McMaster Camping Car – An Early RV Wagon

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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During the 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous types of excursion vehicles could be seen traveling backcountry trails and remote regions throughout the American West.  vacationing passengers for day, overnight, and extended outings, these specially-designed wheels could be as modestly built as a spring wagon fitted with a few extra seats or as elaborately imaginative as might be realistically dreamed in that day.

Major horse-drawn vehicle builders like Studebaker, M.P. Henderson, Cortland, and others created multiple designs for this segment of the market. Open sides,tops, luggage racks, brakes, and extra entry steps characterized basic features found on many touring vehicles. I’ve written a few Articles and Blogs highlighting several of these designs operating in areas like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other scenic destinations. 

One, larger-style spring wagon dating to the 1880’s was so different that it was actually patented. Handcrafted and engineered to carry as many creature comforts as possible, the “McMaster Camping Car” was among America’s first,full-featured RV’s.  Of course, other U.S. born vehicles like the Sheep Camp wagon with its live-in accoutrements clearly predated the McMaster wagon. That said,the McMaster vehicle took outdoor ventures to an entirely new level of luxury.  Getting back to nature in one of these horse-drawn rigs would have represented the height of indulgence and opportunity in its time.

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These two images show portions from a 19th century patent awarded to the McMaster camping wagon.  The design was used by the firm of Wylie & Wilson for excursions in Yellowstone Park.

Unlike open-sided touring coaches that subjected passengers to trail dust, weather, and vacillating temperatures, the McMaster wagon was fully enclosed (except for the driver), leaving occupants relatively secure from wind, rain, insects, and other discomforts. The vehicle was said to be slightly longer and wider than an omnibus while being equipped with a world of thoughtful amenities.

The legendary Yellowstone outfitter firmof Wylie & Wilson used these conveyances in a number of areas within the park prior to the establishment of permanent camps. Early promotional materials described them as “well equipped” for excursions up to 12 days in length. The rolling camper was rented at a rate of $5 per day, per person.  As costly as that might sound in 1890’s currency, it was apparently a more economical way to see Yellowstone than by committing to a hotel and touring coach.*  

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This rare image from the Wheels That Won The West® Archives includes a segment from a photo showing the famed McMaster Camping Car.  The vehicle included custom graphics, upholstery details, and other features not shown in this post.

The McMaster camping wagon was truly a home away from home. It was filled with unique designs and, according to the original patent, “…furniture, bedding, and kitchen requirements for camping purposes are supplied in the most compact form…”  Up front, the driver’s seat was hinged to provide access to a coal oil stove secured inside the seat box. Two, large hinged windows were positioned at the front of the vehicle, allowing easy access to the stove while remaining inside the wagon (A later design seems to show a sliding door versus a window).  Elsewhere, a fly or canvas could be positioned to overhang all four sides of the roof, delivering even greater protection from precipitation and heat. Beneath the vehicle was a custom sling for a slop bucket and a portable sleeping cot/ladder.  A toolbox with saws, hammers, axes, wrenches, nails, and other necessities was also provided. 

Much like a modern RV, the interior was designed for duplicate and creative use of all available space. The McMaster camper included a fully equipped kitchen, ice box, swinging water basin with spigot, tank for drinking water, a wardrobe, table with folding legs, privy with trap door, padded benches, chest of drawers, under seat drawers for articles such as fishing gear and household articles, convertible sleeping berths, and more. 

Our Wheels That Won The West® Archives not only include a copy of the original McMaster patent but also imagery of one of the ‘Camping Cars’. The wagons were apparently being manufactured for use in Yellowstone as early as 1892.   According to the July issue of “The Hub” magazine from that year, it was reported that A.J. McMaster had reached an agreement with carriage builder, J.J. Frasier, to craft his patented wagons. From RV history to the early use of our nation’s national parks and even to the growth of the American West, itself, these vehicles are an important part of our history. 

We reached out to the National Park Service to try and determine if any of the McMaster wagons have survived.  As of this writing, it does not appear that any still exist. Knowledgeable officials at Yellowstone confirm the rarity of the wagon as well as the likelihood none have survived. Regrettably, it’s another example of the vanishing connections to our nation’s rich western history. A special thank you to the Park Service for their time, attention, and knowledgeable response to our questions.

* Culpin, Mary Shivers.  2003.  “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”: A History of Concession Development in Yellowstone National Park, 1872 – 1966.  National Park Service, Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. YCR-CR-2003-01  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted and 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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