Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learning About Wagons – One End to the Other

Every day old wagons and western vehicles are overlooked and every day more and more of our nation’s history disappears.  These oversights may seem insignificant until we realize just how many millions of wheels have completely vanished or are regularly misrepresented today.  After more than two decades of our own search and rescue missions, it’s become painfully clear that without a consolidated effort to preserve the best and rarest surviving vehicles in America’s first transportation industry, some brands and originality levels will likely be lost forever.  Nonetheless, there are success stories that crop up from time to time. 

One of the first steps in recovering and preserving so much of America’s wood-wheeled history is learning what went into every part of these vehicles and what the surviving pieces can tell us.  To that point, at the front and rear of many farm, freight, ranch, and military wagons were boards typically held in place by rods, pins, clips, chains, or straps.  Similar to the tailgate on a modern pickup truck, these “end gates” were engineered to help provide rigidity to the box while also serving other practical needs.  Hence, a good portion of them were crafted to swing, fold, drop, lift, slide, or remain static.  From dumping and loading to creating easier access to contents in the wagon, many of these innovations were parlayed into patents.  Some were readily accepted and used by numerous wagon makers.  As a result, it’s not uncommon today to run across a wide variety of end gate designs.  This week, I thought I’d highlight a few of the ideas popular more than a century ago. 

Folding end gate...

One of the most promoted and readily accepted end gate styles was the Comstock patent.  Awarded to Charles Comstock in 1870, this was the first ‘folding end gate’ design.  The flexible idea was crafted to allow the lower rear end gate of a farm, ranch, mountain, or freight wagon to be taken out without going through the time and trouble of removing the box rod.  This was especially convenient when the wagon was lifted up in the front, allowing grain to be dumped.  It also assured that the sideboards could remain somewhat stabilized even though one or more end gates were removed.

One of the most popular end gates found on antique farm wagons today was originated in 1870 by Charles Comstock.

Drop end gate...

As a kid and adult, I’ve sat on many truck tailgates.  From restful moments on the farm to social get-togethers at sporting events, the ‘tailgate’ has a long history in American vehicles.  In my younger years, most of those pickup truck tailgates were held up by chains with hooks.  At the time, I didn’t realize that the concept had its origins with horse drawn vehicles.  In fact, there were a number of patented variations of this idea in the 1800's and early 1900's.   Shown below are a couple of them.

This hinged end gate design dates to 1886.  Its use of chains to hold the gate level is similar to the way early pickup truck tailgates were configured.

The two images shown immediately above feature a 1904 patent.  It incorporates hinged, metal straps to hold the end gate.  Many modern truck beds still use a comparable design.  

Spring-loaded end gate...

In 1894, the Peter Schuttler Wagon Company unveiled a patent on a spring-loaded rear end gate.  The idea was focused on protecting the end gate from free-falling on its hinge and slamming against another part of the wagon or some other obstruction.  Many early wagon patents were predicated on a premise of shielding the vehicle from unnecessary stress or damages.  In this case, the notion not only helped protect the wagon but, with the resistance of the springs, items in the box were prevented from immediately dumping once the gate was freed from the side boards. 

This patented, spring-hung end gate was engineered to protect the wagon while also helping with loose loads such as city coal-hauling operations.

Okay.  There it is; a fundamental look at end gates for wagons.  I can only imagine that somebody somewhere is wondering… “Why focus on something as basic as an old wooden end gate?”  Actually, I hope someone is asking that question… a lot!  After all, only by asking questions do we learn and only by learning can we have any hope of locating and recognizing some of the last vestiges of America’s early wheeled history.  So, what ‘secrets’ can an end gate hold?  Well, to a certain extent, the designs can help highlight a particular vehicle style, make, purpose, bed width, and lower sideboard depth.  It’s just the kind of start to collecting data that helps us hone in on identifying and authenticating this part of our nation’s past.  Without that knowledge, all we have are best guesses and speculation… just the kind of direction that’s allowed so much history to disappear.

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, February 17, 2016

A Giant Wagon in Alaska

The world of advertising has a way of lauding the biggest, baddest, toughest, strongest, fastest, and most action-packed products from all over the globe.  From monster trucks to giant earth-moving equipment, countless oversized vehicles are regularly included in those tributes. 

