Harnessing the Plains wind has long been an inventor's dream
November 24, 2022
Humankind has harnessed the wind as a power source for thousands of years. Wind powered the ships which sailed the world’s oceans, seas and lakes. Wind powered mills which ground grain for flour. Wind powered pumps used to irrigate land and drain low-lying lands. Wind pumped water up to tanks to water stock and provide for pioneer families.
When the great American westward migration began, wagons were the primary form of transportation. The wagon of choice was a scaled down version of the heavy Conestoga freight wagons used in Pennsylvania. The Conestoga wagon would require a team of 10 to 12 oxen or horses. The wagon used by the westward settlers were referred to as prairie schooner. The term was applied because the wagons appeared, from a distance, to be sailing because of the white canvas, coated with linseed oil or paint for waterproofing, coverings on the wagons. In reality, the wagons were 10 to 12 feet long and three feet deep. With a tongue and yoke their length was 23 feet. The preferred means of power was oxen. Oxen yokes were fashioned from wood and were cheaper to purchase than the leather harness required for mules and horses.
An ox could be any bovine such as a cow, steer or castrated bull. The animals had to be trained to the yoke. Once they were trained, they were placed in four to six yoke (a yoke consisted of two oxen) teams. Red Durham (Shorthorns) or Devon were the preferred breeds. Dust was the enemy of oxen. It clogged their tongues and nostrils so they could not breathe and died. This happened on a large scale in dry desert country and around alkali flats. The pair nearest the wagon, the wheel yoke, were the strongest, as they pulled and did the braking. The front pair were the intelligent and well-trained oxen and the middle pair were usually inexperienced oxen being trained. Oxen were preferred because, though slow, they were stronger than horses. They required less maintenance as they could survive on rough forage and little water. Mules were also used with horses being a distant third.
The oxen team could average 15 to 20 miles per day depending on the lay of the land. Even after the coming of the transcontinental railroads, wagons were still a much used mode of westward migration until the 1880s.
When the settlers arrived at their destinations in Oregon or California, they would sell the oxen to fund the supplies needed to build a new life. After the Civil War, when homesteaders poured into the Great Plains, the wagon was the preferred mode of transportation as the railroads did not begin to spread throughout the West until the 1880s.
But what does any of this have to do with wind power? After all, the prairie schooner was not powered by the wind.
as it had no sails.
A The Superior Express subscriber, reading Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” for the first time, noted that part of the novel took place in the Republican River valley wheen the characters were attacked by a SIoux war party. Jules Verne, a French author, is regarded, along with H. G. Wells, as the father of the science fiction genre. Writing in the mid to late 19th century, Verne wrote his series of voyages extrodinaire. He published at least two volumes a year. The more popular ones are “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
In the novel “Around the World in 80 Days,” Phineas T. Fogg and his manservant, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the globe utilizing myriad forms of transportation. One such adventure is set in Nebraska and therein lies the heart of the wind tale. In chapter 31, the duo find themselves delayed in Fort Kearney. A character, named Fix, approached the pair and advised them there was a way to regain some of the lost time. He took them to a hut below the fort. Inside, Fogg “Examined a curious vehicle, a kind of frame on two long beams, a little raised in front like the runners of a sledge and upon which there was room for five or six persons. A high mast was fixed on the frame, held firmly by metallic lashings to which was attached a large brigatine sail. This mast held an iron stay upon which to hold a jib-sail. Behind, a sort of rudder served to guide the vehicle. It was, in short, a sledge rigged like a sloop. During the winter, when the trains are blocked up by the snow, these sledges make extremely rapid journeys across the frozen plains from one station to another. Provided with more sails than a cutter, and with wind behind them, they slip over the surface of the prairies with a speed equal if not superior to that of the express trains.”
Fogg engaged the services of the sledge owner. “The distance between Fort Kearney and Omaha, as the birds fly, is at most two hundred miles. If the wind held good, the distance might be covered in five hours. iI no accident happened, the sledge might reach Omaha by one o’clock.” Needless to say they arrived in Omaha in time to board a train to New York and further their journey.
While the sledge was an invention solely of Verne’s imagination, the idea of wind powered vehicle was not impossible. Ice boats have been sailing frozen lakes for many years but they rely on skate like runners. Sleds propelled by kites have been successfully used in the Arctic and Antarctic plateau.
Wind wagons were the logical extension for use on the prairies. An enterprising Kansas sawmill owner, Samuel Peppard, constructed a wind wagon in 1860. It was referred to as “Peppard’s Folly.” This did not deter him from setting sail for the Colorado gold fields. He arrived in Fort Kearney, sound familiar, in 1860. His arrival was noted in the local press. Peppard departed for Colorado. He was 50 miles from his destination when nature intervened. A tornado lifted his wagon
12 feet into the air befor it fell to the ground, destroying the vehicle.
Others tried their hand at wind powereed wagons. Willaim Thomas was one such man. He earned the sobriquet Wind Wagon Thomas. He arrived in Westport, Missouri, a jumping off and outfitting town for those headed west by wagon.
In 1853, Thomas constructed a l scale model of his wind wagon and sailed it 300 miles to prove it was feasible. He then solicited investors for his Prairie Clipper Company. His vision was to build and field a fleet of large wind wagons to traverse the Great Plains, towing a train of wagons carrying cargo and passengers.
He built his first large model and, along with his investors, went out for a maiden voyage. The trip was a disaster. The steering gear broke and the vessel was uncontrollable. His investors abandoned ship, many suffering broken bones, as Thomas rode his ship until it was destroyed in a ravine.
After Thomas and Peppard, there were several attempts to improve the model but the coming of the railroads effectively put the idea to rest.
Though the wind sledge of Verne’s imagaination never sailed the snow covered plains, there were those who had attempted to sail it with wheeled wagons. If not for an unfortunate encounter with an oversized dust devil, Peppard might have been successful and changed the course of history.
The prairie schooners and wind wagons are but a distant memory but they played a vital role in the settlement of the American West. Though it never sailed, the prairie schooner fulfilled the dreams of those who sought a new frontier.