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Conestoga wagons…in Delaware!

conestoga wagon, harrington, de

Close your eyes, and picture for a moment the conestoga wagon in American history. What did you conjure up? The Oregon Trail? Vast lines of ‘prairie schooners’ crossing what would become Kansas or Nebraska?

I was startled to encounter this conestoga wagon in a Delaware museum—built in Delaware, and used in Delaware.

If you’ve ever wondered why this wagon is called ‘conestoga,’ it’s because the Pennsylvania Germans who developed it in about 1750 named it after the Conestoga River near them. The wagon was specifically designed to haul freight, not pioneers. Its curved shape shifted cargo toward the center and prevented items from sliding on mountain slopes (or, in Delaware’s case, gentle rises!).

By the late 18th century Baltimore and Philadelphia had emerged as the leading industrial centers of the mid-Atlantic coastal region. Transporting goods between the two presented a challenge. Moving cargo by ship was more economical, and usually faster, than by land. But in the case of these two cities, sailing a packet ship around the tip of Delmarva ate up a lot of time. (Packet ships were originally designed to haul mail—‘packets’—and transitioned into hauling freight.)

1824 map showing turnpike between New Castle and Frenchtown

Merchants understood early on that a shortcut land route connecting the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay would save huge amounts of time and increase profits. Turn-of-the-19th-century Delmarva topography, crisscrossed by marshes, rivers and creeks, blocked straightforward road planning. And so a land route between New Castle, DE and Frenchtown, MD, despite accommodating twists and turns, mapped out the best option.

“All vessels bound from Philadelphia to foreign ports,” reported an 1807 gazette, “stop in New Castle and supply with livestock. A great line of packets and stages passes through from Philadelphia to Baltimore by way of Frenchtown in Maryland. Vast quantities of merchandise are sent to the West. It is at present one of the greatest thorough-fares in the United States. Seven large packet boats sail from New Castle to Philadelphia, ten to fifteen Conestoga wagons cross to Frenchtown, and four large stages (stagecoaches).”

By the 1850s, the rise of the railroad, the steamboat, and the C&D canal, had all eliminated the central importance of the New Castle to Frenchtown land route. It was just one more way to cross the peninsula.

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