With that in mind, in August of 2015, we shared a story about a huge freight wagon built by M.P. Henderson in 1899.  At the time, it was billed as the largest wagon in the world.  With an overall height of 13 1/2 feet and rear wheels measuring 8 feet in diameter, this single wagon was designed to be pulled by 18-20 animals.  Five years later, at the 1904 World’s Fair, the Moline wagon company showcased an even larger wagon.  At 42 feet in overall length (versus 33 feet on the Henderson), the massive Moline wagon had rear wheels that towered 9 feet from the ground.  Talk about a head-turner!

All that is known to remain of this giant Moline brand wagon are a few photos and promotional pieces created between 1904 and 1906.

While 9 foot wheels are impressive, even larger logging carts (referred to as Big Wheels or High Wheels) were used to haul timber in numerous areas of the U.S. – especially Michigan and the western Pacific states.   These wooden warriors had wheels stretching as much as 10 to 12 feet in height.  Today, it’s easy to stare in wonder at the survivors; marveling at the challenges in manufacturing such wheels, let alone the unique skills necessary to efficiently operate them.

Recently, I came across a virtually unknown article touting yet another massive set of wheels.  This time, the period commentary was focused on a wagon built for the demanding challenges of the Alaskan tundra.  Once again, it appears that someone was upping the ante on who was the biggest.  The year was 1909 and whether it was truly the largest set of wagon wheels at the time is almost immaterial since it’s a safe bet that this rig had few equals.  Below is the text from the 107-year-old article… 

“Seattle (Wash.) papers tell with pride of a local wheel-making achievement.  It is announced that the largest wagon wheels ever made have just been finished in the George W. Hoffman Carriage Works there for W. J. Roe, a drayman and contractor of Nome, Alaska.  They are twelve feet high and weigh about 3500 pounds each.  They will be used by Roe to haul heavy machinery over the tundra.

The wheels are two feet larger than any others ever built, 10-foot wheels having been constructed for the purpose of hauling logs and big timbers.  The Hoffman wheels are of fir, except the iron rim, which is 14 inches wide and five-eighths of an inch thick.  The rim is shrunk onto the felloes in two parts.”

If you’ve ever seen the massive Borax freight wagons (20 Mule Team) from Death Valley, you know just how impressively-sized some of these early monstrous wheels can be.  For the record, the max widths on most of the Borax wagons is 8 inches.  By comparison, you’d have to add another half a foot to equal the running surface (1 foot 2 inches total) of the Hoffman wagon wheels mentioned above.  Plus, each wheel weighed the better part of 2 tons! 

Click Here for more details on the massive logging wheels once used in America’s woodlands.

While a number of century-plus-old ‘Big Wheel’ logging carts have survived and can be seen today, the other giants mentioned in this week’s blog seem to have disappeared.  After several years of promotional appearances at state fairs in the U.S., the big Moline wagon vanished from news accounts.  To this day, no one seems to know what happened to the wagon.  Likewise, the last mention I was able to find on the La Fortuna freighter built by M.P. Henderson was a write-up discussing an exhibit put on in Yuma, Arizona soon after the newly-made wagon was delivered.  The freighter was reported to hold a whopping ten tons of freight and was, ultimately, put in service between the railroad in Yuma and the La Fortuna mine.

From associated human interest stories to the individual vehicles and the size of the West, itself, America’s wood-wheeled wagons are much more than antiquated curiosities and relics... they are a direct connection to America’s DNA, testimonies to the heart and soul of free enterprise and first-hand witnesses to virtually every facet of America’s move west.  Today, we’re on the trail of a number of these historic pieces and the provenance they hold.  It’s a ride with almost as many ups and downs and unexpected happenings as could be had crossing the mountains and plains in the 1800’s.  Week by week, we’ll share some of these details and continue to encourage you to share your own experiences and travels.  It’s always good to hear from you.  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, February 10, 2016


Day in and day out, time marches on.  With it, every year’s calendar is packed with anniversaries.  2016 is no exception and below are a few events we’ll mark in remembrance this year…

195 years ago...          William Becknell is credited with successfully opening the Santa Fe Trail in 1821.  The trail was a lucrative trade route to the American Southwest for nearly six decades.  Look for some special celebrations from the Santa Fe Trail Association coming up just a few short years from now.  

