A Giant Wagon in Alaska

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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The world of advertising has a way of laudingthe biggest, baddest, toughest, strongest, fastest, and most action-packed productsfrom all over the globe.  From monstertrucks to giant earth-moving equipment, countless oversized vehicles are regularlyincluded in those tributes. 

With that in mind, in August of 2015, weshared 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 andrear wheels measuring 8 feet in diameter, this single wagon was designed to bepulled 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 feeton the Henderson), the massive Moline wagon had rear wheels that towered 9 feetfrom the ground.  Talk about a head-turner!

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

While 9 foot wheels are impressive, evenlarger logging carts (referred to as Big Wheels or High Wheels) were used tohaul timber in numerous areas of the U.S. – especially Michigan and the westernPacific states.   These wooden warriors had wheels stretching asmuch as 10 to 12 feet in height.  Today,it’s easy to stare in wonder at the survivors; marveling at the challenges inmanufacturing such wheels, let alone the unique skills necessary to efficientlyoperate them.
Recently, I came across a virtuallyunknown article touting yet another massive set of wheels.  This time, the period commentary was focusedon a wagon built for the demanding challenges of the Alaskan tundra.  Once again, it appears that someone wasupping the ante on who was the biggest.  Theyear was 1909 and whether it was truly the largest set of wagon wheels at thetime is almost immaterial since it’s a safe bet that this rig had few equals.  Below is the text from the 107-year-oldarticle… 

“Seattle (Wash.)papers tell with pride of a local wheel-making achievement.  It is announced that the largest wagon wheelsever made have just been finished in the George W. Hoffman Carriage Works therefor W. J. Roe, a drayman and contractor of Nome, Alaska.  They are twelve feet high and weigh about3500 pounds each.  They will be used byRoe to haul heavy machinery over the tundra.

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

If you’ve ever seen the massive Boraxfreight wagons (20 Mule Team) from Death Valley, you know just how impressively-sizedsome of these early monstrous wheels can be. For the record, the max widths on most of the Borax wagons is 8inches.  By comparison, you’d have to addanother half a foot to equal the running surface (1 foot 2 inches total) of theHoffman 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 ‘BigWheel’ logging carts have survived and can be seen today, the other giantsmentioned in this week’s blog seem to have disappeared.  After several years of promotionalappearances at state fairs in the U.S., the big Moline wagon vanished from newsaccounts.  To this day, no one seems toknow what happened to the wagon. Likewise, the last mention I was able to find on the La Fortunafreighter built by M.P. Henderson was a write-up discussing an exhibit put on inYuma, Arizona soon after the newly-made wagon was delivered.  The freighter was reported to hold a whoppingten tons of freight and was, ultimately, put in service between the railroad inYuma and the La Fortuna mine.

From associated human interest storiesto the individual vehicles and the size of the West, itself, America’swood-wheeled wagons are much more than antiquated curiosities and relics...they are a direct connection to America’s DNA, testimonies to the heart andsoul of free enterprise and first-hand witnesses to virtually every facet ofAmerica’s move west.  Today, we’re on thetrail of a number of these historic pieces and the provenance they hold.  It’s a ride with almost as many ups and downsand unexpected happenings as could be had crossing the mountains and plains inthe 1800’s.  Week by week, we’ll sharesome of these details and continue to encourage you to share your ownexperiences and travels.  It’s alwaysgood to hear from you.  Have a greatweek! 

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.
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