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History of the Conestoga Wagon

The Conestoga Wagon made its debut in 1755. Prior to this date, settlers along the Conestoga Turnpike, from Montgomery Avenue to the town of Lancaster, obtained supplies and transported goods by horseback and pack mule. The turnpike was too steep and rutted by narrow-wheeled stagecoach travel to allow flatbed wagons to be of any service.

Tired of seeing the fruits of prosperity limited to the large settlements closer to the port of Philadelphia, a group of German wagon builders set about overcoming the design problems of the flatbed, narrow-wheeled wagons. The result was a sight to behold. Over 20 feet long and 10 feet high, the slate blue Conestoga Wagon, with its white canvas top, could carry up to six tons of cargo on a single trip. Its one-foot-wide and six-feet-tall wheels helped eliminate stagecoach ruts and made the Conestoga Turnpike one of the best-maintained roadways of its time. The bottom, or belly, of the wagon was curved somewhat like a ship's hull, and each end of the wagon bed slanted upwards to prevent cargo from shifting during the mountainous journey.

There was no seat in the Conestoga Wagon. Teams of horses were controlled by a driver who walked alongside of the wagon. Controlling the Conestoga Wagon from the left was ultimately responsible for the American tradition of driving on the right.

Conestoga Wagon trains quickly became the standard of land shipment in the Lancaster Valley. General Braddock expanded the wagon's reputation by using it to carry supplies to fight Indians in western Pennsylvania. Soon afterwards, the Conestoga Wagon became know as the Prairie Schooner for its involvement in the Western Movement of the 1820s. Not until railroads covered the United States did the Conestoga Wagon lose its position as the primary means of shipping and transporting goods.

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