Photos By Steve Renzi

Feature

Conestoga Wagons

They settled the west but were born in Pennsylvania

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Why do we drive on the righthand side of the road, unlike motorists in most other countries in the world? You can trace this 300-year-old rule of the road to the development of the Conestoga wagon.

German-American Colonists right here in southeastern Pennsylvania created the distinctive wagon in the early 1700s. Long before our railroads were built, Conestoga wagons were the nation’s overland freight haulers.

Conestogas were big, sturdy, durable, and built to carry anything and everything. They hauled wheat, grain, corn, whiskey barrels, coal, and even iron ore. They were pulled by oxen, mules, and sometimes teams of as many as eight horses.

There was no front seat for the wagon driver. He either rode on the left wheel horse or the lazy board—a small flat board attached to the left side of the wagon. Because of this, Conestogas always moved on the righthand side of the road, insuring better visibility when pulling off to the side and for passing a slower traveler around the left.

At the time, Conestogas were the kings of the road. Because of their large size, they always took the right-of-way.

At the time, Conestogas were the kings of the road. Because of their large size, they always took the right-of-way. Today, compact cars give way to tractor trailers; in Colonial times and after—up and down the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpikes and along country roads—everyone gave way to the Conestoga.

The wagon drivers acted and played the part of masters of the road. Along their journeys, they were known to smoke big, fat, long cigars—the origin of the word stogie. The Conestogas firmly established the American tradition of driving on the right side of the road.

Though Conestogas were basically used as freight-hauling workhorses, they were actually impressive and beautiful sights to behold. First of all, their size—they were bigger than all other wagons. Some were as long as 28 feet and could carry up to three tons of freight. The front set of wheels was normal wagon-size, but sometimes the back wheels were over six feet high. These large back wheels enabled the wagons to go over rocks and gullies and even ford small streams with ease.

The wagon’s craftsmanship and design were impressive—it looked like a ship on wheels. The mainframe was made of sturdy oak boards on the bottom and thinner poplar wood on the sides. The floor dipped in the middle and curved upward at each end; this design held freight loads like barrels sturdier and more compactly.

The back and front ends of the Conestoga were built at an angle. This gave the wagon more carrying capacity and kept loads from falling out when going up and down hills.

Finally, the top of the Conestoga was covered by a homespun canvas stretched over hickory wood hoops to keep the freight dry.

Most distinctive of all were the beautiful colors the Conestoga wagons were painted. The wagon body was often a rich aqua blue with wheels of deep vermillion red. The ironwork—latches, nuts, bolts, etc.—were painted black. The canvas bonnet was white. Coming down the road, pulled by teams of eight horses, these colorful wagons must have been quite an impressive sight.

They also made an impressive sound. Each horse usually had a bell attached that chimed as he moved. Legend has it that if a wagoner ever got stuck, courtesy dictated that he was to surrender some of his bells to the fellow travelers who rendered assistance. It became a point of pride for a Conestoga wagon master to declare that he had completed many journeys “with all his bells still on.”

By the American Revolution, there were more than 10,000 Conestoga wagons. The coming of the railroad by the mid-1800s marked the end of an era—but only in the East. Conestogas were too big and required too many horses to cross over mountains, so they were adapted and modified to make the trek westward.

The Conestoga wagon evolved into the Prairie Schooner. This is the wagon, really just a more compact, fuel-efficient (less animal feed), family-sized Conestoga, that crossed the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains, traveled along the Oregon and Sante Fe trails, and led to the settlement of the American West.

The Hunt Summer 2009  Issue

This article was published in Feature from the Summer 2009 issue.
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