Western Trips

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Peppard's Wind Wagon of the Old West / Trading in Mules and Oxen for Wind

 Something Other Than Horse Power

In the 1860s when a pioneer family headed out west, they usually did so in a covered wagon, often called the "prairie schooner", pulled by mules or oxen. In the settlement of Oskaloosa in Kansas Territory  a millwright by the name of Samuel Peppard got the Colorado gold fever as did many of his friends. On May 9, 1860, Samuel Peppard set out for Colorado. In this case however he did it the unconventional way. Peppard suggested to some of his friends that they build a "wind wagon", a wagon with sails propelled by the wind. At first his friends ridiculed the idea but after some thought they decided it wasn't a bad idea. Actually, there had been other unique ways tried to travel the western trails other than with horse, mule or oxen. The U.S. Army's camel expedition is one example.

wagon with sails
Wind Used for Transportation

No one knows for sure where Peppard got his idea from but this wasn't the first time wind was used to move a wagon or carriage. As far back as the 1500's history books tell us that the Chinese under the Ming Dynasty had many carts and carriages propelled by wind. History also tells us that there were experiments using wind to move over land in the 1600's as the illustration left depicts. Also, Lewis and Clark in the early 1800's had a boat with wheels that was wind powered. In 1846 a man from Missouri by the name of Thomas designed as wind wagon for the purpose of sailing down the Santa Fe Trail. Thomas' attempt was not until 1853 when he sailed about 100 miles down the Santa Fe Trail and then returned home. Thomas ended up losing his financial backers and wind wagon idea essentially went nowhere. Wind has always been regarded as a power source as the earliest sailing ships are testimony to. The photo at left shows a small wind wagon in the late 1800's in Brooklyn New York.

The Design of Peppard's Wind Wagon

One thing Peppard had in his favor was that he lived in Kansas Territory and Kansas and the Great Plains were noted for it's winds. Being a creative person, Peppard decided to take advantage of the resources at hand. Horses were in short supply but Samuel Peppard had the time to find another way to travel west. He went ahead and designed the world's first (historians may disagree on this point) wind wagon and built it in 1860. Peppard's creation was about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. It was equipped with four large wagon wheels you might find on covered wagons of the era. Designed to hold four people it's weight was about 350 pounds. Peppard fastened a ten foot mast to the front axle and on this he placed two sails, a large one and a smaller one. Peppard's theory was that he would use the larger sail if the winds were light and the smaller one if the winds were heavy.

The Test of the Wind Wagon

Old West Wind Wagon
In early May of 1860 after some testing near home ( during the first test the wind blew it over and Peppard made several adjustments), Peppard set out with his crew and went northwest following the Independence Trail and made it to Fort Kearny on the Platte River in Nebraska. So far so good.

At Fort Kearny there happened to be a reporter for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly who observed Peppard and his wind wagon and stated the following.." I timed her going two miles and with the moderate breeze at the time, she made it in little less than 14 minutes". To be sure there were times when there was no wind. On days when there was no wind, Peppard and his three friends sat back, smoked a cigarette, and told stories to each other. Depending on the wind the wagon could attain a speed of up to 30 MPH, a very fast speed for the time.
Late 1800's Brooklyn N.Y.

Peppard's wind wagon continued southwest from North Platte along the South Fork of the Platte headed to the goldfields. All in all they traveled some 500 miles. An amazing feat using only wind power. It traveled to a point about 50 miles north/northeast of Denver when Peppard and his crew sighted a "dust devil", a cyclone type wind, almost a very small tornado. Before they had time to lower their sails the wind picked the wagon up off the ground about 20 feet. The wagon was totally wrecked when it came down and hit the ground. Miraculously, no one on board was injured but the wagon's sailing days were over.

 Peppard and his crew were given a ride to Denver with a wagon train and then made their way back to Kansas. Regardless of the accident near Denver, Peppard's wind wagon made history traveling over 500 miles, mostly over the Oregon Trail, using only wind power.

Wagons on the Great Plains

There are many interesting tales of travel over the Great Plains of the U.S.  and the old west wind wagon was certainly one of those. During the mid 1800's a wagon train might begin a six month journey over the Oregon Trail to the Williamette Valley Oregon or to Sutters Fort in California. It was a long and often dangerous trip and it was probably one of the largest overland migrations the world has seen. Some, like Samuel Peppard, wanted to head west because of the promise of striking it rich in the gold fields. Others, many European immigrants,  just wanted to live the dream of owning their own land and living in freedom. Thousands upon thousands made the trek whether it was by wagon, the railroad or walking.

Jefferson County Historical Society, U.S. Hwy 59, Oskaloosa Kansas is the site of the Samuel Peppard Wind Wagon sculpture.

The Museum of Westward Expansion located in downtown St. Louis Missouri has an excellent collection of old west settlement exhibits and artifacts.

Another great family vacation stop is the Wild West Living Museum in West Yellowstone Montana just outside the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Stage coaches, old chuck wagons, covered and everything pertaining to old west.

Museum of the Old West at Old Trail Town in Cody Wyoming also has a very good display of all things old west.

(Photos and images from the public domain)