One of Lancaster County’s most famous products is the Conestoga wagon, known as “the ship of inland commerce.” It was used for over a century to grow the nation’s business and westward expansion.
Its colors were patriotic—red, white, and blue. The red was on the running gear and sideboards, the white on the woven fabric top, and the blue on the body. It was justly called “the finest wagon the world has ever known.” Hand-made, a vehicle of both utility and beauty. It sprang from native ingenuity and craftsmanship to take on an integral role in the American epic. Ideally suited for hauling freight over bad roads, the Conestoga wagon had a capacity of up to six tons, a floor curved up at each end to prevent the contents from shifting inside, and a white canvas cover to protect against adverse weather; four to six horses pulled it.
The wagon probably first came into use in the valley of the Conestoga River. The first recorded use of the name dates back to December 31, 1717, when James Logan, William Penn’s former secretary, carefully recorded in his account book that he bought a “Conestogoe Waggon” from James Hendricks. Logan needed the special wagon to bring loads of furs from his trading post on the Lancaster frontier to the city and to carry a wide variety of goods back to “Conestogoe.”
The name came from an area along the Conestoga River Valley in Lancaster County. Some sources say at the confluence of the Conestoga River and the Little Conestoga Creek. It was here that Pennsylvania German and Swiss wagon builders created the massive sturdy wagons needed to ship farm products the sixty-four-mile journey to market in Philadelphia. A product of several influences, the wagon took shape over time.
When Lancaster was the jumping-off place for those heading for the frontier, not many Conestoga wagons were making the trek westward. It was later, when the migration beyond the Susquehanna swelled, that the Conestoga was utilized by the travelers.
“The Covered Wagon” became identified with the move west. The wagons came to bear a romantic aura—intensified after the pioneer period ended—whether they were homes on wheels for families heading for Oregon or Calfornia, or placed in a tight circle as an important fortress for the defense of travelers against Indiana attacks.
The lighter haulers, known as “prairie schooners,” were adapted from the original form. Many of the Conestoga wagons were pulled by Conestoga horses (click here to read more about the Conestoga horse), which were specially bred for the purpose.
The typical Conestoga had a wagon bed 16 feet long, resembled a boat, with a dip in the middle four feet wide and four feet deep. The frame was of white oak; the hubs made with gumwood; the axle-trees and singletree from hickory; and the body with poplar. Wheels of wood were four or five feet high at the rear. Hubs were proportional; spokes heftier than baseball bats. Tires were iron several inches wide. Possibly an inch thick. Everything was handmade. Some tools were used for intricate work, but this was no machine-made carrier turned out on an assembly line.
Two of the most unique items of the wagons were the toolboxes, each distinctively decorated with Pennsylvania Dutch motifs such as tulips in iron, and the jacks—large useful pieces of equipment always ready for use in the event a wagon got mired or had to be repaired. The cloth hood stretched over the wooden bows attached to the body was handwoven, 24 feet long.
Waggoneers were a toughed lot. While initially, they were farmhands, their numbers grew with swelling traffic, and experiences under all sorts of conditions demanded to cope. The drivers were competitive, ready to race with each other. They soon learned to be on the lookout for brigands who roamed stretches of unguarded highways or back roads. They had to be able to meet the rigors of being out in all weathers. And when they finished a day’s haul, they partied together at the inns along the way.
The horses that pulled the Conestoga wagon typically bore bells, and waggoneers were proud of these bells. Tradition said that if a wagon got into trouble and someone else came to the rescue, the rescuer would take the bells with him. That gave rise to the famous promise, “I’ll be there with bells on!” which meant you would be there quickly and without incident.
Conestoga wagons were made throughout Lancaster County, and later in adjacent counties. The century 1740-1840 marked the peak time for the rolling of these massive wagons, first mainly between Lancaster County and Philadelphia, then on to Pittsburgh, and then eventually to the Pacific. In 1749, historians estimate that 7,000 of these wagons were in use. At their peak, 10,000 were traveling the dusty or muddy roads (depending on the weather). Many were owned by individual farmers, some by freight companies in latter years. The wagon’s design was later adapted for the longer journeys, but the Conestoga was the daddy of them all.