How To Keep Your Wheels On - Point Of Interest - MCI600

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To understand the craftsmen wheel wright, one must understand wheel construction in the 1800s

Two of the foremost wheel wrights were Lewis Downing of Abbot and Downing and Joseph Murphy. Lewis Downing was a superior craftsman trained by his father and his brother who were also wheel wrights and was famous for his Concord stagecoach. Joseph Murphy was a wheel wright born in Ireland but perfected his trade in St. Louis and was known throughout the west for his wagons with J. Murphy painted on them.

In the 1800s , most of the axles were made out of hickory with the eighteen inch deep wheel hub made out of Osage orange, a deep and wiry wood. The spokes and wheel rims were made out of a hardwood such as white oak and each spoke was made to flare out from the hub making the wheel look like a saucer.

The tapered end of the axle fit into the hubs keeping the wheels parallel. The iron tire was six inches wide, at least an inch thick and was tightly secured over the wheel rims.

In the dry climate of the west, the wheel rims would shrink, loosening the iron tire. Extreme measures such as throwing the wheels in creek beds in hopes they would expand and driving wedges between the iron tire and the wheel rim were all tried in attempts to keep the wagons moving. The large freight trains would have their own wheel wright on the trail that would try to heat and reset the iron tires.

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