June 2010 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts










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The Panamint Breeze is a newsletter for people who love the rough and rugged deserts and mountains of California and beyond.

Published by Ruth and Emmett Harder, it is for people who are interested in the history of mining in the western states; and the people who had the fortitude to withstand the harsh elements.

It contains stories of the past and the present; stories of mining towns and the colorful residents who lived in them; and of present day adventurers.

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Terri Geissinger is a Bodie area Historian, Guide and Chautauquan. A long time resident who lives in Bodie and Smith Valley, she is dedicated to preserving stories of the pioneer families, miners, ranchers and teamsters. Click the photo for information on her tours with the Bodie Foundation.

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     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway.

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Hauling Freight into the

20th Century by Jerk Line

by Michael H. Piatt

Michael Piatt is a thorough researcher and historian. He is the author of the book,  "BODIE-The Mines are Looking Well..."

A version of this article was first published in Journal of the West, January 1997.

 Please visit Michel's website at www.bodiehistory.com.

When the story of wagon freighting in the American West is told, the tale usually ends abruptly when a railroad is built.  Although railroads certainly changed the business of wagon freighting, they did not force its extinction.  Heavy freight wagons continued hauling to and from railroads, providing local distribution, well into the twentieth century.  Confined to shortened routes, wagons coexisted with railroads by serving remote regions.  Freighting with wagons was eventually replaced, not by railroads, but by motor trucks.    

High sided freight wagon in the County Barn at Bodie State Historic Park.            (Photo by Roger W. Vargo)

Though not the image evoked by picturesque wagon trains, heavy commercial hauling during the first two decades of the twentieth century was often accomplished by coupling as many as six freight wagons together.  This practice, known as trailering, was established in 1860 when ox teams first pulled multiple wagons between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City.             

Trailering was so successful; it became ubiquitous throughout the industry for the next sixty years.  The huge teams that pulled these giant strings of wagons contained up to twenty-four animals.  By the turn of the century, the animals most often employed in these big teams were horses and mules.  The driver, riding the left-hand animal at the rear of the team, did not use reins, but controlled the team with a single rope called a "jerk line."  Thus the teams were usually called "jerk line teams," but were also known by a variety of other names including "big string teams," "long line teams," or simply "big teams."     

Twenty-mule team standing in front of John Searl's borax warehouse in Mojave, ca.1880.

(USC Libraries Special Collections-Doheny Memorial Library)

Emil Billeb describes the jerk line freighting teams he saw in the early twentieth century when he moved from Tonopah, Nevada to Bodie, California.  Bodie was an isolated gold mining town known for its colorful boomtown past.  Billeb's recollections include a comment acknowledging an economy with wagon freighting:

The nearest railroad connecting [Bodie] with the outside world was nearly fifty miles away at Thorne, near Hawthorne, Nevada, [reached] by a primitive mountain road.  This was the arduous route by which most people and goods came to Bodie.           

When I first arrived [in Bodie] on the horse-drawn stage [in 1908], freight was hauled by big jerk line teams like those I had seen at Tonopah.  From the Thorne station of the Southern Pacific's narrow gauge Carson & Colorado, the cost was from $18 to $20 a ton to haul freight this way.  Similar freight from Minden [Nevada] on the standard gauge Virginia & Truckee cost about $25 a ton.  (Billeb 1968: 151)

The Team

Mules, horses or an assortment of the two generally comprised the jerk line teams of the early twentieth century.  Because of shorter runs, improved roads, increased availability of feed and a paramount interest in speed, horses had replaced oxen as the primary competitor to mules in Western freighting.  There was never any universal agreement as to whether horses were better than mules, but most drivers preferred mules for the majority of their team.  Although mules were usually lighter than horses and could not pull as much, they were less temperamental, less susceptible to sickness, and steadier in tough spots.           

The entire string of animals, usually ranging somewhere between eight and twenty head, was a "team."  Larger teams, up to twenty-four animals, were used in desert areas.  In rough mountains the teams were smaller, being more maneuverable on crooked roads.  A pair of animals was called a "span."  The left-hand side of the team, as seen looking forward from the wagons, was known as the "near" side.  It is often pronounced, and sometimes spelled "nigh."  This was the side on which the driver rode.  The right-hand side was called the "off" side.           

