ABOVE: Wind Wagon
An Oregon-bound airline, in 1849? Don't laugh--it almost happened. Rufus Porter, founder of Scientific American, planned to fly pioneers to Oregon on propeller-driven balloons powered by steam engines. He advertised the endeavor, and 200 brave souls signed up for the trip. But the "airline" never got off the ground.
Then there was the wind wagon, a cross between a sailboat and a wagon. Because it can be very windy in the West, it seemed like a good idea on paper. A prototype was built, and for a brief moment it barreled across the plains at the advertised 15 miles per hour. Then it went out of control and crashed. The inventor, "Wind-Wagon Thomas," kept trying for years, but never succeeded.
Others took a more low-tech approach, making the trip with only a simple wheelbarrow. It's hard to imagine pushing a fully loaded wheelbarrow for 2,000 miles, but several dozen people tried. For a time, they could outpace everything on the Trail, but human endurance has its limits. It is uncertain whether any of them made it all the way.
Mormon handcarts were somewhat more sophisticated. Like wheelbarrows, they were human-powered, but handcarts were pulled, not pushed. Thousands of handcarts made it to Salt Lake City, Utah, but there is no record of anyone taking a handcart further west.
(UPDATE: Reader Tony Clapier says he owns a handcart that DID make it all the way to Oregon. It was owned by Robert Stanley. Stanley's family spent the winter in Salt lake City and then followed an emigrant train to Enterprise, Oregon to settle--pulling their handcart with the train. Eventually the family moved to Idaho to homestead and brought the cart with them.)