Hard to Find Vehicles

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Last week, I passed along some detailsabout a uniquely designed touring coach with four brake blocks.  It got me to thinking about other westernvehicles that we almost never see.  Ofcourse, I’ve talked before about popular brands that are hard to comeacross.  Names like Cooper, Star, Flint,Whitewater, Caldwell, Kansas, Jackson, LaBelle, Rushford, and others areprofiled in early trade publications as significant and highly desired brands.  Even though I’ve shared details before onsome of these particular companies, I don’t think I’ve ever approached theoverall subject as it relates to scarce design styles.

So, this week, I thought I’d focus on a few early American wagon designs that are tough to find.  Before we dive in, though, it’s important torecognize that almost all of the wheels we talk about from week to week can beclassified as “rare.”  After all, thispart of our history has long since passed. So, when we talk about quality horse-drawn vehicles with a build dateharkening back at least 90 years or more, we’re talking about an elite group ofhard-to-find survivors.  Museum gradepieces from these eras have outlived harsh use, unforgiving environments, andthe aging process in general.  Likewise,they’ve escaped countless recycling and repurposing projects along with a hostof parting-out and demolition ventures as later generations focused on“cleaning out the old barn.”  With somany risks lying in wait for almost every old set of wheels, there are severaltypes of wooden vehicles that stand out as being even more challenging tofind. 

With that as a backdrop, we’ll skip pastdiscussions covering elusive brands or manufacturing dates and briefly focus ona handful of vehicle types.  Theseconfigurations will be among the most difficult to catch a glimpse of – letalone be lucky enough to acquire.  After all, how many original, period examplesof the following western vehicle types have you seen in a private collection…  Low Wheel Mountain wagon, Dougherty wagon,Dearborn wagon, Six Mule Army wagon, or Engineer’s Tool wagon?  While photos and/or period illustrationsexist for most of these, it’s hard to find even a half dozen actual examplesfor any one of the vehicles.  It’s apoint that makes individual study and field recognition of old parts even more crucial.

Low wheel Mountain wagon – Perhaps oneof the more rarely-seen western designs, I stumbled across this variationpurely by accident.  A number of yearsago, I was doing research on an old Studebaker wagon gear that had beenpurchased in Colorado.  From the bolsterstake irons to the reach pattern, tire rivets, 10-inch steel skeins, heavy-dutyironing, and numerous other features, the piece bore all the markings of a Studebaker Mountain Wagon.  Yet, the wheels were short – not the typicalconfiguration most commonly associated with these heavy-duty work horses.  Instead of being at least 52 inches inheight, the rear wheels were 46 inches tall and the front measured 38.  The overall design stood on a 56-inch trackwidth.  As part of my study, I combedthrough some of our earlier Studebaker materials and quickly came acrossseveral promotional illustrations and specifications for… you guessed it – a‘low wheel’ Mountain wagon.  Turns outthat, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Studebaker built and marketedboth a ‘high wheel’ and ‘low wheel’ Mountain wagon.  The variation I uncovered from Colorado washighlighted feature-for-feature and spec-for-spec in multiple, century-plus-oldcatalogs.  Just as the high wheelMountain wagons were ruggedly purposed, this ‘vertically-challenged’ gear wasengineered for hard use and heavy loads in mountainous regions.  The shorter wheels provided a lower center ofgravity and optimum stability over the most demanding and uneven terrain.  

Despite their lengthy service within the military,very few original Dougherty wagons have survived.
Dougherty wagon – Purportedlyoriginating in St. Louis, Dougherty wagons were used throughout the early daysof the American frontier and into the 20th century.  There were slight changes in the ultra-nimbledesign over the years, including a raised driver’s seat and cut-under body fortighter turning.  Most nineteenth centuryDougherty wagons were equipped with a set of elliptical springs balancing allfour corners of the body.  They featureddoors on both sides, canvas curtains that could be raised and lowered, and aluggage rack in the rear.  The design wasalso referred to as an ambulance and was often used to transport officers andtheir families as well as paymasters and other special needs related tomilitary business.  A good example of onebuilt by the Kansas Manufacturing Company is located in the Cheyenne FrontierDays Old West Museum in Cheyenne, Wyoming. An even earlier Dougherty can be seen in the collection at Grant-KohrsRanch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, Montana and still one more is shownat Fort Hartsuff State Historical Park in Nebraska.

