California Freight Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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I’ve shared a number of specificsrelated to early American freight wagons in previous articles as well as duringpresentations at special events.  Fromgiant freighters in Idaho and Colorado to those in California, the Dakotas, theSanta Fe Trail and all points east and west, these designs with their massivesize, responsibilities, history, and lore are captivating.  As intriguing as these huge workhorses canbe, though, the very nature of the harsh terrain and loads they were subjectedto have made them relatively scarce.  Itmakes every encounter today a little more special and such was the case earlierthis year.

This past June, I scheduled another tripto the west coast with a plan to photograph and review several stagecoaches andwestern vehicles throughout central and southern California.  With a full calendar at work, my time wassomewhat limited.  Nonetheless, I feltthe planning left sufficient time to study the coaches and still squeeze in afew other family activities.  Now, thisis going to sound a little strange but, what’s always surprising about thesetrips are the surprises themselves.  Imean, 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 groundrunning with visits to San Francisco, Stockton, Angels Camp, Wawona, MariposaGrove, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.  One ofthe last places we visited was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park.  With the first human populations in the areadating back at least 9,000 years, the location is often billed as thebirthplace of California.  We arrivedaround 10:30 in the morning and were fortunate to find a parking spot close tothe entrance.  Inside, there are numerousshops, museums, restaurants, and curiosities to explore.  The Wells Fargo building is near the entrance and houses a number of impressiveexhibits.  Among the historichighlights, the company has a Concord Coach as the centerpiece of themuseum.  This legendary set of wheels wasoriginally built by the firm of Abbot-Downing in Concord, Massachusetts.  It’s coach number 251 and it was built in1867 for Wells Fargo.  The coach is oneof the famous thirty Concords photographed on flat cars as they weretransported to Omaha, Nebraska in 1868. 

I wanted to record measurements andphotos of this coach but I knew it would take a little time so we decided to firstgrab some lunch in the old Cosmopolitan Hotel. This building started as a single story adobe house in 1827 and, withadditions, opened as a hotel in 1869. While we were waiting a few minutes for the restaurant to open, Inoticed the blacksmith and carriage shop just a few yards up the street.  Curiosity overtook me and walking in throughthe large outer door, I was surprised to see a number of period wagons andcoaches on display.  Most startling, wasthe lead and trail freight wagon.  It wassurprising because, in all my travels and discussions, I’d never heard anyonespeak of a tall-sided freighter being located in Old Town San Diego.  It was like I had found another long lostfriend 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 inheight.  It sat on 5 inch wide tires and3 inch steel axles.  Other dimensionsincluded a heavy, 1 inch square circle iron, 60 inch wheel track, and 52inch/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 justover 7 feet in height and an inch shy of 12 feet in length.   Equipped with steel skeins and a flat trussbar beneath the axles, it was more of a heavy farm wagon.  That said, it was not uncommon to see thistype of arrangement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  While both wagons have had adaptations, thereare still significant levels of originality present – especially with the leadwagon.  In addition to the freighters,there are several original mud wagons, including a reproduction mud coach builtby 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 carretaor two-wheeled cart dating to 1806. Being over 200 years old, it’s one of the earliest surviving vehicles inCalifornia.  Finding these additionalpieces was the icing on the cake for a trip that revealed literally dozens ofother vehicles rarely shown or discussed. I’ll spend some time in future blogs sharing more details on a varietyof vehicles we explored during this trip. As is almost always the case, the only shortcoming in the venture wasthe lack of time I had to explore the other intriguing wheels in the area.  Someday I hope to get to the Banning andAutry Museums as well as other local collections.  In the meantime, if you find yourself inCalifornia, don’t miss any of the numerous opportunities to get up close tosome of the most impressive survivors of America’s early western heritage.  Beyond their individual provenance, eachholds clues to further interpret, identify, and preserve some of the most dramatic wheeled history in the continental U.S.  

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