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Wagon Styles Oregon/Washington BLM



Wagon Styles

What kind of wagons did the pioneers bring west?

There is no one answer to this question. It's estimated that more than 50,000 wagons came west in a variety of size and shapes.

The wagon boxes, or beds, were generally of two styles. Straight plank sided boxes were typical of freight wagons and common farm wagons found on the Oregon Trail. These were constructed of two or three planks stacked and held together with metal straps and bolts. Paneled boxes with horizontal frames and vertical stiles were based on the famous Conestoga freight wagons, and were strong and flexible... an important consideration when traveling the rough terrain of the Oregon Trail.

Click to see large Panel Style Wagon Box
Click to see large Plank Style Wagon Box
Panel Style Wagon Box
Plank Style Wagon Box

The undercarriage included axle assemblies, coupling pole, hounds and a cross arm. They generally did not have springs, but sat on bolsters. Though some wagons had simple axles of iron or wood, technology evolved over the years to favor clipping or encasing the axle to a strong wooden axle block. In 1857 the thimble skein axle was patented—a metal casing on the end of the axle which held the wheel with a "burr"—a threaded nut. Previously wagon wheels were secured to the axle with linch pins, an arrangement that required frequent greasing with animal fat or pine tar mixtures.

Some wagons had brakes operated by a long lever near the rear bolster, but this added weight and expense. Many wagons went without brakes, using rough locks, wheel shoes, or a tree tied to the back wheels to slow the vehicle on downward slopes.

Click to see large Wheel Shoe
Click to see large Wagon Brake
Wheel Shoe
Wagon Brake
Wagons used a cover of cotton or linen canvas held over wooden bows secured to the wagons with staples. Traditionally, wagons were painted blue with the undercarriage and wheels painted red. Many emigrant parties opted for bright matching colors to show uniformity as a train. Some individuals painted their wagons and all their tools in matching colors, to better identify their original property in the shared atmosphere of wagon train travel. Some painted canvas covers with oil base paint for waterproofing, and some festooned the covers with slogans such as "For Oregon or Bust."

Click to see larger
Click to see larger
Rear view

Mass production of wagons didn't begin until the 1860s when Studebaker Brothers Company developed and perfected standard interchangeable parts and faster production techniques. Most emigrant wagons were constructed by independent wagon makers, wheelwrights, and local blacksmiths, largely using hand-forged metal parts and hand crafted wooden components.

Why are the front wheels smaller than the back wheels?

Large wheels roll more easily over rough roads, pot holes, and rocks. Smaller wheels have a tighter turning radius. The combination of large and small wheels made a more maneuverable vehicle.