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Wind Wagons

This drawing appeared in Leslie's Illustrated magazine on July 7, 1860. It supposedly illustrates the departure of a windwagon from Fort Kearney, Neb raska territory, on May 26, 1860. It is believed that an Eastern artist drew the illustration after receiving a writtten report from the magazine's correspondent in the West. Because the artist did not see the wind wagon, the accuracy of the illustration is questioned by some. But the wind wagon in question was undoubtedly Samuel Peppard's.

I was cleaning tumbleweeds out of my pasture fence when I began thinking about wind. Living as I do on the western edge of the High Plains, wind is not something you have to speculate about or abstractedly ponder. It seems to me that hardly a day passes without some form of breeze, from mild to menacing. Two days of non-stop wind is not uncommon and can make folks edgy, at best, and some of us get plumb cranky. As I headed for the next drift of Russian Thistles I began to try to itemize the bad and good aspects of wind, recalling the old saying “It’s an ill wind that blows no man good.” The downside of wind is that it dries out the soil, burns just-coming-up crops, scatters hay and bean windrows before you can get to them, transports weed seeds from county-to-county and state-to-state, upsets those new Yuppie “ranchette” horse sheds springing up everywhere, turns my neighbor’s centre-pivot into a steel pretzel, blows the newspaper out of my mailbox, and takes the fire from my ditch burning right in the direction of my neighbor’s haystack. Now, that is clearly the short list since I didn’t even mention the Dust Bowls, great and small. But speaking of small, what are the good points of wind?

A healthy gale can keep the skeeters at temporary bay, produce a wind chime symphony, blow the corral stink to the neighbors, and lift water for old Bossy and her bunch. But do you see what I mean? The second list is pitifully short. But has it always been this way? Perhaps I just lack vision …

Back in the middle years of the 1800s, a number of citizens of Kansas Territory came to view the wind as a quick route to riches. Recall that back when Kansas stretched westward to the Continental Divide, including a good chunk of the Rocky Mountains. With news of the 1859 gold strikes in the “Pikes Peak Region,” crossing the Great Plains in a hurry took on new urgency. It was one thing to plod to anticipated Far-West farmlands alongside a “Prairie Schooner” drawn by horses, mules, or oxen, but quite another to participate in a gold “rush” at the agonizing pace of twelve to twenty miles a day.

The westward “rush” precipitated by reports (often exaggerated) of “Pikes Peak gold” took many forms. Unlike the California gold rush, the Rocky Mountains could not be reached by water so overland travel was the sole option. Men (and some women) set out for the gold fields on horseback, by buggy or light wagon, on foot, some even pushing wheelbarrows and hand carts (some with small sails attached). And though some of these modes were indeed faster than travel by wagon train, it still took weeks of travel to cover the more than 500 miles, weeks during which surely all the best mining claims were being staked by others. In the minds of a few adventurous souls the answer was an actual Prairie Schooner, or as some dubbed it, a “windship”.

The concept was not entirely new. In fact, a journal entry from the Lewis and Clark expedition noted that on one occasion wheels were attached to one of their boats in order to move it a short distance overland. Wind caught in the sails and the boat “Moved by itself.” It did not require any great abstract thinking to turn the Great Plains wind, about which so many complained, into a possible means of pushing wagons across the great expanse.

Westport, Mo., later engulfed by the growth of Kansas City, was a jumping off point for westward travel and so it is no surprise that it witnessed the early days of the Wind Wagon phenomenon. In 1853, a “Mr. Thomas” came to Westport to build an experimental windship, something he had been proposing for a number of years. His vision was to eventually launch a fleet of these vehicles on the Santa Fe Trail with Bent’s Fort the intended destination. Apparently the experiment was a success since Thomas was able to “sail” about 100 miles along the trail, reportedly reaching Council Grove before returning to Westport. Based upon his successful experiment Thomas was able to attract local investors who funded construction of a larger, heavier, version, intended to tow a train of wagons. The “ship” was twenty-five feet long, seven feet “abeam”, with wheels twelve feet tall. A twenty-foot tall mast was equipped with a cloth sail.

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Two yoke of oxen were required to tow Thomas’ vehicle outside of town to a level stretch of prairie “where the wind was blowing a gale.” With Thomas at the helm and four of his investors onboard (a fifth followed on a mule), the ship took sail. Almost immediately the tiller or steering arrangement broke and the vehicle, driven by the wind, began to inscribe over larger circles on the prairie. One by one the backers summoned sufficient courage to “abandoned ship” leaving Thomas to ride his creation until it ran aground in a deep ravine near Turkey Creek.

