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Going West: The American History Museum’s Conestoga Wagon is a Must-See

An iconic piece of history comes out of storage just in time for Thanksgiving visitors

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Once the king of the road, the Conestoga Wagon could haul up to five tons of cargo. Courtesy the American History Museum

If your plans for Thanksgiving next week include grumpy uncles and rowdy cousins, then the Smithsonian may just be the catch-all you need to keep everyone happy. We’ll be highlighting a few items worthy of your out-of-town crew over the next week to help you prepare for a flawless family visit.

First up, the iconic symbol of the West: the Conestoga Wagon. Not simply a “covered” wagon, this is the vehicle borne out of the Pennsylvania Dutch’s craft tradition and specially designed for the first half of the cross-country journey over mountainous terrain. Where today we have the 18-wheeler, the Conestoga wagon once ruled the road, measuring around 18 feet long and 21 feet tall and capable of hauling up to five tons of cargo.

“The Conestoga was like the king of the road,” says curator Roger White. “It was the biggest, heaviest, prettiest and most ideally shaped wagon for the purpose.” The unique curve made it perfect for transporting large loads over topsy-turvey topography and its signature blue body and red trim set it apart on the road. During the early 1800s, the wagons were critical in bringing manufactured goods west and raw goods, including flour, whiskey and tobacco back east. Replacing canal and steamboat travel, wagons rode the newly constructed national roads from Baltimore to Wheeling and Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

“There were thousands of wagons on these roads and not all of them were Conestogas. But the Conestoga was the wagon of choice; it was simply the best suited to the conditions,” says White.

White says Conestogas developed a subculture within American life, particularly among drivers of the vehicles, called wagoners. “The wagoners themselves were pretty colorful,” says White. “They were an outdoor bunch, they were pretty rough and robust, living outdoors as they did.” Each wagoner had his favorite inn or tavern and they all shared a set of songs to help pass the time.

After being in storage for ten years, the wagon is now one of the few remaining models on view. Visitors can stop by a take in this piece of Americana in the first-floor lobby until January 2, 2013.

And for visitors heading into town for the holidays, don’t forget to download our Visitors Guide and Tours app. We’ve packed it with specialty tours, must-see exhibitions, museum floor plans and custom postcards. Get it on Google Play and in the Apple Store for just 99 cents.

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About Leah Binkovitz
Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is a Stone & Holt Weeks Fellow at Washington Post and NPR. Previously, she was a contributing writer and editorial intern for the At the Smithsonian section of Smithsonian magazine.

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