Throughout 19th century Americans migrated west to settle land and most such trips were on foot and on covered wagons. With the arrival of trains the wagons stopped, but my guess is that not everyone stopped using the wagons right away, since it would be expensive to take all your belongings on a train.

I would like to know when people stopped using covered wagons all together. Did people suddenly stop using wagons as soon as trains arrived and if not how long did it take and what finally persuaded everyone to stop using the wagons. Also of interest would be to know when the last caravan using covered wagons left for the west.

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    The literal answer is that they haven't stopped using them altogether, as covered wagons can be found on dude ranches, with hobbyists, and so on. – jamesqf Jul 12 '15 at 5:59
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    Yes, agreed, but the intention of the question is not wagons as a hobby or curiosity, but for essential and necessary everyday use. – Safa Alai Jul 12 '15 at 17:37
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    Many families still moved west using the 'covered wagons' (station wagons) of the day... – CGCampbell Jul 13 '15 at 19:05
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    My grandmother traveled by covered wagon from texas to california in 1920. She was 7 at the time and remembered it well. – Michael Dec 26 '17 at 11:08
  • @Michael that's a really interesting anecdote. Thanks for adding. – Safa Alai Jul 24 at 16:08

The decline of wagons was very gradual. They were displaced for long-distance movement of bulk goods starting in the 1820s and 1830s by the canal building frenzy sparked by the success of the Erie Canal. Canals were the cheapest way to ship bulk goods for a long time.

By the 1840s, ocean-faring steamboats provided direct competition to wagons for transcontinental passenger transportation. During the 1849 Gold Rush, the majority of migrants traveled to California by steamer, a trip which was made faster by the Panama railway in 1855. Cornelius Vanderbilt made a killing with his Accessory Transit Company, which carried some 2,000 passengers each month by steamboat from the East Coast, through the waters of Nicaragua, and finally on to California. It was among the cheapest ways to reach California.

Wagons took a further hit with the extension of railroads into the West. Wagon traffic on the Oregon Trail began to decline after 1869, with the completion of the first transcontinental. The Santa Fe Trail hung on longer, until the railroad reached Santa Fe in 1880.

In short, wagons were less efficient than other modes of transportation, and so they were used wherever canals, railroads, and steamboats didn't reach. Isolated farmers would still be using wagons to get their goods to market until motor trucks displaced them once and for all.


The decline of wagon trains in the United States started in 1869, with the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, and wagon trains as a way of migrating essentially ended in the 1890s.

Covered wagons, on the other hand, stuck around for a long time. The covered wagon of the migrations evolved from freight wagons such as the Conestoga, and horse-drawn freight wagons remained in use for deliveries to places without train service. It's likely that the final demise of the horse-drawn freight wagon was in the aftermath of World War II, as cheap military-surplus trucks flooded the market.


An example of a late use of a covered wagon for travel is provided by famous science fiction writer Jack Williamson (1908-2006). It is said that in 1915 when he was 7 his family traveled from Texas to New Mexico in a covered wagon, no doubt because there weren't any railroads or roads fit for automobiles in the right places.


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