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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Banjo - Researching Stagecoach Technology

A Concord Stagecoach ca 1865
Stagecoach Technology!  Is that an oxymoron?

My background as an engineer has certainly led me in some unusual, but interesting, directions!




A wooden hub where spokes attach

Recently, I came across a big wooden barrel-type thing, complete with rectangular holes  wrapped in iron bands, as an interior decoration at Nordstrom's Dept store.  The ladies were shopping for boots, so I was looking around at other stuff and spotted several of these things.  After considerable thought, I came to the conclusion that these might be hubs for wooden wheels.  Some later research convinced me that this is indeed what they are.  The rectangular slots are where the spokes connected into the hub - a lot of stress would have been concentrated in this area, and thus the need for iron reinforcement.
Hub is in the center

Well, that led me in a completely new direction.  I'm certainly not a historian, so I am somewhat reluctant to acknowledge that I had no idea when things like iron hoops could have been available for making objects like wheel hubs.   But I recognized that the iron hoops certainly would improve the longevity of the hubs.  I'm not at all sure they could even be constructed without iron, but so far, I can't say for sure.

From Wells Fargo History site
The horses pull forward, exerting a forward force onto the stagecoach.  These horses had to be connected to the front wheels in order to both pull the carriage forward while also pulling it left or right when needing to make a turn.  This meant all of the forward forces are connected to the front wheel/axle combination, but for the whole carriage to move forward, obviously the front wheels/axle needed to be firmly attached to the carriage; in addition, this connection point needed to be capable of swiveling left and right in order to steer the carriage.  This mean there had to be some sort of pin that the wheel/axle could swivel on, which was also strong enough to transfer the pulling force from the horse via the wheel/axle to the carriage.

So this pin had to be very strong.  I couldn't imagine that wood would have been strong enough to support these stresses, so I expected it to be made of iron, but again, my lack of historical knowledge meant I didn't know for sure if they had iron or not; if not iron, then how did they solve this problem?

In addition, I couldn't imagine that a carriage would just be directly connected to the front and rear axles, as this would have transferred all of the road bumps and bangs directly into the cabin compartment, tossing the occupants around in a rather violent manner.  So there had to be some method for isolating the under carriage from the riding carriage.  How did they do this?  If they had iron, then I was expecting to see leaf springs, but if not, then I expected to find leather somehow employed.

And the front wheel/axle.  How did they turn left and right?  Were they smaller than the real wheels so they could swing under the front without banging into the side of the carriage?

Brake is block of wood
on left of wheel
when driver pushes
handle with his foot
it pushes this piece
of wood against wheel
slowing it down
via friction

And brakes - how did they slow these things down?  It's obvious that on level ground friction from the wheels on the road would have brought everything to a stop, but going downhill on a steep road - how would you slow the carriage down?  So how did the brakes work?  Probably applying friction to the wheels, but how were they activated?  No brake-peddle hydraulics back then!

So a trip was in order to have a look at a real-live stagecoach.

Google to the rescue: lo and behold, there is a real-live stagecoach on display in a museum just an hours drive from me!  Not just one, but two of them!  The Booth Museum of Western Art.

So a trip was in order, to Cartersville GA, just off of I-75 NW of Atlanta - about an hours drive for me!  We checked the website, and they are closed on Mondays, so we planned our trip for Tuesday, August 30, 2011.

My wife researched the town, and came up with a great place to have lunch prior to taking in the museum: The Appalachian Grill.  We enjoyed our lunch there very much (future blog entry to follow).

Lunch finished, on to the museum.  It was $10 each for us to visit today (they say the 1st Thursday in each month is free, but double check their website - we thought about delaying our trip to Thursday to save the $20, but we figured it would be much more busy on that day, so we preferred to go on Tuesday when I assumed it was much less busy).

We found two magnificent stagecoaches!  I was permitted (as is everyone) to take photos; however their policy does not allow me to share them with you, which is a real shame.  Their website does have one photo, but their website says I can't share that here either.  So, I've done the next best thing: I've pulled a picture of a stagecoach (not either of the ones at the museum) from the site of the company that refurbished one of their stagecoaches - the 1865 Concord Stagecoach: Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop.

So, back to my questions:

  • Swivel Pin: Iron.  
  • Front wheels smaller than back? Yes
  • Front wheels swing under front of carriage?  Yes
  • Iron Leaf Springs? No; leather braces instead.  I don't really understand this, as they obviously had iron, and it would have been both more durable as well as provide more comfort.
  • Brakes?  Yes, foot lever, directly connected via wooden push rods to wooden block that directly applies pressure to iron rim of wheel.  It also has a metal spring for return and holding off of the wheel.
  • Iron bracing at all stress points: Yes.
So there you have it!  Of course, this just brings up more questions, like how did those small leather harnesses that went over the horses stand up to the strain of pulling the carriage?  Since no real or model horses were available, all I had to look at where the paintings - none of which looked capable of taking that stress to me, so still searching....

The art:  The art (paintings, sculptures, exhibits) was the most enjoyable I've ever experienced at any museum anywhere.  It was just stunning.

We'll be back!

A modern stagecoach?  Not!


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