The Wind Wagon and other Tales of the Prairies

Posted: November 11, 2019 in Uncategorized

By the mid-1800s the trail-head of the Santa Fe Trail had moved from its original location in Franklin all the way to Independence and Westport, the new jumping off places to the west. All that commerce and migration up and down the great trails was curtailed during the time of the Civil War. Later, overland travel by wagon was replaced by the Intercontinental railroads. But in its heyday thousands left Independence and Westport and took the great trails west, whether for commerce to Santa Fe or to the gold fields of California, or as immigrants to Oregon, California and Utah.

Great stories and lore emerged from that chaotic and rich time and perhaps one of the most memorable was that of the notorious Wind Wagon.

As reported in local newspapers of the time, a Mr. Thomas developed a Wind Wagon fully equipped with sails. After some preliminary experimentation, Thomas returned to secure passengers for the journey across the prairies. Evidently Thomas contracted with a wagon builder, Robinson, Crook & Co of Independence, to create the fleet. Whether true or not, the idea for the special wagon was attributed to the seafaring experience of Mr. Thomas, who longed to bring his sailing experience to the sea of grasses.

Many different records of the time report the Wind Wagon’s success in travel, the way it shocked native Americans as it rolled by, the time it made with its enormous frame and wind-filled sails. What ultimately happened to the Wind Wagon project has been lost in the annals of history, but one of the last accounts states that two Wind Wagon adventurers prepared their wagon for a morning departure but without thinking to reef the sails. In the morning all they discovered were uprooted stakes and wagon tracks. The two frustrated mariners set out on horse back to run down the truant wagon, but there is no record of them having ever found it.

My favorite account comes from Judge William R. Bernard of Westport. They events in question transpired in 1853, though he did not tell the story until 1910. That is a mighty interval between event and telling, an interval in which a story may ferment mightily, but we can catch the essence of it:

It was in 1853 that a device called the Wind Wagon was invented by a man known as “Wind Wagon Thomas.” If he had any other name no one knew it. He had been a sailor. He rigged a small wagon as a trial model. The model was a success and Thomas sailed out on the prairie as far as Council Grove, Kansas. With this success the Westport and Santa Fe Overland Navigation Company was formed, to build a fleet of the Wind Wagons.

In due course of time the first Wind Wagon was completed and a mammoth vehicle it was! Wheels 12 feet in diameter, with hubs as big as barrels, length 25 feet. Two yokes of oxen towed it out about three miles to open prairie. All the stock-holders but one and a number of  prominent citizens embarked when its trial run was made. It was an even greater success than the first one, and the way the cumbersome looking rig scooted over gullies and small hillocks was surprising.

Thomas, intoxicated by his success, began a course of fancy navigating not in the catalog of prairie sailing. A sudden veering of the wind while Thomas was tacking, brought catastrophe. The wagon halted and then started backward at a speed never before attained, and the steering mechanism became deranged. Faster and faster went the Wind Wagon propelled by a freshening breeze and guided by whimsical fancy.

Dr. Parker, the only stock-holder not aboard, followed  on a riding mule as fast as possible, fearing his professional services would be needed. The steering mechanism became locked, and the vehicle started on a circle about one mile in diameter. As the vehicle gathered momentum in its circular flight, the terror-stricken stock-holders started to abandon ship, which strewed prominent citizens in its wake. All except Thomas, who remained at the helm until a stronger quartering wind sent the outfit careening into a ten-rail stake-and-rider fence near Turkey Creek, collapsing the wagon. We fished Thomas out of the wreckage, virtually uninjured.

Dr. Parker recalls the incident well: “Could that wagon go! I had one of the best saddle-mules in the country and he could not hold a candle to that wagon.”

(Wind Wagon story recorded in Old Westport by William A. Goff)

  1. Gloria Beranek says:

    Delightful reading for a cold winter night!

  2. Colleen Butler says:

    Oh my! I laughed out loud as I envisioned that huge wind wagon moving backwards at great speed. Lordy! Wonder what Mr. Thomas would invent in today’s world? Could be possibly be someone in the technology world?

    Fun story! 😊

    Sent from my iPhone


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