Starting at the front of the team, the animals in the first span were called "leaders."  These were animals of exceptional intelligence and training, guiding the entire team in response to signals from the driver who rode at the rear of the team and transferred his commands forward with the jerk line.             

It has been said that the leaders had to be smarter than the driver.  Though each animal in the team was fully bridled, only the near leader was attached to the jerk line.  The two leaders were sometimes fastened together with a "jockey stick."  This was a wooden rod, or an iron pipe, about 4 feet long that was attached to the collar of the near leader and the bit of the off leader.  This would push or pull the off leader in the direction that the near leader was turning.  The leaders were the only span in the team connected in this way, the remaining animals working independently, pulling in different directions as required.  The leaders often sported bells displayed in an arch over their collars.  The chiming bells warned smaller rigs to get off the road and let the big freight teams pass by.            

The span of animals behind the sixes were called "pointers."  The pointers were the only animals hitched to the wagon tongue.  This was accomplished with singletrees and a stretcher bar.  Being attached to the tongue and not to the chain, the pointers steered the wagons, stepping over the fifth chain when necessary to hold the wagons on course.           

The pair of animals following the pointers, working closest to the lead wagon were the "wheelers."  They were generally the largest, most powerful and best trained animals in the team.  Wheelers were almost always horses.  They were attached directly to the front axle of the lead wagon using singletrees, a doubletree and stay chains.  Along with the pointers, the wheelers helped guide the wagons.  The near wheeler was saddled.  This is where the driver rode, and from here he controlled the entire outfit using only the jerk line and verbal commands.  In a team of 20 animals, the driver was roughly 200 feet from the leader.

The Driver            

The drivers of the big freighting teams certainly deserve credit for their role in the history of the West.  They hauled the necessities for life and industry, often alone, through a harsh environment.  Although this vocation undoubtedly produced its share of colorful characters and probably even a few heroes as well, the record has left us with only a few glimpses of their lives.           

Strictly speaking, the driver of a team of mules was known as a "mule skinner," the driver of oxen, a "bull whacker" and the driver of horses, a "teamster."  But in popular usage, the driver of a team mixed with horses and mules was usually called a teamster, mule skinner or just plain "skinner."               

The Wagons           

The sturdy freight wagons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries no longer resembled their eighteenth century predecessor of commercial freighting, the Conestoga Wagon.  The highly raked, overhanging ends of the Conestoga had long since disappeared to allow coupling wagons closer together.  The characteristic curvature of the box was also removed and the exaggerated cover became no more than a tarpaulin tied over the bows. 

Many wagons had no box at all, being nothing more than manufactured running gear with a handmade superstructure to form a flatbed.  The wagons also had continuous steel axles, an improvement over the wooden axletree.  Manufactured freight wagons and running gear were marketed into the twentieth century by the descendants of several legendary wagon makers.  Included in this pantheon of Western lore were Schuttler & Hotz Co. of Chicago, Illinois, Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. of South Bend, Indiana and Luedinghaus-Espenschied Wagon Co. of St. Louis, Missouri.  Murphy & Brothers of St. Louis, Missouri ceased operations sometime around 1894.              

Two reasons emerge to explain the move toward trailering.  The first suggests efficiency in large teams.  If six animals could handle one wagon, it only required eight or ten animals to pull two wagons.  The second explanation holds that the load size could be maintained, but distributed over several lighter wagons; maneuverability was increased while reducing wheel loads.  This was unimportant on the deserts and plains but became significant in the Sierra and Rocky Mountains.  Trailering may have actually predated the above notions, being an efficient method of returning empty wagons using minimum personnel and animals.           

Regardless of the reasons, by 1866 freight wagons were being manufactured with the gear required for coupling.  Each wagon was built with an iron "trail horn" or "tail piece," which projected about two feet behind the rear axle.  The short tongues of the trailing wagons were fitted with a sliding "draw head" or "trail clevis" that slid over the trail horn of the preceding wagon.  In going around a sharp curve the trail horn swung out with the tongue of the trailer, causing the trailers to track the lead wagon.             

