Wagon Train is an American Western series that ran on NBC 1957–62 and then on ABC 1962–65. The series initially starred veteran movie supporting actor Ward Bond as the wagon master, later replaced upon his death by John McIntire, and Robert Horton as the scout, subsequently replaced by Scott Miller and Robert Fuller.
The series was inspired by the 1950 film Wagon Master directed by John Ford and starring Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr. and Ward Bond, and harkens back to the early widescreen wagon train epic The Big Trail (1930) starring John Wayne and featuring Bond in his first major screen appearance playing a supporting role. Horton's buckskin outfit as the scout in the first season of the television series resembles Wayne's, who also played the wagon train's scout in the earlier film.
The show chronicles the adventures of a wagon train as it makes its way from Missouri to California. There were 284 episodes in 8 seasons: the first aired on September 18, 1957, and the final segment was broadcast on May 2, 1965. Some of the actors appearing on Wagon Train included Ward Bond as wagon master Major Seth Adams (seasons 1–4), Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough (seasons 1–5), John McIntire as wagon master Christopher Hale (seasons 4–8), Robert Fuller as scout Cooper Smith (seasons 7–8), Scott Miller as Duke Shannon (seasons 5–7), Michael Burns as Barnaby West (seasons 4–8), Frank McGrath as Charlie Wooster (cook, seasons 1–8), and Terry Wilson as Bill Hawks (seasons 1-8). McIntire replaced Bond as wagon master upon Bond's death at age 57, and Fuller replaced Horton as scout a season after Horton opted to depart, an obvious choice since Fuller had already played a lead in another western series (Laramie on NBC) and physically resembled Horton. Horton and Fuller even shared the same birthday, albeit nine years apart. While Horton's character generally wore a dark hat onscreen, Fuller usually wore a light-colored one in Wagon Train, although this varied occasionally for both actors.
Ward Bond was always billed above Robert Horton in the opening credits, but Horton later rotated top billing with relative newcomer John McIntire, which subsequently continued with McIntire and Robert Fuller rotating top billing from episode to episode when Fuller joined the series in the seventh season in the wake of Horton's departure. During the sixth season, Horton had left and Fuller had not yet replaced him, so McIntire carried the show with the supporting cast. Neither Bond nor McIntire, both veterans of dozens of supporting roles in movies, routinely played the lead in theatrical films, although Bond did in at least one B-picture. Rivals Bond and Horton frequently quarreled on the set, an extensively publicized development at the time, lending an element of verisimilitude to their disputes within the episodes themselves.
The series aired for most of its run in black-and-white. That briefly changed during the show's fifth season (1961–62) on NBC, to help promote the sales of parent company RCA's color television sets.
These five episodes were aired in color:
The series returned to its original black-and-white format for its first season (1962–63) on ABC, damaging the ratings, but the following season, as the series expanded to 90 minutes, was entirely in color. In the final season the series reverted to both black and white and the 60-minute format. It was one of only a few series ever to switch to color and then revert to black and white. These switches, along with a time slot move to Sunday evenings for the first time, were significant contributors to the declining ratings that led to the series' cancellation in the spring of 1965.
Throughout its run, the series used the cut-down, shortened wagons common to television series budgets, as opposed to the full-length oxen-drawn Conestoga wagons prominent in a forerunner of the show, the 1930 wagon train film The Big Trail, which features 27-year-old Ward Bond supporting 23-year-old John Wayne. Occasionally film clips from Hollywood movies, depicting a train of Conestogas, were edited into the episodes.
In several episodes of the first season Major Adams says the line "That'll be the day!" which was a tag line said by John Wayne in the 1956 film The Searchers in which Bond also appeared.
