Synopsis of TV Show
Go west, friends, and do it in a wagon train with a revolving array of passengers, so you won’t get tired of your traveling companions. If road trips in the car get us good and worked up about the habits of our fellow passengers, think of what a weeks-long trip from St. Joseph, Missouri to sunny California—in a covered wagon no less—would do to your nerves.
Wagon Train was one of the most popular Western TV shows during the late 50’s and 60’s—often number two in ratings behind the venerable Gunsmoke, though it edged the behemoth Western out of the number one slot in the 1961-62 season. Actor Ward Bond had starred in the John Ford’s 1950 film Wagonmaster, and this series, which was based on that movie, also found Bond as the competent and heroic wagon master, Major Seth Adams.
Helping Seth navigate the nation were his scouts, who joined with the cook to make up the loyal wagon train staff. Though this core of actors appeared in every episode, the series’ constant parade of guest stars were the ones who took center stage. Shows were always titled “The ________ Story,” named after that week’s guest star’s character moniker. With the ever-changing characters, Wagon Train felt more like a mini-movie than it did a reoccurring television series. Famed guest stars included Leslie Nielson, Rhonda Fleming, Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck—and they played everything from nice, wholesome settlers to dastardly scoundrels.
Typical to post-Civil War fictions, there was danger every step of the way during that westward trek. There were the plains, which were controlled by Native Americans (or “half breeds” as the show sometimes not-so-politically-correctly referred to them), and there were severe deserts and mountains. It wasn’t easy going, and characters on the show—especially those poor scouts—often found themselves in real trouble. They were routinely captured by Indians, and then tortured or left in the desert to dehydrate and wither away—remarkable for its supposedly Eisenhower-era clean cut, non-violent tone.
When actor Ward Bond died in the middle of the 1960-61 season, his wagonmaster duties were taken over by Chris Hale, who stayed on board to the show’s end. There were also a few changes in the lineup of those tortured and brave scouts, and for the last few seasons, the show added a young orphaned boy for the kid viewers to identify with. In 1962-63, the show’s ratings started to dip, and the Wagon Train-ers tried to steer back on course by expanding to ninety minutes the following season. That hour-and-a-half gambit worked nicely for rival Western series The Virginian, but Wagon Train wound up eating dust. It was back to sixty minutes for the final season in 1964-65, then cancellation.
Those last two seasons may have been a downer for the folks on the train, but they had plenty to be proud of. For eight seasons, their horse-powered shuttle service was one of the most exciting rides on television, crisscrossing the country time and again. When the show’s wagon train finally made it to California, they’d pack it up, head back to St. Joe, and do it all over again—new guest stars in tow and new adventures to be had. When you’re on the road in the Old West, these are the kind of guys you want riding shotgun.
Release History of Prime Time Show9/18/57 - 9/12/62 NBC
9/19/62 - 9/5/65 ABC
TV Sub Categoriesaction/adventure
Television NetworkNBC, ABC
Television StudioNBC, ABC
TV CastMajor Seth Adams (1957-60) Ward Bond
Chris Hale (1961-65) John McIntire
Flint McCullough (1957-62) Robert Horton
Charlie Wooster Frank McGrath
Bill Hawks Terry Wilson
Duke Shannon (1961-63) Denny Miller
Barnaby West (1963-65) Michael Burns
Cooper (1963-65) Robert Fuller