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Traffic jams on the Oregon Trail

It's your worst nightmare: stuck in a traffic jam on I-80 West while you're driving a U-Haul filled with all your worldly possessions. The air conditioning is broken and you're worried about a tire blowing out. The Oregon Trail traveler in the 1840s would no doubt sympathize.

Such was the rush to get on the trail in early May that the fields outside jumping-off towns such as Independence, Mo. were thronged with travelers, wagons and animals. Roads out of town and ferries were choked with traffic, much of it from accidents caused by inexperienced travelers who had never driven a wagon or hitched oxen.

Once the trail opened up, the weather and other natural obstacles caused a lot of stop-and-go traffic. One emigrant reported that his wagon train was halted for two hours by a herd of stampeding buffalo.

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According to the Web site the Oregon Trail, some would-be inventors became so frustrated at the slowness of the journey and the traffic jams that they proposed a variety of vehicles to cut the trip's length. For example, Rufus Porter, founder of Scientific American, dreamed up an idea to fly emigrants to Oregon in an airship made of propeller-driven balloons, which were to be powered by steam engines.

Then there was the wind wagon, in which a large sail was placed on a wagon. A prototype briefly worked, then careened out of control and crashed. In the end, neither of these ideas ever went anywhere.

-- Posted: July 7, 2004

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