|Season||Episodes||Originally aired||Nielsen ratings|
|First aired||Last aired||Network||Rank||Rating|
|1||39||September 18, 1957||June 25, 1958||NBC||23||27.7|
|2||38||October 1, 1958||June 24, 1959||2||36.1|
|3||37||September 30, 1959||June 22, 1960||2||38.4|
|4||38||September 28, 1960||June 21, 1961||2||34.2|
|5||37||September 7, 1961||June 13, 1962||1||32.1|
|6||37||September 19, 1962||June 5, 1963||ABC||25||22.0|
|7||32||September 16, 1963||April 27, 1964||N/A||N/A|
|8||26||September 20, 1964||May 2, 1965||N/A||N/A|
In a first-season episode Adams says the war has been over for five years (suggesting the first season takes place in 1870, although, in "The Major Adams Story", part 1, it is clear that Adams had taken trains west in previous years, commencing "as soon as the war was over"). In season two, reference is made to the war ending six years earlier (1871) and to the presidential nomination of Ulysses S. Grant (1868), a neighbor of Adams before the war and eventually his commanding officer. In "Little Girl Lost" (season 8, episode 12), Charlie states that the year is 1869. In season three (in "The Vincent Eaglewood Story") Grant and Colfax are identified as the current President and VP, which dates it as Grant's first term (March 1869 to March 1873); but also in season three (in "The Countess Baranof Story") the storyline involves the impending sale of Alaska by Russia, but that transaction actually took place in 1867 under Pres. Andrew Johnson. "The Bernal Sierra Story" (first season) made extensive reference to the ongoing revolution in Mexico pitting Benito Juárez against Maximilian I of Mexico (aka Emperor Maximilian)--but that uprising ended decisively with Maximillian's capture and execution in 1867. Also in season three, an adventure involving the Mexican revolution led by Porfirio Díaz, which began in 1871 ("The Stagecoach Story", season 3, ep 1, broadcast Sept 30, 1959). "The Cathy Eckhardt Story" (fourth season, broadcast November 9, 1960) clearly shows the year is 1870, but in "The Charlene Brenton Story" (late third season, broadcast June 8, 1960) reference is made to Bill Hawks' having read the novel Ben-Hur, which was not published until 1880. "The Sam Pulaski Story" (Season 7, episode 8, broadcase November 4, 1963) misplaces Hell's Kitchen as the Brooklyn waterfront instead of the west side of mid-Manhattan, and dates the story as 1868 although the name Hell's Kitchen was not used for the neighborhood until years later. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, following approximately the same route as a wagon train from St. Joseph to Sacramento. This would have made wagon trains obsolete by the time most episodes in the series take place; however, little reference is made to railroads in the West during the series.
Like Rawhide and most western television series of the 1950s and 1960s, the show is set a few years after the American Civil War, but whereas there were few Indians in Rawhide, they often turned up in Wagon Train, causing the wagons to form a circle.
In the very early episodes of the first season, Bill Hawks has a smaller role - as a passenger, not a team member, referred to and addressed as "Mr. Hawks", and traveling in a wagon with his wife, Emily. By the time of "The Major Adams Story", later in the first year, he is both a team member and a wagon owner - bringing his wife Emily (played by Irene Corlett and Irene Windust in different episodes) west. Emily explains that Bill and Major Adams went into the wagon train business "right after the war" (but only now, circa 1870, bringing his wife west). In "The Sacramento Story" at the end of Season 1, it is mentioned that she is left in Sacramento while Adams, Wooster, and Bill Hawkes will take a boat around South America to commence a new wagon train in the coming Spring. However, in "The Barnaby West Story", Hawks says that he never married.
In "The Major Adams Story" it is explained that Seth Adams had commanded a militia group (apparently in Philadelphia) and they enlisted en masse in the Union Army in 1861, that Bill Hawks was Sergeant to Major Adams and that Wooster was a late enlistment as a private (in various episodes it is mentioned that their regiment was under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant). However, a different story in "The Colter Craven Story" (season 4), we are told that in 1860 Adams and Hawks were partners in a lumber enterprise in Galena, Illinois, and on the eve of the Civil War, Adams headed up the 2nd Illinois Volunteers - although without a bit of military knowledge - and was given guidance by old friend "Sam", then a resigned former captain and a civilian but subsequently General of the Army U.S. Grant, who - encountering Adams again after the battle of Shiloh (April 1862) - gave him a battlefield promotion from Lieutenant to Major (in "The Colter Craven Story", Season 4, episode 9, broadcast November 23, 1960). In "The Willy Moran Story" it is mentioned that Major Adams fought in the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1863).
Additionally, around 1859 - perhaps before setting up the lumber business in Galena, Adams and Hawkes were (briefly) prize fight promoters in New York City, generally setting up matches and taking bets on their boxer, known as "the Tinsmith" ("The Dan Hogan Story", Season 1, episode 33, broadcast May 14, 1958).
In the two-part "Major Adams Story" (season one, episodes 30, 31 broadcast April 23 and 30, 1958), viewers learn of Major Adams' Civil War background and his association in the Union Army with Wooster and Bill Hawks. The two episodes begin with Adams stopping to visit the grave of a lady love (in Arizona, hundreds of miles from their established route), whose tombstone shows that she had died in 1868. By that time, Adams had been leading wagon trains for several years (which would tend to conflict with the mentions of his Civil War combat). The episode then goes into a flashback.
In "The Major Adams Story" (1958), Charlie Wooster was a private in the Union Army who, by chance, was assigned to Major Adams's company and promptly proved himself useless for combat but claimed some experience as a cook and, when assigned to that position, did quite well. Wooster did not excel at anything else; so he became a cook in the army. In the first episode he was clean-shaven, but he quickly grew a beard. McCullough had previously been a stagecoach driver. Douglas Kennedy appears in this episode as Colonel Hillary. Normally, each episode is the story of one person, after whom that episode is named, and their problems are resolved through the program.
