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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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 19, 2015

What’s The Rub? Protecting Wagons/Western Vehicles

No matter where you look on an old horse drawn wagon or western vehicle, you’re likely to see some type of metal attached nearby.  While each piece of iron and steel can have different – and even multiple purposes – the most common function of many forged and hardened parts is that of protection...  Protection against excessive wear and tear as well as a safeguard against unnecessary wood stress and fatigue.  Ultimately, this ‘body armor’ was engineered to deliver greater durability and less maintenance issues.
These and other technologies inside an old wooden vehicle are just part of the intrigue any early set of wheels can hold.  With that in mind, below are a few typical areas of protection as they were addressed by numerous wagon builders.  If you look close at virtually any 19th or early 20th century piece, you can often see even more areas where the maker placed fortifications.

Rub irons – These are the cast metal (and sometimes angle iron) pieces bolted or riveted to the lower box sides behind the front wheels.  The primary purpose of these metal plates was to protect the box from damage when the wheels turned too tight.  Every rub iron was expected to eventually wear out.  As a result, they were designed to be easily removed, reused, and replaced.

Rub irons were crafted in a number of different forms for multiple purposes.

Tongue irons – The tongue could receive considerable damage from numerous sources including repetitive rubbing, chipping, and gouging from the action of the doubletree, singletrees, draft animals, and fifth chains.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to see extensive ironing applied to appropriate areas on the tongue.
Box chafe irons These flat metal plates were sandwiched between the bolster stakes and the box sides to help prevent undue chafing on the box by the standards.

Not all wagon makers used chafe irons on the box but many builders did include a myriad of similar quality details throughout the designs.

Box top irons – The thinner top edges (and sometimes the ends) of a wagon’s sideboards and end gates were often fitted with these narrow metal strips.  The objective was to reduce or eliminate unnecessary board fractures and wear as materials were loaded, unloaded, and positioned on top of the boards.  
Reach boxes – Fitted between the rear axle and bolster, many makers utilized a rectangular frame of either cast iron or fabricated sheet iron around the reach.  The purpose was to help prevent the reach from wearing against the axle and bolster.

By covering the tops of sideboards and end gates with metal strips, wagon boxes were protected from unnecessary damage during normal use.

Reach boxes were designed to help preserve the structural integrity of the reach, rear bolster, and rear axle in a wagon gear.

Encased hubs Wooden hubs encased in metal were a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  While only a few farm wagon builders are known to have used similar designs, there were numerous manufacturers of lighter vehicles that employed metal clad wooden hubs.
Clouts – Prior to, and sometimes after, the invention of the thimble skein, the ends of wagon axles were fitted with ‘clouts.’  These metal plates were attached to the top and bottom of each axle end to provide easier draft while also protecting the wooden axle from excessive wear. 
Sand board and bolster plates – These pieces were engineered to take a significant amount of punishment and were typically thicker than most other metal on a wagon.  They were configured in a variety of ways.  Some were heavy flat bars while others had a cup and saucer design.  Still others looked more like a fifth wheel, offering greater protection for the king bolt.
Sway bar, reach, & slider irons – In many dead axle wagons, there are multiple parts of the front hound that are designed to move back and forth over the reach as the front wheels turn.  Portions of wooden pieces in these areas are typically plated with metal to help preserve the structural integrity of the reach and hound sections.

The forward hounds of a wagon were often clad with metal strips as shown above.  This extra 'ironing' helped guard against excessive wear and tear on the wood.

Reach plates – Some reach plates are designed with additional iron framework to prevent the rear hounds from rubbing and wearing against the reach.

As I mentioned in the opening to this blog, there are numerous other areas of early western vehicles that received “ironing” to protect, strengthen, and underscore the quality of a particular piece.  Clearly, the blacksmith shops had plenty to keep them busy in the production of these vehicles.  From the mountains, rivers, and plains to the deserts, valleys, forests, and fields, period western transports needed protection.  In fact, from the time they left the shop of a specific maker, these heavier wheels were regularly subjected to torturous terrain, burdensome cargo, and extensive exposure to the raw elements of the outdoors.  By the very nature of their functions, they were expected to take a beating and keep rolling with minimal maintenance.  It was a tall order and many did it surprisingly well.

