Weighing in around the same or less than today’s most renowned horse jockeys, the riders of The Pony Express barreled out of the St. Joseph, Missouri, stables to reach their 75 mile per day quota. Spanning over 2,000 miles of territory, the route began in St. Joseph, Missouri and finished in Sacramento, California; geographical and political divides permeated the dangerous landscape.
| "Much romance has been injected...in the history of the Pony Express, but my own experience compels me to say it was a stern reality." - William, "Billy" Pridham
MANY RIDERS CAME WEST SEEKING GOLD BUT FOUND ANOTHER LUCRATIVE VENTURE IN OPERATING AS COURIERS FOR WELLS FARGO’S PONY EXPRESS.
William “Billy” Pridham, the rider who was responsible for this trunk, began transporting news across the disconnected nation in 1863. Although The Pony Express was officially discontinued in 1861 due to the construction of the transcontinental telegraph, the Wells Fargo Pony Express continued to function between Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco, California, through 1865. Pridham finally settled out west himself, making a life in Los Angeles, California, successfully running a Wells Fargo office for three decades after his days on saddleback were over.
On a crisp winter day in November, the Van Witt Fine Art Team drove from the Conservation studio in Overland Park, Kansas, to St. Joseph, Missouri, in order to assess and obtain an original Pony Express artifact. The leather and canvas trunk had encased the written words of a burgeoning nation on the brink of a civil war. Weathering many westward journeys in its brief 18 months of operation, the strong bamboo infrastructure was enveloped in a soot-covered canvas, complete with tar and oil residue, nicotine stains, and anything else that wasn't biodegradable over years of storage on a barn floor.
The first step was to remove the layers of soot and grime from the canvas body and trays. A special vacuum tool with a HEPA filter was used to remove any loose debris, then the entire trunk was treated with conservation cleaning solutions and soft brushes. Afterwards, the conservation team stabilized all the loose edges and threads to prevent further fraying and clean up the overall appearance.
Next, the leather components were treated for rot to prevent further decay, then reinforced and sealed. Small cracks and flakes had to be adhered one by one - an extremely time-consuming process. The most noticeable scratches and scuffs were inpainted with conservation paints to match the leather's natural patina. Finally, all the brass and copper buckles and rivets were carefully polished and sealed, and the original paper labels were preserved and reattached.
The enduring legend of the Pony Express, and the bravery of all the riders who risked their lives in a relay effort to cover half of the country in ten days, is a story that will live on through the Pony Express Museum. The Van Witt Fine Art Conservation team was privileged to be a part of maintaining the history of those who connected our country during an unstable era in American History.