More Answers to Wagon Questions

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Seldom does a week go by that Idon’t receive a number of questions related to early wagons.  It’s a subject of constant curiosity and fascinating connections to America’s movement west.  This week, we’ll provide the next dozen answers from the original list of questions we shared on April 12th.   If you have a particular question related to an early wagon brand or the industry as a whole, drop us an email.  We’d enjoy hearing from you... 

13)  Nineteenth century military forces were sometimes accompanied by ‘Balloon wagons.’ 

Very true.  The term, ‘Balloonwagon,’ refers to a four-wheeled escort-style wagon (some with undercut wheels)equipped to carry the necessary fittings and gear, including thousands of feetof wire rope, necessary for military balloon operations.  Also accompanyingthe balloon wagons were Cylinder wagons holding the gases for theballoons.  As early as America’s Civil War and for more than a halfcentury afterward, tethered balloons were raised with personnel on board tohelp provide aerial reconnaissance of the enemy and surrounding terrain. From design to operation, it’s a subject that warrants greater attention thanwhat we have time for in this brief blog. 

This rare, original photo shows four different typesof military transportation used during WW1 – balloon, airplane,wagon, and automobile.  The image is partof our collection highlighting early military transportation.
14)  The Springfield wagon company only used one style of seat -a lazy back. 

While many are familiar with the‘taller’ lazy back seat (with backrest) that is fairly common on a Springfieldwagon, the firm actually made several different styles without a raisedbackrest.

15)  To keep a skein from having too much longitudinal wear,there should never be any slack when the wheel is rocked side toside.  

This one is false as the wheel issupposed to move roughly a quarter inch on the longitudinal axis of theskein.  It’s a design feature that helps distribute the axle grease. I wrote a blog back in September of 2013 that included period documentationhighlighting the fact that some longitudinal movement isn’t just normal – it’snecessary.  Click Here to see that research.

16)  Tongue supports or springs (for wagons) were in use as earlyas the 1850’s. 

Absolutely true.  Our filesinclude multiple patents for tongue springs and various other methods ofsupporting a wagon tongue.  The earliest patent for a tongue spring thatwe’re aware of dates to 1857.  The purpose for a tongue spring was to takethe pressure and weight of the wagon tongue off of the draft animals whilestill allowing hinged movement of the drop tongue.

17)  While a wagon is being drawn forward, the pressure on thereach pin makes it impossible for it to work itself out of the reach plate andcoupling pole

Anyone who’s ever driven much orlooked closely at a reach pin knows this to be a false statement.  Mostreach pins have a slot for a cotter-type key, nail, wire, or some other‘keeper’ in the hole on one end.  The reason?  As a wagon travels,rough terrain and jarring motions of the vehicle can easily dislodge anunsecured pin.  The results can be unsavory to say the least.  Somewagon builders, like the Stoughton Wagon Company, even used a reach pin thatscrewed in, making it especially tough to loosen up and fall out. 

Many Stoughton brand wagons utilized a reach platewith a threaded pin and tension plate.  The design was originally created by T.G. Mandt.  
18)  The running gears of Bain brand wagons were always paintedorange.

Orange was the predominant color ofmost Bain wagon running gears.  That said, yellow was also used in anumber of instances.  In fact, in November of 2014, we highlighted avery nice Bain rack bed wagon located in the AngelsCamp Museum in California.  We share these types ofsmall details to help increase awareness and limit erroneous stereotypes thatcan often be applied to these early wheels.

19)  Wagons with Bois d’arc (Osage Orange) wheels were notdesirable on the plains.

This statement is a completefalsehood.  Bois d’ arc is also referred to as ironwood or Osageorange.  It’s well-documented throughout the latter half of the nineteenthand early twentieth centuries as being an important wood for use in wagonwheels.  Inside the pages of “The Prairie Traveler,” published in 1863,those heading west by wagon are given numerous recommendations for overlandtravel.  Among the valuable tips in this guide was this counsel...
“Wheels made of bois-d arc, or Osage orange-wood, are bestfor the plains, as they shrink but little, and seldom want repairing.  As,however, this wood is not easily procured in the Northern States, white oakanswers a very good purpose if well seasoned.”

