Joseph R. Brown was a visionary, a frontier entrepreneur, and imaginative promoter – and, a transport pioneer. From Henderson he planned freight and stage lines to connect with river steamboats and railroads, carrying on passengers and cargo to the hinterlands.
In the 1850s the country was growing faster than railroads could keep up. Miners were heading for Colorado and California, emigrants thronged the Oregon Trail, armies were sent to Utah to quell rebellion, and the transport for all these people and supplies was the ox- or horse-drawn wagon! Moving all these goods with animals was fearfully expensive and unimaginably slow. But what else could travelers do? Three were no roads on the frontier, and the railroad had reached only to the Mississippi River.
By the 1850s, many people had seized on the idea of using steam to pull trains of wagons. Steam tractors could outperform oxen and horses and could fill the transportation gap before the railroads came that way, hauling freight and people overland from the railhead as steamboats did on the rivers. Steam was still pretty unreliable, an unknown on the frontier, but seemed to have enough economic potential to attracted politicians, investors and community leaders.
Joe Brown was a freighter, a man who contracted to haul goods and people to the army posts and Indian agencies established on the Minnesota River from his freighting hub in Henderson, the usual limit of boat travel.
Brown knew that steam road engines had been used successfully in the east and in England. They looked like railroad engines mounted on flat wheels but they moved without rails and were many times faster than oxen. Brown thought that a such a steam road engine with extra wide wheels would be ideally suited to hauling freight and passengers over the open prairie.
While he was in New York, Brown met an engineer, John Reed, who was building road engines. He engaged Reed to design a vehicle that would work in Minnesota. By 1860 Reed had built Brown a self-propelled steam traction engine and had shipped it to Minnesota. The steamwagon, nicknamed Mazomani, Dakota for “walking iron,” looked rather like a steam roller with its broad steering wheel. After some modifications, the steamwagon easily ran up and down the main street of Henderson. In October 1860, Brown’s steamer left for Fort Ridgely pulling two large freight wagons, but become hopelessly mired in mud several miles short of its destination. There is was abandoned and left to rust.
Brown’s first steamwagon, from a sketch made in August 1862 by C. A. Zimmerman, about 4 miles from Fort Ridgely. It weighted nearly 14 tones, developed 40 horsepower, and had 7- or 8-foot driving wheels. It was said to be capable of pulling 20 to 40 tones at a speed of 4 miles an hour.
Although there were several eyewitness descriptions of the steamwagon, no photograph or plan exists. The sketch shown here was made after the wagon was wrecked.
Brown continued to pursue his dream of steam transportation with a second, newly designed, lighter weight steamwagon in 1862. He had determined to run a fleet of steamers to the goldfields of Colorado, and so decided to headquarter in Nebraska. The behemoth engine pictured here was delivered to Nebraska City on the Missouri River, the first of six he planned for his “freight line.” The steamer was pulling three wagons en route to Fort Kearney when it broke a crank. While Brown was in the East procuring parts the U.S-Dakota War broke out in Minnesota, and again he abandoned his freighting project to return to Minnesota.
In 1869 Brown ordered a third steam engine that he hoped to put into service hauling from the railhead in St. Paul to the Red River valley and beyond to Fort Totten and even Fort Garry (Winnipeg) using the established railroad grade. He expected to haul 10 tons per trip and travel 100 miles per day, using a fleet of three tractors. The first machine was built, but Brown died before it could be delivered. A drawing from Reed indicates that the chassis looked like this.
Steam vehicles were popular in Europe, but Europe had good roads. The western frontier had none. Brown not only had to envision the type of vehicle that could operate on the prairie, he also had to improve routes for these iron monsters. He sought federal, state and county funds to create roads and bridges.
In 1857 work began on Nobles’ Road to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, which backers hoped would attract emigrants and would eventually carry the Pacific railroad. In 1860 Brown influenced the citizens of Henderson to improve a “Steam Wagon Road” to Fort Ridgely. In 1862, Otoe County Nebraska financed a survey and several bridges for a new “Cutoff to the Oregon Trail” designed to accommodate a fleet of Brown’s steamers. In the late 1860s Brown proposed to cross Minnesota on established railroad rights-of-way on which no rails had yet been laid.
This map shows some of the highways Brown planned at one time or another for his transportation lines. The Nobles’ road to South Pass was built only to the Missouri River and then ran out of funding. The Nebraska City Cutoff was used for many years by other freighters. The routes to Forts Garry and Totten were later followed by the Northern Pacific Railroad.