Jeff Carroll - Legendary Texas
 
MURPHY'S WAGON

Not too long ago I went shopping for a new truck. Some folks like sedans, some sports cars and some either prefer station wagons, vans or the urban assault vehicles we call "Suburbans". I prefer a pickup truck because it best fits my "throw the junk in the back and go" lifestyle. During the nineteenth century, folks had just as many choices of vehicles as they do today. Most of them were made to fit specific needs.


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The first method of carrying freight over the Santa Fe Trail was to strap it on the back of a pack horse and lead that one while riding another. It worked, and the first who tried it made a good profit. From then on, it was a question of just how much could be hauled, safely. The same thing applies to the big trucks today. They keep getting bigger and bigger, until they outgrow the roads and bridges. Along the Santa Fe Trail, the last step in freight carrying evolution before it was replaced by the railroad was Murphy's wagon.

When William Becknell, veteran of the War of 1812 and noted Indian fighter, left Franklin Missouri in the summer of 1821 with a string of loaded pack mules, he probably didn't realize that he was blazing the trail for thousands of people. He only thought he knew a way to make a profit. He was right. William Becknell was the "father of the Santa Fe Trail" because his was the first load of freight to reach the old Spanish colonial city of Santa Fe after Mexico won its independence from Spain.

Santa Fe, and all of northern Mexico, was hungry for American goods and there were gold and silver coins to pay for them. Becknell made a big profit and, the next year set out again. He was not alone. By the 1840's, as many as two dozen wagon trains of freight a year made the dangerous crossing. At first, traders tried to use the two-wheeled Mexican carretas or the American Pembina carts. Two-wheeled carts were relatively easy to handle but they didn't carry much freight. Even the "Dearborn" wagons that some tried to use could only handle about 500 pounds over an extended journey.

Then came farm wagons. The average farm wagon could be pulled by a pair of mules and had a fair capacity for hauling. But, when it came to the profit-making freight, it still did not hold enough to make it worthwhile. Also, of course, it was made to haul the supplies of a small farm and was too fragile for cross-country use.

Map of the Santa Fe Trail

Since about 1725, folks in the North had relied on freight wagons made in Pennsylvania to do their heavy hauling. Sometimes these were called "Pittsburghs", but mostly folks called them "Conestogas" because they were made in the Conestoga River region. These were the heavy haulers of the East. Where roads were good, a team of six horses could pull a load of up to six tons. The Conestogas were big, with the bottom of the wagon box curved upward at both ends and topped with a billowing canvas cover. Most of them were painted blue, with red or yellow wheels. The Conestogas were the "Prairie Schooners" that carried many families west. Shipped down the Ohio River on flat boats, they crossed the plains in thousands. The Studebaker auto company got its start making Conestoga wagons. A few of these even made their way to Texas but there were few roads to follow and most of them went further west. Although they could carry a prodigious amount, traders still looked for something bigger and sturdier.

Then came Joseph Murphy, an Irish wagon builder, who set up shop in St. Louis. Murphy spent a lot of time talking to freighters from the Santa Fe Trail and asked each one to describe what he wanted in a freight hauler. First, was capacity. The more a wagon could haul, the more profit for the hauler. But, sturdiness was of equal importance. A broken wagon near Raton Pass was more useless than no wagon at all because you were stuck in the middle of no where with a valuable cargo you had to guard or lose.. And, there was cost. Not only did you have to consider the cost of the wagon, but Mexican officials had put a $500 tax on each and every wagon, no matter how much it held.

So, Murphy built a wagon. It was BIG. The Murphy wagon was sixteen feet long and eight feet wide. The rear wheels were seven feet high and eight inches wide so that they didn't sink in the sand. The beds were an additional seven feet deep and the canvas-covered top made it higher. There was no seat for a driver, seats took up too much room. The bullwhacker, or "bully boy" with his whip walked to the left of his lead oxen in a team of twelve. He guided them by cracking his whip over their heads. When fully loaded, the Murphy could handle ten tons of freight! There were iron tires on the wooden wheels and holes for bolts were burned rather than drilled to keep the wood from splitting. By 1860, Murphy had modified his original design to make it so that two such wagons could be hauled in tandem by one team. The price? One hundred and thirty dollars each. These were the heavy haulers of the Santa Fe trade, and, on the side of each wagon he proudly stenciled "J. Murphy".

Conestoga Wagon
Conestoga Wagon

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