180 years ago...          In 1836, the battle of the Alamo took place near the present city of San Antonio, Texas.  The events would forever change the landscape of America, further solidifying a country determined to protect its freedom at all costs.

170 years ago…         One of the most tragic accounts involving early American wagons is that of the ill-fated Donner-Reed party.  In the spring of 1846, the Donner and Reed families left Independence, Missouri with nine wagons.  They were among the last in a string of wood-wheeled travelers to head for California that spring.  Determined to arrive before others, they made the fateful decision to take the road less traveled along the so-called "Hastings Cutoff."  The results are well known.  Almost half of the wagon train members would not make it past the harsh terrain and devastating winter waiting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. 

160 years ago...          In 1856, the Charter Oak Wagon Company of Fairfield, Iowa was founded by Joel Turney. 

150 years ago…         In 1866, Texas rancher, Charles Goodnight fashioned what is credited as America’s first chuck wagon.  The foundation for this custom set of wheels is said to have been an army wagon.  We shared a little about this vehicle in our March 26, 2014 blog.  At some point down the road, we’ll release a little more info to help clear the air on what this wagon most likely looked like.  As an introduction to that information, we can say with confidence that the wagon did not have Archibald hubs as that technology had not been introduced, let alone adopted by the army, at that time.

140 years ago...          Much has been written about Custer’s defeat at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876.  Far less has been shared about the hundreds of wheeled witnesses that set out from Montana, Wyoming, and Dakota territories to help supply and support the Army.  Representative of army wagons from that era, a rare, six-mule wagon stands on display in the Pioneer Memorial Museum in Douglas, Wyoming.

130 years ago…         In 1886, Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson Miles in Arizona.

120 years ago...          The discovery of gold in the Yukon in 1896 marked the beginning of the last big gold rush in the American West. 

110 years ago...          In 1906, the city of San Francisco (and the area around it) was hit with a massive earthquake estimated to have been near 8 on the Richter scale.  Thousands were believed killed with hundreds of thousands left homeless.  It took years to rebuild the city.

100 years ago…         In spite of the U.S. military’s heavy use of horse drawn vehicles during the mid-teens of the 20th century, many wagon makers were calling it quits or getting very close.  Even so, period accounts in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives show that as late as the spring of 1917, the U.S. military owned over 180,000 horse drawn transports – almost 50 times more than motorized vehicles.  That ratio would change considerably – in favor of the automobile – within just a couple years.

Even though they’re separated by decades, each of the above points in history is connected; held together by a fading multitude of wood-wheeled witnesses.  It’s a thread of continuity that’s grown incredibly weak with every passing year.  The clues to who did what when, how, where, and why are getting tougher to find as many of these legendary sets of wheels continue to be overlooked and allowed to disappear.  As we continue to uncover more details on America’s first and largest transportation industry, we’re pleased to pass along some of the highlights.  In turn, we always appreciate hearing from you with questions, comments, and insights into your own collection or discoveries.      

It’s hard to believe but, we’re already in the fifth year of writing these early vehicle blogs.  Yet, after well over 200 of these weekly posts, we haven’t even scratched the surface of this topic.  It’s a subject packed with lessons in art, science, math, business, geography, history, politics, archaeology, and even literature.  So, if you haven't signed up to receive this weekly blog via e-mail, just type your address in the "Follow By E-mail" section above.  You'll receive a confirmation e-mail that you'll need to verify before you're officially on board.  Once that's done, you'll receive an email every time we update the blog.  Please don't hesitate to let us know if we can be of assistance.  We appreciate your continued feedback and look forward to sharing even more throughout the year. 

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, February 3, 2016

2016 CAA & Colonial Williamsburg Horse Drawn Vehicle Symposium

After almost a week in Virginia, it’s good to be home; back to familiar surroundings and the comfort of normal routines.  Even so, we enjoyed a great time with gracious hosts and several hundred attendees at the CAA’s 2016 conference.  The weather was reasonably comfortable for the time of year, making it nice to get out and take in the sights of Colonial Williamsburg.  Ultimately, I’d rank the 2016 CAA Symposium at Colonial Williamsburg as one of the best early vehicle events I’ve attended.  The organizers assembled an incredible array of speakers from around the world.  The end result was a vast amount of information shared; so much, that it easily overwhelmed my note-taking abilities. 

Blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg work on all types of projects - from wagon axles to door hinges.