In 1911, L. Mervin Maus, a Colonel inthe U.S. Army reminisced about his past experiences with the wagon…
“Anyonewho has failed to travel in a Dougherty wagon has never enjoyed one of the realpleasures of life and one of the genuine refinements of wheeltransportation.  He has missed somethingwhich has left a hiatus in his life and a blank that can never be filled untilhe finds himself at last safely seated in one of these classical army chariots,behind four snappy, faithful, and patriotic government mules, such as forgenerations have been the friend of the army at frontier posts and his ally inconducting campaigns…”

Dearborn wagon – Easily one ofthe most elusive sets of early frontier wheels, Dearborn wagons were regularlydiscussed in early diaries and journals of those headed through the AmericanWest.  In his book, “CarriageTerminology: An Historical Dictionary,” Don Berkebile includes a good – andsomewhat lengthy – description of the vehicle along with an illustration froman 1879 issue of “The Carriage Monthly.” With its name attributed to General Henry Dearborn, the vehicles wereused throughout the 19th century for hauling both freight andpassengers.  There were multiplevariations over time and a variety of names such as Jersey wagon and Carryallwere sometimes used to describe a Dearborn. 

Tom Lindmier’s book, “The Great Blue Army Wagon,”includes a host of details on America’s early military vehicles and harness.

Six Mule Army wagon – Mostsurviving military wagons seem to be of the lighter Escort or four muledesigns.  Even so, there was a larger andmore robust version developed prior to the Civil War.  Referred to as the Six Mule Army wagon, theseconfigurations were important for hauling baggage, supplies, rations, and otherlarge loads.  The reinforced patternswere popular within military circles due to the tremendous durability andversatility of the design.  According toThomas Lindmier in his book, “The Great Blue Army Wagon,” these vehicles werealso occasionally used as an ambulance. Advantages over Four Horse/Mule wagons included heavier wheels, larger axles,and the ability (since there were two more mules) to travel greater distanceswith less pressure on the draft animals. Developed in the mid-1850’s, the designs were used by the military intothe 1930’s.  One of the few surviving SixMule wagons is located in Douglas Wyoming at the Pioneer Memorial Museum.  It was built by a maker almost unheard of bycollectors and historians today.  Hisname was Louis Palm and his shops were located on South Jefferson street inChicago.  For more details on this typeof transport, check out Mr. Lindmier’s book. It’s a great volume of research that should be in every enthusiast’slibrary. 

A military “Tool” wagon was essentially a huge,wooden tool box positioned on an Escort wagon gear.

Engineer’s Toolwagon– One of the rarest horse-drawn military wagons, these specialty vehicles werein use as early as America’s Civil War and throughout the early 20thcentury.  These vehicles were typicallycomposed of an Escort wagon gear carrying a large wooden box.  Larger, but similar to a drummer’s(salesman’s) wagon, the box was enclosed and compartmentalized.  Each section inside the box was designed tohold a variety of tools, equipment, and materials needed to build roads,bridges, and other military necessities. Examples of items included could be axes, picks, levels, sledges,shovels, lanterns, hatchets, crow bars, wrenches, carpenter’s and saddler’stools, blacksmith materials, paint brushes, wire, and numerous otheressentials.  In spite of their presencewithin the military over such a broad timeframe, Tool wagons are about ascommon today as leprechauns and unicorns. I’ve searched high and low, managing to come up with a few old photos,illustrations, specifications, and period writings.  Even so, I’ve yet to set my eyes on an actualsurvivor. 
While some ofthe designs discussed here can be found in a very limited number of museums, asa general rule, they remain among the most difficult to come acrossanywhere.  Should you know of additionalexamples beyond those mentioned above, I’d enjoy hearing more about thosesurvivors as well.  In addition to thewheels above, there are a number of other heavier transports that are next toimpossible to locate.  Among those arethe Davis Iron Wagon gear, first introduced around 1880 and tested for use bythe U.S. military.  Other obscure piecesinclude Herdic Coaches and the McMaster Camping Car.  Truth is, there are aslew of early vehicle types that are still among the missing.  So, if you’re partial to a good mystery andenjoy treasure hunts, there are plenty of pieces from America’s firsttransportation industry that are waiting to be found.  So, the next time you see an old horse drawnvehicle that looks a little different, do some investigating.  It just might be one of a number of piecesthat we thought were lost to time! 

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, LLC
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