The "lead wagon" of a freighting outfit was always the largest and could usually handle loads up to 16,000 pounds, although some wagons were marketed with a 20,000 pound capacity.  The lead wagon always had the strongest brakes, and in many cases, was the only wagon so equipped.  The trailing wagons were called "trailers," or just plain "trails," and decreased in size toward the rear.           

High box freight wagons should not to be confused with ore wagons which, although similar in appearance, had several distinguishing features.  Ore wagons, similar in size to their freighting counterparts, were more heavily built, sometimes carrying loads up to 11 tons.  The interior sides of ore wagons were usually flashed with iron sheets, and the bottoms were made of transverse planks called "dump boards."  These boards were pried out one at a time with pinch bars to dump the ore straight through the running gear into an ore bin.  Ore wagons were often employed to haul freight however, especially on a return trip after delivering ore.

Mule barn and mule teams at Cerro Gordo in early 1900's.

(L.D. Gordon Collection, courtesy Doug Gordon)

Handling a Jerk Line Team           

The driver, teamster, mule skinner or skinner usually rode the saddled near wheeler, but occasionally perched himself somewhere on the lead wagon, often alternating between the two positions.  He could also walk alongside the team and wagons to inspect some part of the moving operation.  The jerk line reached from the driver to the left side of the bit of the near leader, passing through rings in the hames and harnesses on the left sides of the near swing animals.  It was not fastened to the pointers or wheelers in any way.  The near leader turned to the left when the jerk line was pulled steadily, and turned to the right when it was yanked successively.           

The swings, in turn would pull tangent to the curve, the inside animals stepping over the chain, keeping it taut and forcing it into cords of an arc.           

Then the pointers were signaled to pull the wagons away from the corner.  This kept the wagons tracking properly, avoiding obstacles on the inside of the curve.  To signal the pointers, the driver flipped the jerk line over their heads and slapped them with it.  As with the swings, the inside pointer had to cross over the chain on sharp turns.  A description of a big team negotiating such a turn is offered by Mrs. Brown

More than once in afteryears [after 1904] I saw this maneuver, and it is really something beautiful to see.  The lead horse swings far out to left or right, as the case may be, and the mules jump the chain in rhythm -- like a swimming team jumping into the water one after another.  (Brown 1968, 39)

In this fashion, a jerk line outfit could make a right angle turn onto a narrow side street where half the team was completely out of sight of the driver.  They could also turn around in a 60 foot wide street, the leaders passing the wagons approaching in the opposite direction.           

In addition to the jerk line, the driver also used verbal commands.  A whistle meant go; "gee," turn to the right; "haw," turn left; and "whoa" was halt.  Each animal also knew its own name and position in the line, responding individually to the driver's voice.  Walt Wilhelm describes the jerk line teams he saw:

I was always amazed how a small man could handle a long string of animals with a little rope and a mouth full of cuss words. . . . Freight teams understood more swear words than a hard rock miner. . . . If a new skinner was about to take over he'd have to ride with the old hand a few days to learn the names of the animals and the exact cuss words they understood.  Sometimes when a new skinner took over another outfit the animals didn't understand his brand of swearing.  They'd get tangled in the harness and chains; . . . If he talked in a natural tone of voice none of the animals paid any attention.  When he started to yell and swear they stood at attention and obeyed his commands.  (Wilhelm 1970, 49-50)

Tradition has it that drivers carried a large whip called a "black snake."  Used merely for its noise making capabilities, this whip is said to have been as loud as a six-shooter and so accurate, the driver could flick a fly off the ear of a mule at forty feet.

 Because none of the animals except the wheelers could hold back the wagons on downgrades, all the slowing had to be done with the brakes on the wagons.  From his saddle, the driver controlled the brake lever on the lead wagon with a strap.  By pulling this strap, sometimes with the aid of block and tackle, he could set as well as release the brakes.  In some cases, he also had within reach, a line that controlled the brakes on the first trail wagon.     

Wagon brake shoe (top) and iron wheel shoes (center and bottom) in Bodie.

(Photos by Roger W. Vargo)

If the brakes had to be applied on any wagon further back, assuming they had brakes, the driver would dismount and walk back to dog them.  These brakes would be set only in advance of steep downgrades.  Downgrades of 12% could be handled safely with the brakes alone.  When the grade was steeper or the road icy, the descent had to be controlled by rough locking one of the rear wheels.  A "rough lock" or "wheel shoe" was a device, such as a piece of chain or an iron plate, firmly attached to the bottom of the wheel and held in position with chains from an iron hook on the wagon frame or the center of the front axle.       