According to period publications, the natural range of the tree was fromsouthern Arkansas through southeastern Oklahoma and down to southernTexas.  A wider range of economic planting, though, reached out muchfarther, including the middle western states from Illinois southward and thenwestward to eastern Colorado and New Mexico.  It’s possible to be grown inmore northern climates but harsh winters take a toll on the tree.  Due tothe continued interest in this wood, we’re considering writing a lengthierarticle on its history, use, and significance.    
20)  Not all period chuck boxes utilized a folding leg(s) tosupport the hinged table.

While most period chuck wagons doappear to have used some variation of a folding leg to support the chuck boxlid/table, there were exceptions to the rule.  In our collection ofpre-1900 and turn-of-the-century imagery, there are several original photos showinga chuck box equipped with either ropes or chains to hold the table level whenlowered.
This portion of an original cabinet cardphoto shows the chuck box table held in place by ropes.  Time and again,our extensive collection of period imagery helps paint a clearer image of howthings were done back in the day. 
21)  Round edge tires were common on wagons used during the CivilWar.

This is a false statement and is oneof the design technologies that can be helpful in narrowing down time frames ofmanufacture in early wagons.  Notable manufacturers were touting roundedge tires as new and innovative designs in the early 1880’s.

22)  Not all king bolts were made of a single, solid piece. Some were designed to bend.

As crazy as it may sound, this istrue.  Clearly, most king bolts on wagons were made from one, straight andsolid piece of metal.  Sometimes, though, the pin was shaped like a ‘T’ toallow the rocking bolster to move side to side without putting pressure on themain pin.  Similarly, in 1884, Richard Blackwell of Kentucky created aking pin with a hinged joint to allow more fluid movement of the rockingbolster without undue pressure on the main pin.   

23)  George Milburn (Milburn Wagon Company) was related to theStudebaker Brothers through marriage.

In 1857, George Milburn needed helpfulfilling a U.S. Army contract for wagons needed in the Mormon conflict inUtah.  Milburn subcontracted the completion of 100 wagons with theup-and-coming Studebaker Brothers in South Bend.  It was the beginning ofan even closer relationship between the brands as Milburn’s daughter, Anna,married Clement Studebaker in 1864.  By 1868, the Studebakers had incorporatedthe business with Clement as president. 

With roots to 1848, the Milburn WagonCompany was a significant vehicle maker throughout the nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries.  More history on thecompany can be found by checking out our March 16, 2016 blog.

24)  The California Gold Rush was started by a wagon maker.

This is a relatively obscurefact.  James Marshall was a wagon maker long before he discovered gold atSutter’s Mill.  Reinforcing that point, here’s a brief article from theJuly 1890 issue of “The Hub”...

“The original discoverer of gold inCalifornia was a Jersey man.  He had learned the wagon-maker’s trade ofhis father, and went to California in 1845, when he was thirty-two yearsold.  On the 19th of January, 1848, while engaged in the construction of amillrace at what is now the thriving town of Coloma, his attention wasattracted by the glitter in the sand that had been washed down by thestream.  He was a man of considerable practical knowledge, and soon cameto the conclusion that the bright particles were gold.  Not appreciatingthe significance of his discovery, he revealed it to his fellow-workers. Very soon afterward gold was found in paying quantities in several parts ofCalifornia and the great rush to that State from all parts of the Unionbegan.  His name was James Wilson Marshall, and quite recently a monumentwas erected at Coloma, Cal., to his memory, near the spot where he first foundthe hidden treasure.  It bears the inscription:  ‘Erected by theState of California in memory of James W. Marshall, the discoverer of gold."

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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