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America's First RV

The McMaster Camping Car (USA, 1889)

'My invention consists of a camping-carriage the constituent parts of which are so constructed, combined and arranged that all the furniture, bedding and kitchen requirements for camping purposes are supplied in the most compact form, and the carriage capable of use at pleasure either as a sitting-room, bed-room, or kitchen.'

Alonzo J. McMaster, 1889

Alonzo J. McMaster (1838-1913), courtesy Dr. Scott Geise

The pre-motorized era of the American RV is often overlooked. As in most other countries with a strong RV heritage, America was home to a number of horse-drawn RVs that played an important role in the birth and popularization of the hobby. One in particular, the McMaster Camping Car, deserves to be as well known in America as Dr. Gordon Stables' 1885 Wanderer is in the UK.

In 1889 Alonzo J. McMaster of Lockport, New York developed what is currently believed to be the first purpose-built RV in America. 'Purpose-built' is an important qualification, because many ambulance, farm and army wagons were converted into mobile accommodation and taken on camping or health-seeking trips across the USA from the mid-nineteenth century. It was called the McMaster Camping Car and was probably the first RV in the world to be protected with a patent. Conceived only four years after Dr. Gordon Stables' Wanderer of 1885, the vehicle was radical in its design and construction.

The McMaster Camping Car is featured in the American chapter of my book, Recreational Vehicles: A World History 1872-1939.

The McMaster Camping Car (USA, 1889, courtesy National Parks Service)

McMaster's Early Years

During the Civil War, Alonzo J. McMaster served as a Fife-Major in the 28th Regiment of Volunteers from Niagara County. According to one source he was mustered out of service in 1861 due to disability. On returning to Lockport he established himself as a local merchant dealing in lumber and marble. Lockport was a prosperous town in Niagara County thanks to its location on the Grand Canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it witnessed a public works boom and a regular stream of visitors.

In the mid-1880s McMaster saw an opportunity to benefit from the town's growing prosperity by establishing a fleet of Herdic carriages for public use. The Herdic carriage had been developed by Peter Herdic from Pennsylvania in 1881 and were in use in a number of towns and cities by the mid-1880s. These were lightweight, horse-drawn, covered omnibuses with low floors, rear entrances and bench seating along their sides. They came in various sizes but generally seated up to eight passengers.

A Herdic Carriage (USA, 1881, courtesy Library of Congress)

By 1888 it appears that McMaster's Herdic carriage business was flourishing, with the Buffalo Courier suggesting in September 1888 that McMaster was considering expansion of the fleet. But another transport venture was forming in McMaster's mind that would supersede his public taxi venture — the camping car.

McMaster's First Camping Car

It's not yet clear where McMaster got the idea to build a camping car. Certainly with a lumber business in the family and a fleet of carriages under his management, McMaster would have had the business acumen, raw materials and a horse-drawn vehicle prototype to help him get started. But the new type of vehicle has so many new ideas incorporated into it that these can only have come from McMaster himself. The Salem Daily News of 1889 explains:

'A Habitable Hack

An Ingenious Idea of a Road-Car for Summer Excursions

'A. J. McMaster first conceived the idea of getting up a road-car for summer excursions into the country a number of years ago, says the Buffalo Courier. He gradually evolved its many conveniences from out his inner consciousness till last fall, when he had the body built in this city. The remainder of the vehicle was built at Lockport, where it was put together, and painted and christened Niagara.

'The car weighs one thousand seven hundred pounds. It is a trifle longer than a hack, but not as heavy, owing to there being very little iron-work about it. The woods used are ash, cherry and white-wood. In front is the driver's seat, which, by turning over deftly, discloses two oil stoves and all the paraphernalia of a miniature kitchen. Behind this is a little compartment where are arranged, with a compactness truly remarkable, drawers for dishes and provisions, a washstand, water for drinking, a closet, and a reversible table.

'The rear compartment is separated by a sliding door set in a regular partition. Here is found the living room. Red plush seats run along the sides; at night the backs may be raised, a screen let fall, and behold two sleeping rooms with a couple of berths in each. Beneath the lower berths are lockers for additional provisions. On the floor are handsome rugs and at the end original hand paintings. Curtains rustle with a homelike air and camp stools furnish seats around the festive board. Below is slung the driver's bed in a sort of patent hammock, while oil and tools are suspended at his feet.

