Michael Piatt is a
thorough researcher and historian. He is the author
of the book, "BODIE-The Mines are
A version of this
article was first published in Journal of the
West, January 1997.
Michel's website at
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.
sided freight wagon in the County Barn at Bodie State
(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."
team standing in front of John Searl's borax warehouse
in Mojave, ca.1880.
(USC Libraries Special Collections-Doheny Memorial
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)
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 4½ 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 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 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.
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
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
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.
shoe (top) and iron wheel shoes (center and bottom) in
(Photos by Roger W. Vargo)
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)
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,
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
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NV: University of Nevada Press, 1973.
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& MAGAZINE ARTICLES
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