Wagons West – The Conestoga
July 1, 1958
By June Strudwick
On all trails leading into San Diego from the East, the last stretch was the hardest going. This side of the Colorado River, which the wagons forded ten miles south of the confluence with the Gila, the California Desert began. Then, on the Devil’s Highroad, it was drive, plod, push, tug, turn the wheels, eat dust, eat mud, work the sun up and work it down, but keep rolling. You might snatch a little sleep, but the wheels would keep turning in your head till it was time to get up and drive on. It was plod, push, tug, turn, all over again, and damn the bugs, the distance, the gullies-damn everything, anyway!
The white tops shuddered and the burdened. axles groaned in their grease as the lumbering wagons came straining up the old Mountain Springs Grade, into what now is San Diego County. The trip had been long and hard, but the big, high-wheeled wagons, piled with their belongings, had carried the pioneers safely through everything, and would now provide a home until another could be built. After that, the wagon would still be useful for freighting, transportation, and farmwork.
These prairie schooners, which were used by migrants right into this century, were the direct descendants of, and not very different from, the old Conestoga wagons.
The name Conestoga was applied to an Indian group, a creek, a valley, a trail, a road, a manor, and a breed of horses. All were identified with Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Wagoners and taverns were inevitable complements, so it is not strange to find the first reference to the name in print in the Pennsylvania Gazette of February 26, 1750, is in the form of a mention of a tavern named “The Conestoga Wagon.”
Aside from the use of a saw and turning lathe, everything about the wagon was made with hand tools. Its graceful, boat-shaped bed was usually fashioned out of white oak framing and poplar paneling. Flooring and sideboards were from a half inch to five-eighths thick; however, if the wagon was to be used for carrying ore, the boards would be cut thicker. There was little uniformity of dimensions, but the wagon bed averaged about sixteen feet in length, four in width, and four in depth. The bed sagged in the center, which took the weight of the load off the end gates if the cargo shifted as the wagon made its way up and down slopes. The end gates were held in position by a chain and staple that allowed the gate to be dropped for loading and unloading. The bed was braced with iron, and hand-made rivets secured the boards to the frame.
Arching over the top was a series of soaring hoops of wood, which were securely stapled to the inside of the boards. These might number from six to thirteen, and over them was stretched the familiar white top of homespun or canvas. Roped to the side-boards and drawn taunt over the projecting end bows, the canopy gave the impression of a great, sheltering poke bonnet.
The test of a wagon was in its axles and hubs; in their construction the wheelwright was most exacting. Axles and bolsters were made of tough hickory, and the hubs from black or sour gum, a fibrous wood with high resistance to splitting. The rough roads of the time made it essential that hubs, axles, spokes, and felloes be sturdy. For getting through miry places and streams, the tires had to have a broad surface. Experience proved a four-inch rim most satisfactory, but widths varied from two to ten inches. Another vital detail was dishing the wheel properly to stand the strain of heavy loads and to absorb shocks. Dishing involves the precise cutting of mortises in both the hub and the felloes in order that the spokes would incline outward from the hub at precisely the right angle.
The iron tires were usually made of two pieces of iron half an inch thick, bent to the exact size of the wheel and welded at both joints. Fitting the rim over the wheel was a job that called for dexterity and an exact sense of judgment of heat. A fire was built around the iron tire, and when it was thought to be hot enough, it was lifted off with tongs, placed around the wheel, and hammered into place. Cold water was poured onto it to shrink it to a tight fit. When the iron was too hot the wheel was burned; when too cold a poor fit was obtained. Too sudden cooling split the rim. Front wheels of a freighter stood about three feet six inches high; the rear ones varied from four feet to four feet six.
There was a good deal of hardware about a wagon. Hand-forged chains held end-gates in place. The tool box on the left side, just back of the lazy board, was ornately ironed and hinged. An axe rested in a decorated socket, and the tongue and feed box were strengthened and beautified by fancy ironwork. Brake shafts, linch pins, hooks, staples, and latches were of iron.
Like travelers of today, the wagoner would not venture forth on the road without a jack. The worn condition of those that remain is witness to their frequency of use. For years the smith who ironed the wagon made the jack, and, as it served to identify the owner of the wagon, his initials and the date of manufacture were cut into the pillar of the jack. As loads of four tons and more had to be raised by the jack, it had to be strongly built. It was used, not only in case of emergency on the road, but in the course of routine maintenance, for removing the wheels for greasing. Ordinarily it was slung on the rear axletree alongside the feed and water buckets and the bucket that contained the pine tar lubricant.
In its final coat of paint, invariably a bright blue, bright red running gear, and white cover, what was the cost of a finished wagon? One 26 feet long, 11 high, weighing over 3,000 pounds, capable of carrying five hogsheads, or thirty barrels of flour, came to $250, although it had taken four men (the wheelwright and the blacksmith and their helpers) two months of continuous work to build it.