The Santa Fe Trail was one of the major transportation arteries across the West before the railroads came. However, it was not without shortcomings. It was 900 miles long, winding through treacherous deserts and Indian country. But Santa Fe, a name synonymous with “wealth” in many American minds, lay at the other end. Santa Fe made the journey worthwhile.
Some creative thinkers racked their brains to find ways to shorten the perilous trip. Oxen were the common means of powering wagons, but they were notoriously slow. Horses were faster, but they were far more likely to be stolen by Indians. But there was one form of alternative energy that was both swift and abundant on the plains—wind.
The idea was really not that far-fetched. Wind was an accepted form of power for boats. It was not even original on the land. The Ancient Chinese portrayed wind wagons on their maps, for instance, and later European nobles used them to impress their guests.
So why not take the early land yacht out of the realm of entertainment and use it as a practical wind wagon? In fact, why not create a company that operated a fleet of wind wagons across the Santa Fe Trail on a regular basis?
Enter William Thomas
In late 1846, William Thomas showed up in Missouri with a strange contraption—a wagon with a sail. To the amazement of the residents of Independence and Westport, two of the starting points of the Santa Fe Trail, the vehicle worked. The Independence Western Expositor exclaimed, “Mr. Thomas ran up and down the plains with his wagon at pleasure.”
Evidently, however, this wagon was a mere nothing, just a model that he had been tinkering with. The respect and admiration of the people won, Thomas needed only two things more. First, he needed to build a real prototype, the first wagon in his fleet. Second, he needed investors to fund the rest of the fleet.
In took time, but by 1853, Thomas had the first wind wagon ready. It was a remarkable invention. While the average Conestoga wagon of the day was about 18 feet long and 4 feet wide, the wind wagon measured 25 feet by 7 feet. Its wheels were tremendous, 12 feet in diameter. But the most noteworthy part was the seven-foot-tall mast with its single sail.
A short, speedy run brought the wagon to Fort Leavenworth, where it would be demonstrated for the benefit of the army and any potential investors in the Overland Navigation Company. All had gone well so far, and investors did sign up.
Once the company was duly organized, the investors were in for a treat. Thomas mounted the deck of the wind wagon to drive, and the rest of the founders piled in after him. A stiff wind was blowing, perfect for the official launch of the Overland Navigation Company. Thomas released the brake and the wagon was off.
As the pace increased, the investors grew increasingly alarmed. Some accounts estimate the wagon’s top speed at about 25 mph—not terribly fast in these modern times, but about ten times as fast as an ox team. Unfortunately, wagon technology had not advanced to the point where 25 mph could be safely maintained. First the wheel hubs began to smoke, and then the steering mechanism jammed.
Realizing that Thomas no longer had full control of the situation, the investors began to fling themselves out of the wagon in desperation. Many were injured, but there was nothing that Thomas could do to help them. He couldn’t stop!
Thomas stubbornly clung to his wind wagon, but the end of the maiden trip was near. The wagon finally crashed, either into a fence or at the bottom of a ravine. The first wagon of the fleet was an unsalvageable wreck.
Fortunately, Thomas’s bumps and bruises were not too serious, so he was able to make his way back to the scattered investors. His pleas for funds to build a second wagon and try again fell on deaf ears, however. One ride in a wind wagon had been enough for the company founders. There would be no fleet.
After countless unavailing arguments, Thomas realized that the Overland Navigation Company was defunct. He packed his belongings back into the smaller prototype that he had originally appeared in, sailed out onto the prairie again, and vanished from history.
A True Story
Incredible as it may seem, this story is based on fact. Some of the details have undoubtedly been embellished with time, but newspapers document that there really was an inventor named William Thomas and that he really did build a wind wagon.
Other creative individuals tinkered with wind wagons in subsequent years. Later models were typically quite a bit smaller than Thomas’s wagon. They were also deliberately held back to a slower speed, although some reckless adventurers set a new record of 40 mph.
However, wind wagons never really caught on along the Santa Fe Trail. They were not entirely reliable, and they could be capsized in dust devils. Furthermore, the railroad was on its way to the Great Plains, thus eliminating the need for wagons of any kind. The story of William Thomas and the Overland Navigation Company is now another half-forgotten legend of the West.