Mention covered wagons today and most people think of the pioneers or the cowboys and Indians of the Old West. But, for well over 200 years across this great country, the covered wagon was the major vehicle for moving goods and people from one point to another.
They came in all shapes and sizes, ranging from about the size of a hand-cart to the enormous, lumbering prairie schooners of the Santa Fe Trail. The early ones were probably no more than farm wagons covered with tarps to protect cargo from the weather. According to historians though, the most famous covered wagon – which dominated the trails westward – was the favored Conestoga wagon because they were designed specifically to handle those heavy loads over the rough roads and trails of the 18th and 19th century America.
The Conestoga originated in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the very early 1700s, and Lancaster County remained the center of the Conestoga-building industry until the very end. Typically, the huge vehicle was 26 feet long (including the tongue), 11 feet high and weighed 3,000 to 3,500 pounds empty. It took four men the better part of two months to build just one Conestoga.
The bed was boat-shaped, with the center sagging and the ends arching upward like a gondola. That way the loads would tend to shift toward the center, and not awkwardly against the end gates. The bed was usually about 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet deep, with sturdy white-oak lumber for the frame and poplar for the sideboards. The flooring and sides were a full one-inch thick. The end gates were hinged at the bottom so they could be dropped for loading and held in place by heavy chains.
Curving high atop the big bed were as many as 16 wagon bows that held up the wagon cover, made of white cotton canvas and puckered with a draw rope to close the ends. Since the Conestoga was boat-shaped, the front and rear canvas bows slanted outward sharply, making the wagon cover much longer than the running gear.
The underneath side of the big vehicle was equally sturdy. Heavily ironed and braced with its bolsters and axles made of hickory, and the hubs – cut from black gum or a sour gum – were almost impossible to split.
The rims of the wheels were anywhere from 2 to 20 inches wide and dished outward slightly. That is, the wheel was like a shallow bowl, thanks to some precise work by the wheelwright. A four-inch rim was the normal size, with the front wheels ordinarily 3 feet, 6 inches, in diameter, and the rear ones 4 feet, 8 inches. Heavy iron tires (half an inch thick) usually made of two pieces of iron welded together, encircled the felloes (the fello is the wood rim part of a wagon wheel). The art of making these iron tires was a very neat bit of blacksmithing; just big enough to set on the wheel when expanded by heat, and then shrunk back to fit, neither too tight nor too loose after a cold-water bath. The wheels were usually held on the axles by linchpins, resembling big cotter pins.
When it left the wagon works, the Conestoga was always brilliantly painted, with bright red running gear and a Prussian-blue body. The great snowy white cover completed our national colors.
Their main purpose was hauling freight, so with the coming of the railroads the Conestoga began to vanish from the American scene and completely disappeared by the turn of the 20th century.
Reference: The Union Historical Company, Birdsall, Williams & Co.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.