'The car was built simply as a pleasure car for Mr. McMaster, and he has never had it patented as an entirety, only a few of the devices being covered.'

The Salem Daily News 27 July 1889

So, by the fall of 1888 it appears that McMaster had already had a camping car body built in nearby Buffalo and was having the interior finished by a local coachbuilder in Lockport. It would seem that at this time McMaster had conceived of the camping car for his personal use only. But as happens so often in RV history, when others see what one person has built, they invariably want one too. The comment about not having the concept patented is curious, since McMaster had filed an application to patent the entire vehicle four months earlier in March 1889 (see the patent below).

The Innovations in the McMaster Camping Car

Even in the 1880s it would have been difficult for anyone applying for a vehicle patent to have the patent cover the entire vehicle. McMaster seems to have achieved this by the sheer number of new ideas included in his camping car. Most were not radical in engineering terms but instead focused on common sense, space-saving or dual-purpose ideas. These included:

  • a combined driver's seat and portable oil stove in the front driver's area. The latter was operable from within the car and movable on rollers or slides to the inside of the car for heating

  • an ice box with 'floating' inner shelf on 'corner rollers' that descended whilst remaining flat as the ice melted

  • a wardrobe door with attached folding legs to serve as a table

  • a sink and tap mounted on a folding plinth which when raised revealed a privy-seat with hole leading down through a trap door into a bucket attached below the floor

  • benches with back rests that folded up into bunk beds. The upper beds had net guards

  • a fly or awning that extended on guy ropes on either side of the car

  • a ladder slung under the car (used also as a cot for the driver), along with a tool box and oil tank

In 1891 McMaster submitted a further patent (US453,205), modifying and expanding his camping vehicle to include 'an observation-room, smoking-room and kitchen' featuring 'revolving seats' that could be used as seating or a kitchen table. Some of the ideas included in the patent were modified in the as-built version of the camping car.

The Camping Car Idea Grows

When his camping car Niagara was complete, McMaster took it on family camping vacations. During these trips he did not hesitate to invite others to see his invention, including local journalists. The response seems to have been universally positive, since in April 1890 McMaster began advertising the camping car for sale, to be built by the 'McMaster Mfg. Co., Lockport, NY':

An advert for the McMaster Camping Car (USA, 1890, source Library of Congress)

In May 1890 McMaster sold a camping car to Mr. G.L. Mason of Buffalo for $1,200, who named it Marion and agreed to become a sales agent for McMaster. Later in 1890 McMaster exhibited a camping car (possibly called Minneapolis) at the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, reputedly to much acclaim. It is not known how many camping cars McMaster built and sold during these early days, but at least two further camping cars were sold during 1891.

The Yellowstone Camping Car Experiment

In May 1892, William Wallace Wylie and his partner Sam M. Wilson, who operated a moveable tent-camp touring company in Yellowstone National Park, purchased two McMaster Camping Cars. Since the mid-1880s Wylie's camping operation had provided an economic alternative to high-priced hotel tours as well as offering an educational excursion of Yellowstone's spectacular landscape. With the addition of the McMaster Camping Cars, Wylie & Wilson could offer a somewhat exclusive twelve-day touring experience for groups of four with a driver for a mere $5 per day per person in a comfortable self-contained vehicle.

An advert for the car by Wylie & Wilson (USA, 1892, courtesy National Park Service)

But according to Yellowstone historian Elizabeth Watry, the upstart McMaster Camping Car was viewed with hostility by established hotel and transportation companies, who were allied with the Northern Pacific Railroad cartel and were opposed to any competition. They tried to force Wylie & Wilson’s new camping cars out of business through a range of means including spurious complaints about frightening the established operators’ stagecoach horses and even going so far as to call for Wylie’s arrest.

According to available evidence, the McMaster Camping Cars were only used within the park for the 1892 season. Wylie said much later in his autobiography ‘I did not quit the use of these cars because of this attempt to put them out of use, but because they did not accommodate enough guests to make them practicable’. But the underhand tactics of established concession holders would not have helped Wylie & Wilson to win, let alone keep, new customers.

