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.
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.