Life in the Old West

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Brown’s steam wagon sought to conquer 1860s Plains freight routes


Looking back into the past, we can see how a steam-powered, iron-wheeled freight wagon to haul goods across several hundred miles of the Great Plains in the 1860s appears to be a real folly. But in 1862, Major Joseph R. Brown, an agent to the Sioux Indians in New Ulm, Minnesota not only thought it was a good idea, he shelled out $9,000 to have the behemoth built. Adding a great deal of other expense, time, and effort, he accompanied his “prairie motor” wagon to the Nebraska City, Nebraska, starting point of what he thought was a prosperous future!

Now, I’ve lived a great deal of my life in or near that region of the country we call the Great Plains. And that living has been during a time of excellent Interstate highways, good blacktop roads, and even pretty fair back roads. But after spending several winters in South Dakota in some places in the Northern Plains that have mostly gumbo mud instead of back roads for a goodly share of the year — you’d never catch me involved in a plot to take a vehicle powered by steam or gas or anything else along those roads or anything like ’em! No sirree!

Brown’s plan was to take advantage of trade routes running from Nebraska to Denver. In his day, freight to the gold fields and especially military freight was being transported primarily in ox-drawn freight wagons which could made the Nebraska City to Denver trip in about two weeks. He figured his steam wagon or “prairie motor wagon,” as he sometimes called it, could make the same trip in seven days.

After all, Brown’s tests of the steam wagon back East proved it capable of hauling eight tons of load at a steady four miles per hour. (The slower ox-drawn freight wagons only hauled three to five tons of freight.)

Although he was not fully prepared, perhaps, for the roughness of the terrain (and winter gumbo mud, flooding rivers, etc.), Brown did understand that steam engines required fuel. He envisioned sending work crews ahead and keeping them busy up and down the route cutting wood and brush where it could be found and stacking it along the way where needed. He seems to have realized there were long treeless stretches along the freight route. (But apparently he was very trusting of his fellow men and women — he seems to have had no plan to guard the fuel against theft or simply being used by needy pilgrim’s traveling into the West.) And water, he was sure, could be found and hauled from streams along the way.

So, with visions of great wealth dancing in Major Brown’s head, he fired up his 14-ton, crimson colored monstrosity on July 22, 1862, at a farm outside Nebraska City, and headed down the 200-mile road leading from Nebraska City to Fort Kearny. With great chugging, clanking, clanging, and roaring, amidst the cheers and jeers of onlookers, Brown’s prairie wagon successfully crested two hills on the first few miles of his trip. Going over the third hill, one of the cranks on the drive shaft broke. The mighty beast was stilled about seven miles west of downtown Nebraska City.

It seems Brown’s short-sightedness at this point was nearly phenomenal: The repair parts for his prairie motoring wagon could only be found far to the East in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brown set out to get the parts.

Intervening family problems and an Indian uprising back home in Minnesota slowed Brown’s return to Nebraska. In the meantime, the railroad came to Nebraska and moved onward toward Denver. For whatever combination of reasons, Brown abandoned his enormous iron wagon in Nebraska and never returned to fix it. He probably realized he could never compete with the railroad.

The repair parts eventually arrived, the steam wagon was fired up and moved to the home of local noteworthy J. Sterling Morton, a location known to history as Arbor Lodge. A neighbor remarked to local inquirers and journalists of the day that the huge wagon “served as a magnificent playhouse” for the family children. After one inglorious appearance in the town’s 1864 Independence Day Parade (the same Morton family neighbor said she thought it had been pulled back from the parade by teams of horses), Brown’s steam wagon was dismantled and sold to a variety of people and businesses as parts.

If you want more details about the marvelous folly that was Major Brown’s “prairie motor” wagon, look for a copy of “True West Magazine,” February 1991, for the complete article I’ve referenced here. That article is “Prairie Motoring,” by Christie W. Miller. Miller’s article is much more thorough than my recounting of it here and I strongly recommend it. She also has references in the article to issues of the “Nebraska City News” which told of the incident, as well as some excellent photos furnished by the Nebraska State Historical Society.