Sunday, September 4, 2011

Squeaky Wheels of the Red River Carts

Squeaky wheels - one of the signature characteristics of the Red River ox carts that hauled bison furs from the Dakota Territory to St. Paul in the early to mid-1800s. They say that the squeaking noise could be heard from two to six miles away. One source even mentioned 10 miles!

And you thought fingernails across a chalkboard were bad! I have heard a sample of a Red River cart wheel turning, and it reminded me of whale song. Kind of mysterious and melancholy. However, that was just one cart. Imagine a train of hundreds of them all moving at the same time!

Why were the ox cart wheels so noisy? It was because the Red River ox carts were made entirely of wood with strips of animal hide to lash the pieces together. The axle - the pole that connects the two giant wheels to the cart - was also made of wood, usually something strong like oak.

The axles couldn't be greased, because grease would pick up all the dust on the trail and quickly wear away the wood. Even so, on a typical trip along the trails and back, a driver would go through multiple axles. They brought spares along because of this.

So...when you have wooden wheels turning on a wooden axle, you've suddenly got a recipe for a loud, continuous squeak.

Why not use a metal axle and metal wheels? There were no Goodyears or Jiffy Lubes on the trails at that time, so the riders had to rely on native, easy-to-find materials - and wood was usually easy to find. If part of the cart broke, a replacement piece could be quickly fashioned, and the noisy ox cart would be on its way again.

The Metis drivers must have had a high tolerance for this noise, or at least got used to it fairly quickly. Can you imagine living along the trails and hearing this noise for hours as an ox cart train passes you by?

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