Wagon Trains Recreate Pioneer History

Americana, History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, This Week in History, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on May 5, 2011
Eric Hylden A rider leads the Fort Seward Wagon Train across the North Dakota prairie.

Sitting tall on the seat of an 1850s freight wagon, Rick Newborn keeps an eye on Frosty and Odie and his six other draft horses as they plod toward 7,380-foot Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (pop. 23,609).

“Come on, Bella,” coaxes Newborn, 52, while his hands skillfully maneuver eight sets of reins to keep the horses pulling as a team. “You can carry more weight than that.”

Inside the creaking and swaying wagon, Olivia Opsahl, 8, of Pollock Pines, Calif. (pop. 4,728), pushes back her calico sunbonnet to get a better view of a waterfall ahead.

“Look!” she says, pointing to the stream cascading from snowcapped mountains. Her twin, Natalya, and best friend, Holly Ferdon, 7, scramble to their knees on the wagon bench in their white pinafores and long pioneer dresses. The girls gaze in wonderment as the wagon rolls past the majestic waterfall at 3 mph.

LINK: Veteran wagon master Ben Kern logs 25,000 miles

Since 1949, modern-day adventurers have enjoyed a traveling American history lesson on the Highway 50 Association Wagon Train. First organized to commemorate the centennial of the 1849 California Gold Rush, the wagon train proved so popular that it’s followed the route of fortune seekers and pioneers every year since.

Westward Migration
Billed as the Granddaddy of All Wagon Trains, the weeklong trek today commemorates the Great Western Migration as the caravan traverses 70 miles of Highway 50 from Zephyr Cove, Nev. (pop. 1,649), to Placerville, Calif. (pop. 9,610). Known as the Roaring Road in the 1850s, the route at times was so crowded that wagons were backed up for days.

“It was just a dirt path,” says Vi Tara, 68, president of the Highway 50 Association. “The pioneers would have to dismantle their wagons and carry them piece by piece over the boulders.”

Dressed in buckskin and blue jeans, today’s participants ride in the wheel tracks of their ancestors for up to a week. Some of the modern-day pioneers camp under the stars, while others sleep in travel trailers. Flapjacks and bacon, steak, apple cobbler and other trail fare are cooked outdoors by Dennis and Sylvia Jones, owners of Everybody Eats! in El Dorado Hills, Calif.

Retracing the route of the westward migration leads to a richer understanding of history, says Les Davies, 60, a bulldozer operator from Galt, Calif. (pop. 19,472), who has traveled with the Highway 50 Wagon Train every year since 1992.

“Reading about it in a book just isn’t the same,” says Davies, who enjoys the wagon train’s clip-clopping pace. “You see the road, instead of a blur. You see little streams and different types of flowers. You’ve got time to look.”

Travelers with motorized horsepower also enjoy the slow-moving caravan of 15 wagons and buggies and 40 outriders. As motorists pass, they smile and wave and snap photographs with cameras and cell phones. Highway patrol escorts provide safe passage for the wagon train while wagon master Dianna Newborn, 49, rides on horseback, checking the procession for potential problems. Newborn, who is married to Rick, the lead teamster, has participated in every wagon train since age 4, and the Newborns’ daughter, Crystal, 17, is following in her parents’ footsteps.

“Even though it’s a ton of work, I’ll always keep coming back,” says Crystal, who rises by 4:30 a.m. to water and groom the horses and help them get hitched to the wagons. “It’s like tradition.”

The wagon train’s director loves to hear those sentiments. “We’ve got a good crop of teenagers coming along,” Tara says. “We need the wagon train to continue to remind people of their roots.”

She inhales the pine-scented mountain air as she admires Lake Tahoe. “If you let your mind wander, you can envision what our ancestors saw when they were making their way to California.”

Nourishing the Spirit
While the Highway 50 Wagon Train is the granddaddy of them all, about a dozen wagon trains annually journey the United States. The Western North Carolina Wagon Train in Andrews, N.C. (pop. 1,602), travels the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Alabama Wagon Train rolls through the Talladega National Forest, and Teton Wagon Train & Horse Adventure in Jackson Hole, Wyo., traverses the Targhee National Forest.

Since 1969, the popular Fort Seward Wagon Train has moseyed across the North Dakota prairie, departing each June from the frontier military post at Jamestown, N.D. (pop. 15,527), to different historic sites.

Mary Young, 90, of Jamestown, helped organize the first Fort Seward Wagon Train, which followed a military trail from Fort Seward to Fort Totten (pop. 952).

“We put an ad in the paper and got interest from horse people and history nuts who didn’t know one end of a horse from another,” Young recalls. She and her late husband, Ernest, scouted the route for good spots to corral the wagons and got permission from property owners to travel across and camp on their land.

“We buried beans and buffalo in pits with coals,” she says. “Oh, we had good meals.”

Traveling with a wagon train is “nourishing for the spirit,” Young says. “You have time to talk to each other, to share your sore feet, to sit around the campfire. You can find great solace in the outdoors and the observation of wildlife and birds.”

Today, Christina Pikula, 25, of Park Rapids, Minn. (pop. 3,276), spearheads the Fort Seward Wagon Train and tries to keep the experience as authentic as possible and avoid paved roads.

“We encourage people to walk,” Pikula says. “With the traditional wagon train experience, you wouldn’t have been able to ride. The goods would have been in the wagon.”

The Fort Seward Wagon Train adventure includes pioneer activities such as three-legged races and tug-of-wars, history lessons, singing and performing skits around the campfire. Everyone pitches in for meal preparation and cleanup.

“There’s something about the North Dakota prairie land that’s very peaceful,” Pikula says. “For me, it’s like a fairy tale. I loved Little House on the Prairie books. The wagon train is living the roots of America.”

The 62nd annual Highway 50 Association Wagon Train is scheduled June 4-12, and the 42nd Fort Seward Wagon Train is slated June 19-25.