“I Laughed for half an hour when he first told me about the project”, says one of the guys with wild, bushy hair and an adventurous look of not knowing what’s gonna happen out there in the desert – but he grooves on it.
I can imagine him being very energetic and filled to the brim with ideas, telling the other guys of a fun and interesting project he wants to start.
“We’re gonna build a wind wagon and sail across the U S and A!”
For some people it might sound slightly dubious, even stupid…
I thought it was brilliant. For sure, there are some obvious problems to overcome, but it feels like a really fun and exciting challenge that could be one hell of a ride and one would be stupid not to jump – head first – into it. Full speed ahead – nobody pulling the brakes on this Mad Max mutation vehicle from the forests of Sweden. The nation where a fourth of the population once set out to reach the New World and the Promised land out there in way out west where the fields are green and the ground hogs fat around the bum. The American Dream, indeed.
To sail on land is not a new idea and there is indeed some wind powered little hobby one-man-rides of today. However, the chinese had wind powered carts and carriages already during the Ming dynasty (of course!) and in Dutch paintings from the 1600’s large sail powered land ships can be seen, like in this one.
It depicts one of two land-yachts that Simon Stevin in 1649 built for Prince Maurice, who used them to entertain his guests on the beach.
But the idea of traversing the American continent with sailing prairie ships dates back to the mid 1800’s. (Although in Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journals from their crossings of the plains in the early nineteenth century, there’s a boat on wheels with a hoisted sail that is blowing along.)
During that time, there were some cats growing ideas that instead of using oat and water intensive horses, mules or oxen, that also needed rest from time to time to pull the wagons over the prairies, a sail could be rigged and et voilà, transformed the wagon into sailing ships of the prairies.
Not a bad idea! Specially not since there was no transcontinental railroad and no canal through Panama. One of the visionaries was a man called William Thomas who envisioned a fleet of sailing schooners hauling freight from coast to coast across the Santa Fe Trail. This military and commercial highway from Franklin, MO to Santa Fe in New Mexico. 900 miles ( 1400 kilometers) across arid plains, desert and mountain passes.
In 1853 Thomas had a prototype ready to show the army at Fort Leavenworth, in what was then the Kansas territory. It measured 25 feet long, 12 feet high wheels and a single sail on a 7 foot tall mast. The project foundered when the prototype crashed and the financiers pulled out of Overland Navigation Co.
In the 1860’s Kansas there was some more experiments with smaller wind wagons. They weighed about 350 pounds, 3 feet beam, 10 feet length and 6 inches deep and were told to skim across the plains in speed around 15 mph with tops at 40 mph.
One was said to have made the journey from Kansas City to Denver, a trip of over 600 miles, in about 20 days. That makes an average of about 30 miles per day.
Probably the most famous wind wagoner was Samuel Peppard. A Kansas guy that was building a wagon in his barn, in 1859. He owned a sawmill on the Grasshopper river, close to Oskaloosa (facts that I merely bring into the picture because I love the names… and adds to the story, of course) and got help from a friend with his project. The people around gave it the name “Peppards Folly”, and concludes what they thought of it. 1860 was a year of hard drought and bad business, so when Peppard finished the vessel he and three friends immediately set sail for the gold fields of Colorado. They carried 500 pounds of cargo, provisions and camping gear as ballast.
A reporter for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly happened to be at Fort Kearny, Nebraska, when the wagon arrived in May 26th 1860. He described it in an article and interesting enough there’s also an illustrated picture.
A longer detailed description of the journey is also to be found at the Kansas Historical Society and most wind wagon tales seems to be based on Peppard’s story.
The reporter said he timed the wagon over two miles and it took 14 minutes, which would be an average speed 8 mph.
Our best time was two miles in four minutes. We could not run faster than that rate as the boxing would have heated. One day we went fifty miles in three hours, and in doing so passed 625 teams. There were, you know, a great many people en route to the gold fields… if we went ninety miles a day it was considered a good day’s travel.
The crew almost made it to the destination, but when they were about 50 miles northwest of Denver, they spotted a “dust devil”. Before they could lower the sail it hit them and the wagon was tossed 20 feet up in the air and shattered to pieces when it hit the ground. Luckily nobody was hurt and they could continue hitchhiking into Denver.
Unlike the Leslie reporters illustration, other accounts of the wagon says that it was built with rough timber, like a skiff, with only one mast with two sails on it. One for light winds and one for stronger. On the cover of the children’s book, The Wind wagon, by Celia Barker Lottridge, which is telling the story about Sam Peppard, you can see two square sails on the mast.
Regardless of the unfortunate ending, Peppard and his crew had travelled over 500 miles with wind as it’s only power source, mostly along the Oregon trail.
Some further attempts to harvest the free energy source of the prairies has been made a little later in history. In 1877, Kansas Pacific is said to been using sail powered hand carts along the rails. After that, of course, the transcontinental railroad, the Pacific Railroad, went all the way out west to the Promised land of Sacramento, California in 1869. The internal combusting engine made it’s big entrance and with time (1914) the Panama Canal opened for traffic. Before that, a spectacular attempt for another wind wagon was directed by the Texan H.M. Fletcher who proclaimed something along the lines, “sails is the wrong approach” and instead designed a windmill wagon. According to interviews made in the 1970’s and 80’s with old timers who saw Fletcher’s creation, it was simply a wind mill placed on a wagon bed with some sort of drive shaft connected to the wheels and it worked, the wagon moved.
Next historical moment was 1961 when Disney made the film “Windwagon Smith”, who’s storyline goes close enough to the mishaps of Thomas. During the 13 minute film Sailor Smith comes to Westport, Kansas and with over-accentuated mariner language (saying mostly avast!) and prideful snobbishness succeeds to convince the townspeople – and the mayor – who’s daughter catches Smith’s eye, to back his visions and sailing Contestoga-wagon financially. Since I already said it’s close to Thomas’s story, you can figure out how it ends. If you haven’t seen it already, do it. It’s here.
The projectis well under way and the wagon is being built by the hands of real people with real dreams!
To me it’s a fun project in a lot of ways. Not the least as a reminder of not losing faith in the prospect of living your dreams – crazy or sacred. Something that we all need to revive from time to time when social norms, bureaucracy and system makes us believe differently and build up walls in our minds that even though they are imaginary, can be hard to tear down.
Let there be wind to fill the sails and to set the wheels of the original High Plain drifters in motion once again.