This circa 1750 Newsham & Ragg fire engine is housed in the Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg.  Along with other artifacts, it offers an extremely rare look at early American fire equipment. 

This silver pitcher (labeled as a porringer) from a tea service will date to the late 1700’s.  It was produced in Paul Revere’s silversmith shop.

Spread over four days, the event included fourteen speakers from the U.S., Norway, England, France, Austria, Canada, Russia, and Germany.  On the surface, it might sound like so much diversity that continuity and cohesion between the presentations would be a challenge.  On the contrary, each presenter built on the intrigue of another.  From the subtle humor of Alexander Sotin of Russia and Colin Henderson, the Queen of England’s retired head coachman, to Andreas Nemitz’s coverage of the breath-taking views and adrenalin-pumping drama of coaching through the extreme heights and switch-back roads of the Alps, the international flavor of the event created a fullness to the topics not typically available.  I also enjoyed the wealth of details in talks by Monica Kurzel-Runtscheiner, Laurier Lacroix, Stephan Broeckx, and Bjorn Hoie. 

The images Mr. Nemitz shared of the coaching tours over the Alps were equal parts beauty and adventure, rolled into what is surely the experience of a lifetime.

For years, Colin Henderson served as the head coachman to Her Majesty, the Queen of England.  It was interesting to see so many different royal coaches.

Those speaking on topics relating to American stage coaching as well as U.S. military and western vehicles included Ken Wheeling’s review of touring coaches in New Hampshire (I always try to be a sponge around Ken.  His knowledge of American stagecoaches – especially Concords is unmatched).  Michael Sanborn, from the Banning Museum in Wilmington, California, shared about the Banning Family Carriages (coaches) of Catalina Island.  Michael’s talk left me wanting to visit Catalina Island to view the historic terrain and surviving coaches there!  Similarly, Josh Ruff, from the legendary Long Island Museum collection of vehicles, shared about the use of the Talley-Ho road coach in New York City. 

Ken Wheeling’s presentation on touring coaches included details on all types of Concord stagecoaches.  Good stuff!

Immortalized in song and steeped in history, the story of Santa Catalina Island and its coaches was presented by Michael Sanborn, Director of the Banning Museum in Wilmington, California. 

Greg Hunt, an acclaimed harness maker/repairer from Wisconsin, spoke on horse-drawn military tack.  The presentation included the overall design purposes of that equipment as well as more detailed evaluations of artillery harness and McClellan artillery and riding saddles.  Greg also shared specifications related to period Escort wagon harness.  Likewise, we received a number of kind words for our presentation covering the often-overlooked designs and technology in early western wagons and military vehicles.

Greg Hunt’s presentation on military tack delved into a rare, and often misunderstood, topic.

Josh Ruff, of the famed Long Island Museum (Stony Brook Vehicle Collection), spoke on the Talley-Ho public coaches once used in New York.   

As educational and helpful as all of the talks were, one of the segments was especially emotional.  SSG John S. Ford shared some rare, behind-the-scenes details related to the ceremonial horse and caisson presentations provided in Arlington National Cemetery.  You’ve likely seen these processions before, as six horses draw an original, model 1918 caisson holding the casket of a dignitary.  From presidents to ranking officers as well as those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, the caisson platoon provides this remarkable measure of respect to all branches of U.S. military service.   Due to the unique nature of this topic, I hope to share even more from this presentation in an upcoming blog.  Suffice it to say, if you love America and the liberty we’re afforded here, the caisson platoon is one more reminder of how special and valuable the gift of freedom truly is.  In like fashion, we salute the service men and women who guard our independence, preserving a blessed way of life we should never take for granted.

SSG John S. Ford’s presentation on the ceremonial horse and caisson processions in Arlington National Cemetery was more than informative.  It was an incredibly emotional and patriotic salute to the fallen heroes of America’s armed services.

Thanks again to the CAA, Jill Ryder, Jennifer Singleton, Mindy Groff, Ken Wheeling, and Richard Nicoll for their support and assistance during the conference.  A special shout out to Stan and Kay Stefancic who made sure that our trips to and from the airport were worry-free. 

The CAA conducts this symposium every two years in conjunction with the wonderful folks and impressive campus of Colonial Williamsburg.  If you have an opportunity to attend the event in 2018, I’d highly recommend the trip.  

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.