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Weird Ways West

A California-bound airline in 1849!? Don't laugh; it almost happened. Rufus Porter, founder of Scientific American, planned to fly 49ers west on propeller-driven balloons powered by steam engines. He went to far as to advertise the expedition, and 200 brave souls signed up for the trip. But the "airline" never got off the ground.

Then there was the "wind wagon," sort of a cross between a sailboat and a wagon. It seemed like a good idea on paper; after all, it can be very windy in the West. A prototype was built and for a brief moment it barreled across the plains at the advertised 15 miles-per-hour. Then it went out of control and crashed. The inventor -- Wind-wagon Thomas -- kept trying for years, but never succeeded.

Others took a more low-tech approach, making the trip with only a simple wheelbarrow. It's hard to imagine pushing a fully-loaded wheelbarrow for 2,000 miles, but several dozen attempted the trip. For a time, they could outpace everything on the Trail, but human endurance has its limits. No one is quite sure if any of them made it all the way with their wheelbarrows.

Why all the weird contraptions? Everyone was in a big hurry to get west -- to strike it rich.

The $100 drink of water

Would you spend $100 for a glass of water? Some 49ers on the California Trail did.

Because of poor planning, many western-bound 49ers were unprepared for the hot, dry deserts of Nevada. A few sharp businessmen in California knew this and took advantage of the situation. They traveled eastward with barrels of water. Extremely thirsty, many 49ers paid $1, $5, even $100 for a glass of precious water.

But water was not the only expensive item on the Oregon-California Trail. For example, at the start of the journey, flour could be purchased for $4.00 a barrel, but further along the price rose to a sky-high $1.00 per pint. Other staples could also be quite expensive:

  • Sugar $1.50 per pint

  • Coffee $1.00 per pint

  • Liquor $4.00 per pint

Surprisingly, there were other staples that were amazingly cheap. For example, at Ft. Laramie, bacon could be had for a penny per pound. Those who had excess bacon often considered it worthless and dumped it by the side of the road. One emigrant reported seeing ten tons on one pile.

Why the wide disparity in prices? The basic laws of supply and demand were at work. Most wagon trains took too much bacon and so it had little trading value. Water, on the other hand was in short supply and thus commanded a high price.

Traffic on the Trail

Bumper-to-bumper highway congestion isn't just a modern phenomena. Rush hour traffic on the Oregon-California trail was just as bad -- probably worse.

The image of a lone wagon on the endless prairie is largely myth; it's more accurate to imagine a moving city. Many reported seeing wagons all the way to the horizon day after day.

And just like today's highways, there was quite a bit of jockeying for position. The goal was to get in front of the pack because anyone who was behind had to eat the billowing dust kicked up by the wagons ahead. Competition was fierce; those in the back often had to put on goggles just to see.

The crowded conditions got even worse in the evening when the wagons came together to camp. Many 49ers discovered that previous wagon trains had overgrazed the prairie, and so there was no remaining grass for the oxen and mules to graze. So it was not uncommon for 49ers to venture miles off the trail in the evening in search of grass for their animals.

A more serious consequence of all this crowding was poor sanitation. Each new wagon train dug their latrines near the previous group's -- and there was often leakage into the water supply. The result was illness and death.

To California via Antarctica

Not every 49er used the Oregon -California Trail. There were other routes to gold country -- one came perilously close to Antarctica!

Those who did not want to endure a four month walk across the west, traveled to California by ship. Trouble was, there was no direct water route to the west coast. So a ship leaving New York had to travel all the way to the tip of South America -- skirting the edge of the the Antarctic continent -- before heading north to California. It was a difficult trip that sometimes took a complete year.

So it was inevitable that several shortcuts were developed for the gold-crazed 49ers who were in a big hurry to get west. The most popular cutoff involved taking a ship to the Isthmus of Panama, then trekking overland to the Pacific side (remember, there was no Panama Canal then) where another ship would pick them up -- hopefully.

When the 49ers got to the Pacific side, they waited and waited for weeks, or even months. When a ship finally did arrive, passage might cost $500 or $1000, and sometimes there was no space at any price.

Even worse, many of the Pacific-side ships were unseaworthy and sank en route. In the end, many regretted not taking the overland route.

The Stinky Trail

Imagine the sunburn you'd get from being outside from sunup to sundown every day for six months. No sunblock. No lotion. That was reality for the California-bound 49ers -- most wound up with leathery, sunbaked skin. But that was just the beginning.

Imagine sweating profusely in 90 degree heat day after day -- but never taking a bath or shower. That too was typical of life on the trail.

And remember, this was before the days of t-shirts and shorts. Women wore long dresses for the most part, and men wore long pants. And there wasn't even much changing of clothes. They wore the same clothes day after day.

Could it get any worse? Yes. They often had no choice but to drink rancid water, which had the inevitable result: diarrhea. For many, it was a chronic condition.

All these factors combined to create some rather deplorable hygienic conditions. Even the native tribes were repulsed by the smell. The Native Americans, who bathed regularly, thought the emigrants were uncivilized because of their poor hygiene.

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