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 12, 2015

Originality in Early Western Vehicles

You might want to grab a cup of coffee and sit a spell as this week’s blog is a bit longer than the norm.  It relates to a subject important to all stewards of early vehicles, so I’ve given you a bit more fodder to chew on.  There’s a lot more that can be shared on this subject but, this blog should provide a good start…
One of the things I enjoy doing is evaluating early western vehicles.  Whether you realize it or not, every time you view a set of wheels, you’re also making similar assessments.  As enthusiasts, we all look at different designs, forming conclusions as to their intrigue and desirability.     
So, anytime we’re reviewing one of these wooden workhorses, there are a number of basic questions that can come to mind. Thoughts like... How old is it?  Who made it?  Where was it used?  What was it used for?  Is anything broken, weakened, damaged, or missing?  And, just as critical for collectors – How ‘original’ is it?  Each of these questions can be helpful when determining a vehicle’s provenance, personality, and price point. 
From my experience, some of the most common references to wooden vehicles seem bent on attaching extreme originality to the piece.  In fact, I believe the catchphrase, “All-Original,” is so frequently misapplied that it often carries only a partial vein of truth.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love all-original vehicles and there are some nice surviving examples.  However, it’s a tough description to live up to and many simply do not.  The reason for that is that most extant, wood-wheeled western vehicles are going to be 75 years or more in age.  A lot has likely happened to a vehicle that’s been around for at least three-quarters of a century and many of those occurrences can leave the old transport in far less than ‘all-original’ condition.  Numerous parts of the whole are regularly lost, replaced, or have deteriorated to the point they are no longer salvageable.
It should be noted that if a vehicle is deemed to be less than ‘all-original,’ that does not necessarily mean that it has suffered any loss in resale value, desirability, or importance.  Truth is, early vehicle values and historical significance are contingent on a host of qualifications and any tendency to place unbounded importance on a single trait can lead to missed opportunities as well as misunderstandings. 
Clearly, there are different levels (amounts) of originality in most early vehicles we see.  For example, a piece may be fortunate to still contain all of its original components but it may have been repainted at some point.  Even if this was done 80 years ago by the farmer using the wagon, the term ‘all-original’ cannot legitimately be applied to a vehicle carrying a finish that was applied well after its initial production.  Terms such as ‘authentic,’ ‘period correct,’ or even ‘historically accurate’ might be more suitable – depending on the piece and its makeup. 

The term, “All-Original,” tends to infer that the vehicle is still comprised of the same pieces that came from the factory/shop that built it or the retailer that initially sold it.  To that point, I regularly receive questions asking if wagon running gears and boxes could have been mixed from the start of their lives together.  In other words, can a piece be ‘original’ if it is made up of one brand of running gear mated to a box from a different brand?  Yes, this did happen and, yes, I have evidence of it occurring.  There are multiple ways that it took place.  In one scenario, a dealer may have put different pieces together and sold it to a consumer not particularly swayed by one brand over another – they just needed a good box and gear.  Many early dealers sold multiple brands of wagons, making this a very understandable occurrence.  In another situation, a customer may have had a good box and needed a replacement gear (or vice versa).  It reminds me of the time our washing machine went out.  The dryer was still good so we kept it but when we went to buy a new washer, we ended up getting a different brand than what had previously accompanied the washer (Economics sometimes win out over brand consistency).  Most can relate to an end user not spending unnecessary monies just to keep things perfectly aligned by brand.  In both cases I've mentioned, the collective grouping is represented as it was acquired by the consumer. 
I’ll extend a friendly word of advice here… The occasional mixing of brands by some in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is is not a license for modern-day collectors to mismatch pieces willy-nilly.  Likewise, I would counsel strong caution to anyone attempting to elevate vehicle perceptions and values by misrepresenting pieces in a similar fashion.  There are numerous ways to confirm originality of multi-brand parts making up a single vehicle.  Fraud can always be spotted by those who know what to look for and, as part of our Authentication Services, I have pointed out such circumstances to clients in the past.
Normal wear and tear (including paint fading & loss) is typically part of a vehicle’s originality but some additions and deletions are not.  For example… while a crack in the original wood floor is part of the wagon’s use, age, and character, a replaced floor is just that – a replacement.  Again, it is not necessarily a negative element for the wagon.  It merely requires us to be mindful of how we refer to the piece.  Likewise, a wagon is not “all-original” if it has had its wheels cut down, end gates replaced, or even had something as small as new bow staples recently installed.  Again, these points are not meant to declare something as a negative but rather cause us to think twice about how we use and think of the terms such as ‘all-original.’ 
As a collector, I typically like a piece to be as original as possible but I certainly won’t shy away from an exceptional piece just because it has had a few repairs or is missing some of its parts.  In fact, if you’re looking for a piece that is 100% perfect, you will likely grow gray-headed and toothless waiting for what may be the fulfillment of unrealistic and unwarranted expectations.   
Ultimately, there are a number of considerations that go into any evaluation focused on originality levels of a particular vehicle.  Start to finish, it’s not a process that should be taken lightly or approached with personal agendas. 