"The Flint McCullough Story" (season two, ep 15 trans Jan 14, 1959) is also largely a flashback to his brief Civil War experience in the Confederate Army. McCullough had been born in Virginia, but both his parents died when he was a small child, evidently at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, where he was promptly adopted by the historical frontiersman, Jim Bridger (1804-1881). Circa 1862, at approximately the age of 19, McCullough felt duty-bound to enlist in the Confederate Army because of his Virginia birth. He was recruited by a Col. Taylor who had established a Confederate encampment in Wyoming near Fort Bridger. It turned out that Taylor intended to use his western recruits not as regular soldiers but as a guerrilla force to plunder gold shipments and the like to finance the Confederate cause. In this episode, McCullough detours from the wagon train to revisit Fort Bridger and learns he will once again meet his former ruthless commanding officer who is responsible for war crimes (including the wanton murder of McCullough's sweetheart), and whom McCullough vowed to kill if he ever tracked him down; at the episode's conclusion we return to the present and the ex-officer turns up, only for a shocked McCullough to discover that misfortune - prison experience and/or some serious illness—has left the man virtually a vegetable, a "punishment" apparently handed down by a higher authority. McCullough's adoption and training by Jim Bridger is also mentioned in "The River Crossing", and in "The Path of the Serpent" (February 1961). For some years after his discharge from the Confederate Army, McCullough was a driver for the Jameson Stage Coach line, between Sacramento and St. Louis ("The Stagecoach Story", season 3, ep 1, trans Sept 30, 1959), before becoming a scout for the wagon train.
In "The Sacramento Story", which was the last episode in the first season, the wagon train finally arrives in California after a three-month journey. Some stars from earlier episodes appear briefly as disembarking passengers. At the end of the show, Flint McCullough has his $400 pay for the journey, says his goodbyes and rides off. Adams knows he'll spend the money on girls, do a number of jobs when it is gone, and then find another wagon train for which to scout. With all the other wagons gone, there is just Adams, Hawks and Wooster. They plan to take a ship back around the tip of South America and back to Boston. Instead, in the first episode of the second season, the trio is shanghaied (kidnapped and forced to join the crew of a ship) in San Francisco but jump ship in New Orleans and end up back in St. Joseph, Missouri, with McCullough ready to take another train west. In later seasons the series was more episodic and paid less attention to the progress of the train along its route over the course of the season.
The season-two episode "The Last Man" (episode 10, trans Feb 11, 1959) guest-starred Dan Duryea as the half-crazed sole survivor of a "lost" wagon train that had vanished in a snowed-in pass a year earlier; Adams and McCullough, in a jointly featured story, now face their train being condemned to an identical fate, as their wagons are similarly stalled alongside the "dead" train. It is not stated but implied that the sole survivor had to resort to cannibalism as people died off in order to survive—this grim episode was inspired by an actual, wintertime, wagon train disaster (the Donner Party) in 1846.
From season two some episodes were also denoted: "Tonight Starring . . . " after the initial credit for the two stars and show title were put up; these were the individual featured episodes of either Ward Bond or Robert Horton. Bond's tales normally were set on the train, while Horton's would usually involve the scout having ridden on ahead away from the train.
On May 6, 1959, just four months before he joined the new series Laramie on NBC, later Wagon Train costar Robert Fuller appears with Ruta Lee as a happily married young couple in the episode "The Kate Parker Story", with Virginia Grey in the starring role. Fuller as Chris Finley seeks to turn from gambling and become a responsible husband. Evvie, his wife, is seriously injured in a wagon accident. The Finleys contrast strikingly with an older couple on the wagon train, Kate Parker and her husband, Jonas, played by Warren Stevens, who have a loveless marriage. Trapped in snow in the mountains, presumably the Sierra Nevadas, the greedy Jonas leaves the Finleys behind to wait for reinforcements, and he forces the unwilling Kate to drive their wagon. Kate wrecks the wagon and Jonas leaves on foot with her money. Kate is given essential shelter by illiterate mountain man Boone Caulder, played by Royal Dano, whom she finds wise despite his lack of education.
On June 3, 1959, near the end of the second season, John McIntire guest starred in "The Andrew Hale Story", arguably unrelated to his later starring role as wagonmaster Chris Hale (who mentioned having a preacher for a brother). This Andrew Hale is a minister mistakenly on the run who is found dying on the desert. He soon displays great knowledge of healing and spiritual matters and restores the faith of many on the wagon train. Others making appearances in this episode are James Best and Clu Gulager, who portrays photographer Elliott Garrison, who blackmails a young woman on the wagon train. Afterwards, Gulager portrayed Billy the Kid in a series in NBC's The Tall Man, and, later, joined the cast of The Virginian.
