The White-Topped Wain

“That day’s chief study was of wagons, those ships of the great American Sahara which, gathering in fleets at certain seasons, conduct the traffic between the eastern and the western shores of a waste which is every where like a sea, and which presently will become salt. The white-topped wain—banished by railways from Pennsylvania, where, drawn by the ‘Conestoga horse,’ it once formed a marked feature in the landscape—has found a home in the Far West. They are not unpicturesque from afar, these long-winding trains, in early morning like lines of white cranes trooping slowly over the prairie, or in more mysterious evening resembling dim sails crossing a rolling sea. The vehicles are more simple than our Cape wagons—huge beds like punts mounted on solid wheels, with logs for brakes, and contrasting strongly with the emerald plain, white tilts of twilled cotton or osnaburg, supported by substantial oaken or hickory bows. The wain is literally a ‘prairie ship:’ its body is often used as a ferry, and when hides are unprocurable the covering is thus converted into a ‘bull boat.’ Two stakes driven into the ground, to mark the length, are connected by a longitudinal keel and ribs of willow rods; cross-sticks are tied with thongs to prevent ‘caving in,’ and the canvas is strained over the frame-work.”