Momentarily, Thomas turned his attention to other matters, but when news arrived in 1859 that gold had indeed been discovered near Pikes Peak, he stepped forward with an offer to design a new windship capable of carrying two dozen passengers to the gold fields in just six days, an incredible 100 miles a day ” about one-tenth the time normally required by a wagon train. Again gaining investors, Thomas soon unveiled his third generation ship, this one even larger than his second.

Towed to the same stretch of level prairie and on a day described as ‘breezy”, trails began. The record of this effort is sparse but a period newspaper noted that about three weeks later a westward-bound gold-seeking party came upon the wreckage of the super-windship in a ravine a few miles from Westport.

In that same year (1859) and in virtually the same month, a resident of nearby Oskaloosa, in Kansas Territory, designed a much smaller and lighter wind wagon. Andrew Dawson had already made one “tedious and monotonous” trip to the goldfields by wagon train before he returned to design his craft. Aware of the Thomas efforts, he built a much smaller wagon with large wheels, a sail, and a means of hand-cranking the device along when the wind proved insufficient or contrary.

Dawson set out at the end of March in 1860, accompanied by two (or three) companions. As reported in both the St. Louis Missouri Democrat and the Topeka State Record, the Dawson party reached Denver City on April 17, the “new-fangled frigate” requiring 20-odd days for the trip. Belatedly, the Rocky Mountain News ran a second-hand report of the arrival of “three men from the States” in a novel vehicle that accomplished the journey in 20 days at a fraction of the expense of horse teams. The novel vehicle was subsequently reported sold for a “considerable sum,” but to whom and for what purpose is unknown though some speculated it was purchased by a disgruntled miner wanting to avoid the long trip back to civilization.

Yet the most completely documented wind wagon trip to the gold fields, and certainly the most poignant, was the expedition by one Samuel Peppard. Peppard was a fellow Oskaloosan and encouraged by Dawson’s success, he set out to build a similar contraption. A millright, Peppard designed a light wagon just 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. His version had four over-sized wheels, two masts and two sails, on larger than the other, each raised by a rope-and-pulley arrangement. A large coach lamp was hung from the bow in order to run at night and should they become becalmed, the crew could crank the wagon forward. The entire affair weighed about 350 pounds and was capable of carrying a combined 500 pounds of passengers and cargo.

On a trial run the Peppard wagon caught a strong wind and even when the crew switched to the smaller sail the speed was estimated at forty-miles-per-hour. A small knoll sent them airborne, some witness estimated as much as 30 feet, and upon landing the axles broke, scattering wagon and occupants across the prairie. Peppard, however, required only a few days to repair the damage, replace the axles, and install much needed brakes!

In mid-May Peppard and crew sailed from Oskaloosa, covering 50 miles the first day along the same route taken by Dawson. On an especially good day the wagon traveled 50 miles in three hours, in the process passing 625 teams along the route. Peppard would later recall that their top speed was two miles in four minutes (i.e., 30 miles per hour) since allowing the wagon to go faster overheated the boxing (bearings). All things considered, 90 miles was a “good day,” but on one occasion they had covered 160 miles. But Peppard would also recall that in more than four weeks on the trail, only nine days actually provided favorable winds. He failed to recount his reaction of the days of hand-cranking.

In the course of the excursion the wind wagon and its occupants were “cussed” by fellow travelers upon departing Fort Kearney as the sight of the wagon with a sail stampeded all the horse and mules along its path, and were mocked on calm days as passing wagons saluted the “windless wagon.” At another point the wind wagon was chased by a small group of Indians and things became tense when the crew had to stop momentarily to make repairs. Once again underway the wagon rather easily outdistanced the pursuers who proved to be only curious.

After negotiating (or should one say navigating) approximately 550 miles the wind wagon approached present-day Fort Morgan, Colo., a mere 50 miles from its final port. At that point Peppard observed a dust devil approaching, a not uncommon occurrence in the course of this trip. All that was required was to lower the sail until the mini-twister passed. However, Peppard yanked so vigorously on the rope that it broke, leaving the sail in the raised position. Caught by the full impact of the twisting turbulence, the entire wagon was carried aloft and from a height of approximately 20 feet dropped to the ground. Both rear wheels were smashed and the rest of the wagon fared little better.

The crew, amazingly unhurt, was surveying the wreckage when overtaken by horse-drawn wagons hauling baggage. And so it was that by the “wind of horses” and not by the ample but fickle winds of nature that Peppard and his companions reached their destination. One can imagine there was little fanfare in Denver City for a party delivered with the common freight.