On This Day: Classic Western ‘Wagon Train’ First Premiered on TV in 1957

by Lauren Boisvert

Happy birthday Wagon Train! The infinitely classic western series is turning 64 today, after having first premiered in 1957.

The series lasted for 8 seasons, airing first on NBC until 1962, then on ABC until 1965. Wagon Train followed the adventures of a wagon train in the 1860s traveling from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. The 1950 film Wagon Master, starring Ben Johnson and Ward Bond, inspired the show. It also took cues from one of John Wayne’s first leading roles in The Big Trail in 1930.

The cast included regular members and famous guest stars. The recurring characters were Ward Bond as wagon master Major Seth Adams, later replaced by John McIntire as wagon master Christopher Hale when Bond passed in 1960; Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough; Robert Fuller as scout Cooper Smith, replacing Horton when he left the show in 1963; Frank McGrath as cook Charlie Wooster; Terry Wilson as Bill Hawks; Michael Burns as Barnaby West; and Scott Miller as Duke Shannon. Notable guest stars include Ernest Borgnine, Lon Chaney Jr., Lou Costello, Bette Davis, Lorne Greene, and Ronald Reagan in one of his last acting roles.

Fun Facts About ‘Wagon Train’

There were a few child stars on Wagon Train, including Beverly Washburn who played Susan Palmer. The 12-year-old actress nearly got taken off the set due to Ward Bond’s more colorful language.

Washburn recalls in Scott Allen Nolan’s book Three Bad Men: John Ford, John Wayne, Ward Bond, that Bond was a nice man, but he had a bit of a swearing problem. Because Washburn was under 18, “they have what was called a ‘welfare worker’,” she explained in the book. “At one point she [the welfare worker] went to the producer and said if he [Bond] used one more swear word, she would pull me from the set.” She says that Bond apologized, and she describes him as a “kind-hearted man.”

Wagon Train also had direct ties to Star Trek. Not only did Gene Roddenberry describe Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” Star Trek and Wagon Train were also famously linked through their guest stars and directors. Beverly Washburn played Lieutenant Arlene Galway on Star Trek, and Herschel Daugherty directed two Trek episodes, along with directing “The Willie Moran Story” on Wagon Train.

Speaking of stars, Wagon Train lead Ward Bond actually got the studio to hire his friends in roles on the show. During his time as a prominent western actor, Bond made friends with Frank McGrath and Terry Wilson, mostly known as stuntmen. When Bond agreed to play Seth Adams, he insisted that the studio hire his friends McGrath and Wilson. They cast McGrath as Charlie Wooster, the wagon train cook; Wilson, who had been a stunt double for John Wayne on many films, was cast as Bill Hawks. Bond helped coach them into being better actors, and they are the only stars to appear through all 8 seasons.