1 9 5 7 – 1 9 6 5 (USA)
442 x 60/90 minute episodes
Wagon Train aired on NBC between 1957 and 1962, and switched to ABC for the seasons between 1962 and 1965. The series was also syndicated under the title Major Adams, Trailmaster.
Wagon Train master Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond) and scout Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) left St Joseph, Missouri, for the West Coast and faced a series of adventures and mishaps on the Indian-controlled plains in post-Civil War America.
They were accompanied by other trail scouts, including Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson), Cooper Smith (Bob Fuller) and Duke Shannon (Scott Miller), and by cook Charlie Wooster (Frank McGrath).
Stories also revolved around encounters with friendly and unfriendly folk they met during their travels through the endless deserts and the towering passes of the Rocky Mountains.
Indeed, what made Wagon Train work were these characters who passed in and out of episodes. Some were God-fearin’ settlers, others young adventurers, others scoundrels.
A large chunk of the budget was spent on the weekly guest stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Reagan and Joseph Cotton were among those who appeared during Wagon Train‘s nine-year saga.
Wagon Train became a British political issue in 1959 as the Labour Party fretted about the general election being held on the same day as the series was screened, in case it kept their supporters away from the polling booths – The result of the election showed that their fears were not unfounded.
When Ward Bond died of a heart attack in 1961 – while attending a football game in Dallas, Texas – John McIntire (pictured below right) was introduced as the new wagonmaster, Chris Hale.
Production values were high, with the entire cast and crew occasionally moved out of the confines of the studio for such panoramic locations as Monument Valley.
Based loosely on John Ford’s film Wagon Master (1950) – in which Ward Bond had also appeared – the series was perhaps the closest TV came to that director’s democratic, poetic vision of the American West.
Ford himself directed the Wagon Train episode ‘The Colter Craven Story’, in which his lead stock actor John Wayne appeared in an uncredited cameo as General Sherman – his only dramatic appearance in a TV show.
Among the most successful small-screen Westerns ever made, Wagon Train dominated the ratings on both sides of the Atlantic on its initial release.
In 1962, episodes were expanded to 75mm, stretched to 90 minutes and shot in colour, but Wagon Train was part of a black and white age, and the new-fangled colour simply didn’t suit.
Major Seth Adams