was filed in 1919 – a bit late for any real commercial success with wooden wagons.

It’s always interesting to flip through the dusty pages of these old patent files.  After all, we’re all connected to yesterday and many of those early innovations are still being used in some way or another.  So, while you’re traveling through each day, keep your eyes open for different-looking pieces and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Luck happens a lot more often when you work at it.