After Ward Bond's sudden death on November 5, 1960, several episodes featuring him were still shown, but one was held back, with Robert Horton then carrying the lead. Episodes crediting but not featuring both Bond and his replacement, John McIntire, were then alternated for a time until the final Ward Bond episode was screened as a tribute to him ("The Beth Pearson Story", season four, ep 22, trans Feb 22, 1961), then a few weeks later McIntire actually debuted as the new wagonmaster in 'The Christopher Hale Story' (ep 25, trans March 15, 1961) in a tale where the train—without any on-screen explanation of Adams' absence—is awaiting the arrival of a new wagonmaster. Hale, a retired wagonmaster whose family has been massacred, has just joined the train as a traveler; guest star Lee Marvin then arrives as the quickly unpopular sadistic new wagonmaster, who ultimately gets his just deserts after a confrontation with Hale, and by the end of the tale Hale is invited to take over as the new wagonmaster, a post he reluctantly accepts. It is subsequently mentioned ("The Gus Morgan Story", season seven, ep 3, trans Sept 20, 1963) that Chris Hale had been a government surveyor in the West and therefore is very familiar with the terrain.
One of the last Ward Bond episodes, "The River Crossing", broadcast in December 1960, offer some insights. Reference is made to a terrible accident that occurred to a wagon in one of Adams's wagon trains five years earlier, and Adams reminds Wooster that they have crossed this spot at least a dozen times before, which suggests they had worked together on wagon trains for at least a dozen years. A cloudburst forces about fifty wagons to wait on one side of the river and this is spoken of as "half the train", suggesting the entire wagon train has about a hundred wagons (only about twelve ever appeared on the screen at once).
In season 8, a year after Robert Fuller became scout Cooper Smith, it was revealed (in "The Bob Stuart Story", ep 1, Sept. 1964) that, ten years earlier, Cooper Smith had been the leader of supposedly the most determined guns-for-hire team in what was described as 'the Kansas range war'. He had been persuaded to leave this line of work when he was hospitalized after a marshal shot him in the back with a shotgun.
Later, both "The Duke Shannon Story" (season four, ep 30, trans April 26, 1961) and "The Barnaby West Story" (season six, ep 37, trans June 5, 1963) introduced further regular cast members, although the sudden departure of Robert Horton's original co-lead character scout Flint McCullough following the show's move from NBC to ABC in 1962, was never explained on screen.
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The first season theme "Wagon Train" was written by Henri René and Bob Russell, and lyrics were not used. The theme was conducted by Revue musical director Stanley Wilson. In the second season, a new more modern sounding theme was introduced. "(Roll Along) Wagon Train" was written by Sammy Fain and Jack Brooks and sung by Johnny O'Neill. About midway through the second season this was replaced with an instrumental version by Stanley Wilson. In the third season a more traditional sounding score was introduced. "Wagons Ho!" was written and conducted by Jerome Moross, who adapted it from a passage of music he had written for the 1959 film The Jayhawkers. This theme would last through the series' run and is the most remembered Wagon Train theme. Stanley Wilson re-recorded "Wagons Ho!" for the last two seasons.
"Wagon Train is a cool show, but you ever notice they never get anywhere? They just keep on wagon-training."
When the original Ward Bond episodes were broadcast weekday afternoons on ABC beginning in 1963, a new series title "Seth Adams Trailmaster" was given to the episode to avoid viewer confusion because Wagon Train was still on the ABC evening schedule. A new theme song, the "Trailmaster Theme", written and conducted by Stanley Wilson, was used for these syndicated episodes. The later episodes from the John McIntyre era were syndicated under the simpler title "Trailmaster". All episodes eventually reverted to their original titling after the series left the air. The 75-minute episodes were usually syndicated separately, sometimes shown on local stations as "movies".
In 2004 Alpha Video released three episodes of Wagon Train on DVD. Four years later Timeless Media Group released a DVD collection consisting of 12 episodes on three discs. Also in 2008, they released "The Complete Color Season", a 16 disc box set that included all 32 episodes from season seven plus, as a bonus, 16 episodes from the other seasons.
Between 2010 and 2013 Timeless Media Group released the complete run of the series in eight box sets of one season each with the seventh season re-issued without the bonus episodes.
|1||39||10||July 12, 2010|||
|2||38||10||November 23, 2010|||
|3||37||10||March 17, 2011|||
|4||38||10||October 25, 2011|||
|5||37||10||May 1, 2012|||
|6||37||10||March 5, 2013|||
|7||32||8||November 11, 2008|||
|8||26||8||June 11, 2013|||