Coming Soon... We'll look at early vehicle "Authenticity" and examine how it relates to "Originality".  Have a great 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 5, 2015

Old Wagons Can Look The Same

Over the years, I’ve regularly shared the competitive nature of America’s early wagon builders.  The more I’ve researched this industry, the more amazed I am that the cut-throat business tactics and dominant reputations of many have rarely been reported.  Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, countless firms went head to head, challenging each other with price wars, races for single and mass market dominance, control of raw materials, employment benefits, and innovative engineering.  Some even mimicked paint graphics and fabrication styles of competitors in order to sway buyers.  From the forest to the factory, a lot of stories from this part of the American West can be just as wild as those from an all-night saloon in a frontier mining town. 

With tens of thousands of makers and a known history for some to simulate the construction traits of others, it’s inevitable I suppose that modern day efforts to identify wagon brands can hit a snag from time to time.  As a result, I’ve regularly cautioned against using only one or two points to assume an identification is accurate.  To illustrate that counsel a bit more this week, I thought I’d open up our files and show yet another example of how confusing and problematic evaluations can become when we focus on just one notable characteristic.

By all accounts, T.G. Mandt (Stoughton, Wisconsin) was one of America’s most prominent wagon makers.  His innovative genius is recorded in numerous patents granted for wagons and sleighs/sleds.  Because the Mandt brand was a dominant and high-profile company, many of today’s early vehicle enthusiasts will quickly recognize the hollow-tubed bolster stake design that Mr. Mandt created in the late 1800’s.  What most don’t know, however, is that there was another patent granted to yet another company for an extremely similar design. 

Below are illustrations from the two (2) different patents.  Can you pick out the original design conceived and manufactured by T.G. Mandt?  While some might be fortunate to choose the correct Mandt design here, looking at a single example on a wagon without paint would likely be a bit more tricky.  

Can you guess which of these early illustrations belong to the patent awarded to legendary wagon builder, T. G. Mandt?

Both concepts are so alike in form, feel, and function that, unless a person is well aware of the alternative design, it’s tempting to associate each as being the same T.G. Mandt piece.  Moral of the story?  Caveat Emptor... collectors, buyers, and those quick-to-judge will do well to take note.  There are countless mirrors of innovations and design practices just waiting to be misread.  As with any topic, one way to help avoid misconceptions is to devote oneself to continued growth and experience on the subject. 

Ultimately, period wagons are made from hundreds of parts.  Each segment of the whole has a story to tell related to identity, originality, authenticity, purpose, and even the timeframe of manufacture.  By the same token, overlooking any element can easily leave individuals open for embarrassment, frustration, and maybe even a healthy dose of regret. 

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.