Thus secured, the wheel did not rotate, the rough lock plowing into the surface of the road.  Rough locks were always put on a rear wheel to the high side of the road to keep the wagons crowding toward the uphill side.  When going uphill, the teams could generally handle grades of 8%.  Specially sized teams could ascend grades up to 12%.  A trick used to help the team up a long hill was a wooden wedge dragging behind the rear wheel of the last wagon.  Called a "chuck block," when the team stopped, the wagons rolled backwards until the chuck block wedged under the wheel, holding the wagons in place while the team rested.  Because there was slack in the crotch chains, the team only had to restart one wagon at a time.  If the hill was too steep the trailers would be dropped and pulled up separately.           

Sometime around 1913, responding to pressure from the motoring public, State and County Road Commissions were organized to coordinate road and bridge improvements.  That same year, one newspaper in Mono County, California reported the influence this had on big team freighting:

It is now necessary for heavy freight teams to drop one wagon in pulling over the grade but when the new road is completed, these teams will be able to haul their full loads, eliminating the necessity [of] dropping one wagon and doubling this stretch of road.  An easy grade has been surveyed which will be a little longer than the present route. (Bridgeport Chronicle-Union  22 March 1913)

Broken wagon in snow at Cerro Gordo in early 1900's.

(L.D. Gordon Collection,

courtesy Doug Gordon)

The driver could handle the entire outfit alone.  If he had help, the assistant was called a "swamper."  The swamper, often riding on one of the wagons, set the brakes on trailers, made camp, cooked, and helped the driver feed and harness the team.  He broke in green animals by riding alongside on horseback.          

By the turn of the century the celebrated freighting concerns like Russell, Majors & Waddell and the Overland "Diamond R" Freight Line were fading into folklore.  Large companies like these had served the Old West from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains in the early days of frontier freighting.  By the twentieth century, freighting outfits were generally small operations, often owned by the drivers themselves.  Large companies involved in such industries as mining and lumbering also kept big string teams.             

Motor trucks began displacing the big teams about 1912.  The competition lasted nearly fifteen years.  It is unclear just when the last wagon freighting company decided its big teams could no longer compete with motor trucks, but old timers remember seeing them as late as 1925.  (Allred 1926, 610) (Eggenhofer 1961, 99)      


Motorized vehicles such as this 1927 Dodge Graham truck eventually replaced the jerk line mule teams.

(Photo by Roger W. Vargo)

In 1930, John Delameter reflected on his years as a jerk line freighter, having worked mostly the southern California deserts between 1865 and 1907:

I've pulled minin' machinery, ore, whiskey, merchandise, mail, express, passengers, and about everything that anybody ever had that had to be pulled from one place to another.

Every now and then I'd land some kind of a pullin' job that somebody thought couldn't be done.  But we freighters never considered much of anything impossible -- providin' somebody was willin' to pay for the pullin'. . . .

I've seen a heap of life -- heaps of changes, and it's all been mighty interestin'.  I only hope the present generation, and those to come when us old timers have passed on don't lose sight of what us old mule skinners did in buildin' up the west.  (Delameter 1930, 25, 29)   

With the exception of the twenty mule teams that hauled borax out of Death Valley between 1884 and 1888, historians and myth makers alike have largely ignored the big string teams.  While railroads, stage lines, and express companies have attracted scholarly as well as popular attention, becoming traditional symbols of the mythical West, the men, wagons and beasts of the heavy freighting industry slipped into oblivion.  Wagon freighting by jerk line played an essential role in the history of the West, but left behind only misunderstood relics and faded old photographs for the curious to ponder.



Arnold, Emmett L.  Gold-Camp Drifter. 1906-1910.  Reno NV:  University of Nevada Press, 1973.

Billeb, Emil W.  Mining Camp Days.  Las Vegas, NV:  Nevada Publications, 1968.

Brown, Mrs. Hugh.  Lady in Boomtown: Miners and Manners on the Nevada Frontier.  Reno, NV:  University of Nevada Press, 1968.

