Ezra Meeker at Castle Garden (now Castle Clinton). Image from New York Public Library.
On September 18, 1907 New York City was treated to a spectacle most of its residents had only read about in the pages of dime novels. Ezra Meeker, a 76-year-old pioneer, drove his ox-drawn covered wagon all the way down Broadway and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Starting his journey in his hometown of Puyallup, WA, he had driven his rig 3,000 miles to mark and memorialize the Oregon Trail.
Meeker was no frail old man. His life had been shaped by survival on the frontier. He traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with a young bride and seven-week-old baby. Settling in Washington, he had been a lumberjack, longshoreman, shop-keeper, and small-town mayor. As a hops farmer he would make (and lose) a fortune. Now he took up a new cause; to preserve the Trail that brought him west. He would do it by driving an ox-drawn covered wagon back down the Trail.
At each town he passed he would give talks about the Trail and raise money to set monuments along it, installing, or arranging to be installed, 19 stone monuments, 12 inscribed boulders, and 100 temporary wooden stakes placed along the Trail. These “Meeker Markers” laid the foundation for later surveys.
He reached Indianapolis in January 1907 but along the way had come up with a bigger scheme. To ensure the Trail survived, he would need the federal government, but Congress wouldn’t be in session if he headed straight for Washington. He decided to kill some time by taking his rig through the northeast. By the time he reached New York he had been on the road for 20 months.
Ezra Meeker in Lower Manhattan on Broad Street. Image from New York Public Library.
On August 20th, Meeker had made it as far south as 161st Street on Amsterdam Avenue when a “zealous young patrolman” ordered his driver to take the rig to the nearest police station. Meeker had gone to engage lodgings for the night and returned to the wagon to find his driver under arrest and the patrolman trying his darndest to move the oxen, who “simply gazed at him in blank amazement.” As Meeker later wrote “He couldn’t drive the team to the station, and I wouldn’t, and so there we were.” A police captain arrived shortly and, seeing as it was the only way to get the oxen off the street, released the driver, telling him and Meeker to drive to the stable they had arranged for.
The trouble stemmed from an ordinance that forbade the driving of cattle through the streets of New York. It took a month of bureaucratic wrangling for the powers-that-be to agree to let Meeker drive his team in the city.
On Wednesday, September 18, 1907 Ezra Meeker drove his covered wagon down the entire span of Broadway, from 161st St. to the Battery. Along the way he stopped at prominent New York landmarks, including Grant’s Tomb, the Flatiron Building (then called the Fuller Building), Columbus Circle, Federal Hall, the Barge Office, and Castle Garden. He also made a trip over the Brooklyn Bridge to the statue of Henry Ward Beecher, whom Meeker had sold newspapers to as a boy in Indiana.
After New York he made it to Washington where he met with President Theodore Roosevelt, who told Meeker he strongly supported the marking and preserving of the Trail.
Meeker made several more trips up and down the Trail. In 1910 he made the trek in his wagon again. In 1916 he drove the trail in a Pathfinder automobile as a promotion for the Pathfinder Company (although the Company grew frustrated at his detours to promote Trail preservation). In 1923 he flew over the Trail in an Army Air Corps open cockpit biplane. At 93 years old Meeker said that while “the airplane goes faster … it ain’t in it for fun with an ox team.”
Others would take up Meeker’s cause. Today people are still fighting to preserve the Oregon Trail, most notably the Oregon-California Trails Association, a successor to the Meeker-founded Oregon Trail Memorial Association. Meeker’s house in Puyallup, just south of Seattle, Washington, is open today as a museum to him.
Next check out Famous Landmarks Scams From NYC to Paris to London. Get in touch with the author at Bookworm History.
All images taken from original Meeker postcards in the author’s collection.