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HISTORICAL TREASURE: Conestoga wagons were the ‘freight cars of the National Road" |

HISTORICAL TREASURE: Conestoga wagons were the ‘freight cars of the National Road"

When I was a child, my favorite television show was Wagon Train. 

At night, I would lie in my bed and imagine it to be a wagon, moving westward to new horizons and high adventures. I would create sections of my bed as places for eating, sleeping and traveling. 

Like so many childhood memories (and television for that matter) there was little basis in fact. There is a model of a Conestoga wagon in the “Tool Room” of the Vigo County Historical Society Museum that underscores a more honest story of the “inland ships of commerce” or “freight cars of the National Road” as they were nicknamed, and of the important role they played in the settlement history of the Wabash Valley.

The name “Conestoga” is most likely Iroquois in its origin, meaning “People of the cabin pole.” Their history can be traced back to the Conestoga River area in Pennsylvania around the mid-18th century. By 1852, the wagons also were made in South Bend by the Studebaker family (who later made the famous Studebaker cars). The wagons cost about $250 apiece to build.

Unlike the wagons of “Wagon Train”, which were meant to move people, the Conestoga wagons were built to transport heavy loads over rough roads. Their distinctive shapes – the curved floors and the canvas covers pulled taut over wood hoops – were designed to hold everything from dry goods to heavy equipment without shifting or falling out when the wagon was in motion. Chains could lower and raise the gates at either end to facilitate loading and unloading the contents. Four to six strong horses typically pulled the wagons.

In addition to being the vehicles that brought building or manufacturing supplies to a community, the Conestoga wagons were also mobile department stores. Families from Pennsylvania to Iowa would wait impatiently for the next wagonload of supplies that were hard to come by in the newly formed settlements or that were too bulky for families to carry on their own journey from the East coast. Next to the museum’s model wagon is a list of household goods that a wagon might have brought to happy families. Candles, dishes, coffee pots, blankets, canned foods, whiskey, cookware and seeds were essentials. Axes, hammers and shovels manufactured back home were more durable than the ones fashioned together on the prairies.

The National Road provided the most direct transport from Pennsylvania to Indiana and a short distance beyond. It is known that in 1837, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith came through Terre Haute in Conestoga wagons on his treks to settle further west. And as it is with progress, by the 1850s the railroads had become the preferred method for transporting goods and the Conestoga wagons went the way of log cabins and one room schoolhouses.


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