Eggenhofer, Nick.  Wagons, Mules and Men: How the Frontier Moved West.  New York, NY:  Hastings House Publishers, 1961. 

Shumway, George,  Edward Durell and Howard C. Frey.  Conestoga Wagon 1750-1850;  Freight Carrier for 100 Years of America's Westward Expansion.  York, PA:  Early America Industries Association, 1964.

Wilhelm, Walt.  Last Rig to Battle Mountain.  New York, NY:  William Morrow and Co., 1970.

Wood, Frances, and Dorothy Wood.  I Hauled These Mountains In Here.  Caldwell, ID:  Caxton Printers, 1977.


Abbott, James W.  "Mountain Roads."  Mining and Scientific Press  Part 1, (30 November 1901):  229.  Part 2, (07 December 1901):  245.  Part 3, (14 December 1901):  257.

Allred, Jacob.  "Driving the Last Twenty-Mule Team Across Death Valley."  Popular Mechanics  Vol. 45  (April 1926):  610-614.

 ______.  "The Death Valley Teamsters:  The Last of the Twenty-Mule Men."  The Wide World Magazine  Vol. 58  (November 1926):  46-53.

Bodie Miner (Bodie, CA).  01 May 1909.

Delameter, John A.  "My 40 Years Pulling Freight:  Recollections of Freighting Days and Ways in the Southwest Half a Century Ago, When The Transportation of Life's Necessities Was a Daring Enterprise."  Touring Topics  Vol. 22  (August 1930):  24-29, 56.

Hutchinson, C. J.  "The Jerk Line."  Engineering and Mining Journal  Vol.141, No. 1  (January 1940):  35-39.

McFarlane, George C.  "Freighting Ore with Big String Teams."  Engineering and Mining Journal  (29 May 1909):  1078-1079.

"To Improve Mono Road."  Bridgeport Chronicle-Union (Bridgeport, CA).  22 March 1913.

Wheeling, Ken.  "Trans-Mississippi Transport."  The Carriage Journal.:  Part IV, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Summer 1992):  29-32.  Part V, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Fall 1992):  66-69.  Part VII, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Spring 1993):  154-158.

Wright, Earl.  "Driving Horses With A Jerk Line:  Elko, Nevada, Resident Recalls Early Day Teaming."  Small Farmer's Journal.  Vol. 17, No. 4 (Fall 1993):  34.

"Volcano's Letter."  Walker Lake Bulletin (Hawthorne, NV).  18 December 1903.


Kotts, Michael J., Malheur Historical Project, Vale, OR, to the author, 19 September 1995. Personal Correspondence.

Larson, Pansilee, North Central Nevada Historical Society, Winnemucca, NV, to the author, 12 April 1995.  Personal Correspondence.

Wheeling, Kenneth, E., The Carriage Journal, North Ferrisburg, VT, to the author, 12 March 1995.  Personal Correspondence.


Allred, Jacob.  "Driving a 20-Mule Team in Death Valley."  Travel  Vol. 61 (September 1933):  23-25, 38.

Dunlop, Richard.  Wheels West, 1590-1900.  San Francisco, CA:  Rand McNally, 1977.

Hanley, Mike, and Omer Stanford.  Sage Brush and Axle Grease.  Caldwell, ID:  Shorb Printing Company, 1976.

Madsen, Betty M., and Brigham D. Madsen.  North to Montana; Jehus, Bullwhackers, and Mule Skinners on the Montana Trail.  Salt Lake City, UT:  University of Utah Press, 1980.

Walker, Henry Pickering.  The Wagonmasters;  High Plains Freighting from the Earliest Days of the Santa Fe Trail to 1880.  Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.


Cerro Gordo Update

Cerro Gordo is Closed to Visitors

Cerro Gordo's American Hotel (center) and nearby buildings are surrounded by a blanket of snow.

The town of Cerro Gordo is officially closed at this time - until further notice.

However, the road is a County Road, and pictures of the buildings may be taken from the road.

There is absolutely no trespassing off the road. A caretaker is on site, so please observe the no trespassing.

Please do not hesitate to contact Sean Patterson at:

Cell phone: 661-303-3692 or

Email address: sean@smpatterson.com

Stay tuned to this website or our Facebook page for updates on Cerro Gordo's status.





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