Clearly, the McMaster Camping Car had undermined the more conventional tourism schemes of the special interest groups of the period, and like many such ideas ahead of their time, was obstructed by those in favour of the status quo from obtaining the necessary momentum for success. It is still fitting though, that the world’s first national park was home to what is probably America’s first ever purpose-built RV.

McMaster's Later Years

McMaster's Yellowstone experiment may have been the undoing of his RV venture. He supplied two camping cars to Wylie & Wilson in good faith in 1892, fully expecting further orders to come as the business grew. The Hub magazine of 1893 reported that McMaster had that year signed a contract with local coachbuilder J. J. Fraser to build additional camping cars for Yellowstone, and 'as many as can be made ready will be sent out to the park this season'. We don't yet know whether these additional vehicles were built or not, or if there was a further purchase agreement with Wylie & Wilson, but it's almost certain that no further camping cars were used in Yellowstone, either because of ongoing conflicts with established operators or because Wylie found them to be uneconomic.

McMaster accrued significant debts as a result of his business ventures (according to the Buffalo Courier of 8 July 1892 these were said to be between $35,000 and $40,000), which by 1895 forced him to sell his businesses and some real estate to repay the banks. During the late 1890s a small number of used camping cars were advertised locally as being for sale 'cheap' or for hire, so it seems no new ones were being made.

McMaster changed direction completely in 1903 when he became Lockport's Health Inspector, a position he held until 1910. He died in 1913.

McMaster's Legacy

The McMaster camping car is an important part of RV history for a number of reasons.

Firstly it shows that the British Wanderer caravan of 1885 was not as far ahead of other RVs around the world as previously thought — the McMaster Camping Car arrived only four years later. It also demonstrates that the British affinity with the lifestyle and caravans of the gypsies was not a pre-requisite to the development of a horse-drawn RV.

Secondly, it shows that the American horse-drawn RV was not descended in design terms from, as popularly believed, the Conestoga wagon or the prairie schooner (this topic is covered in a separate blog). With its full-wood construction, flat floor, enclosed curved roof, front driver's area, square observation windows and side benches, the design of the McMaster Camping Car was clearly based on the Herdic carriage, a vehicle McMaster was very familiar with.

Thirdly, McMaster deserves praise for his ingenuity, not in engineering terms, but in a practical sense. He built a vehicle that was relatively lightweight and yet spacious. Many elements of his camping car had dual purposes, such as a sliding oil stove that could be brought inside the car to provide warmth, benches that could be converted into beds and even a ladder strung under the car that was used as a cot for the driver.

Finally, McMaster's experiences show that for radical ideas to succeed they often need two other elements — good timing and strong promotion. McMaster had a radical idea but seemingly lacked the other two elements. Established tourism operators in Yellowstone National Park clearly did not welcome the intrusion of a new camping vehicle, suggesting McMaster's idea had come a few years too soon. Similarly, without promoting the 'vagabond' lifestyle alongside his camping car, McMaster would have been fighting an uphill battle to popularize the concept.

Without doubt Alonzo J. McMaster was an important American RV pioneer. His 'invention' was a significant milestone in the design history of the RV. It is hoped that this blog will prompt a move towards greater recognition of McMaster and his Camping Car.

Andrew Woodmansey

January 2021

McMaster Patents

The full 1889 patent for the McMaster Camping Car (US404,101A) can be downloaded from the link below:

US404101A_McMaster camping vehicle 1889
Download • 691KB

McMaster submitted a further patent (US453,205) in 1891, modifying and expanding his camping vehicle to include 'an observation-room, smoking-room and kitchen' featuring 'revolving seats' that could be used as seating or a kitchen table. These modifications may have been made to prepare the camping car for tourism use by Wylie & Wilson in Yellowstone National Park in 1892. This additional patent can be downloaded from the link below:

US453205 copy
Download PDF • 107KB

McMaster submitted a third patent in November 1890 (US451,510 approved in May 1891) unconnected with his camping car. It was a pair of wooden doors designed to allow passengers to move freely between railway cars. It is not known if or when McMaster exploited this idea, but it does demonstrate his breadth of thinking in transport-related matters. Download below:

US451510 copy
Download PDF • 259KB

Sources, Links and Further Reading


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