Park City Museum jumps on the Pony Express
March 25, 2011
The Pony Express brings to mind images of young, wiry riders racing across the plains, mountains and desert, dodging outlaws and Indians to get mail and messages from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco, Calif., and back.
One of its more famous supporters was William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who also claimed to be one of its riders.
While historians are 95 percent sure Cody was an Express rider, they are certain the main threat to the riders wasn’t Indians.
It was the weather, said Wendy Ashton, curator of collections and exhibits for the Park City Museum.
Because of the snow during the winter of 1860-61, riders couldn’t take the pass over Big Mountain, which led to Emigration Canyon, Ashton explained. "The snow forced the riders to come through the mouth of Echo Canyon and follow a route to Weber River to Rockport to Parleys Park and finally down to Parleys Canyon to Salt Lake.
"During that time, George Snyder and his wife at the time, Rachel Winter Tanner, supplied the express with fresh horses and took care of them," she said. "So while Park City wasn’t always on the route, we did what we could."
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Another Park City resident, Jack H. Keetley, was one of the riders, Ashton said.
The town of Keetley, now under the Jordanelle Reservoir, and the Ontario Mine’s Keetley drain tunnel are also named after him.
"We have letters of him talking about his experience," she said. "He claimed to have ridden 300 miles in less than 24 hours."
The Park City Museum will celebrate Park City’s role in the Pony Express, which is in the middle of its 150th anniversary, by opening a locally generated exhibit March 29.
The display will run through May 2 and will feature the artwork of Treasure Mountain International Middle School art and history classes.
The museum’s executive director, Sandra Morrison, approached TMIMS art teacher Michele Dieterich in December.
"She said she was doing an exhibit about the Pony Express and found there wasn’t a lot of visuals from that time," Dieterich said. "Sandra wanted to do a display comprised of the children’s vision about the Express that would be peppered with actual dates and historical events."
Dieterich’s eighth- and ninth-grade classes began working on the project with Leslie Stark’s history class at the end of January.
"They were amazing and had so many thoughts," Dieterich said. "Not all of them knew what the Pony Express was, so we did research in class about it."
In the end, Dieterich gave the students free creative reign.
"They all have great imaginations, and if you let them go a bit with a touch of guidance, they come up with wonderful things," she said.
Each student from Dieterich’s eighth-grade drew a letter from the words "Pony Express" and decorated them with things they thought represented the route such as mailbags and horses.
The ninth-grade class created hoofprint markers that are designed to lead patrons through the exhibit, Dietrich said.
"The kids made them look old and dusty," she said. "Some made them look wild and neon."
In addition, the ninth-grade class produced nine animated videos that will be running throughout the exhibit, Dieterich said.
"It’s going to be a really neat exhibit," she said. "It’s definitely student generated and student centered. I hope we can continue doing projects like this, because it’s important for kids to get involved with the community and be part of what’s around them."
The students’ centerpiece will be an interactive collage.
"All the kids did their own mini collage on a piece of paper," Dieterich said. "We are going to put them together for a major collage, and there will be an area with paper, pens and crayons where patrons can draw their own vision of the Pony Express and add it to the mural."
Ashton said she is amazed at how the Pony Express has become a cultural icon.
"It was only around for a little more than 18 months," she said. "It started on April 3, 1860, but started losing relevance when the telegraph was completed on Oct. 24, 1861. Then, nearly a month later, on Nov. 20, the Express was shut down for good."
Still, it was an important form of delivery during its time.
"First mail was sent via the Panama Canal, which took three to four weeks to get from New York to the gold miners in California," Ashton said. "Then they tried to send mail by stagecoach, which took 25 days. The Pony Express came along and news could be delivered in eight days."
At the end of the run, the Pony Express had 400 to 500 horses, she said.
"The riders also had to be small," Ashton explained. "They couldn’t weigh more than 120 pounds, because they were carrying 20 pounds of mail and 25 pounds of equipment that included special bags that they would put on their horses like knapsacks. There were four compartments in which they would lock the mail, and they could switch it from horse to horse."
Dieterich said she learned a lot about the Pony Express while her classes were preparing their projects for the exhibit.
"I didn’t know it was spurred by the Civil War," she said. "I always thought it was a mail service, but didn’t know that there was a real purpose to get quick messages to California. I will always see that romantic image of a rider speeding over the desert when I think of the Pony Express."
"Celebrate the Pony Express" will open in the Park City Museum’s Tozer Gallery on Tuesday, March 29, at 6 p.m. Admission will be free from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on that day. Students from the Treasure Mountain International Middle School will be on hand to talk about their involvement. On March 31, historian and author Will Bagley will give a presentation at 6 p.m. about the Great Western Trails. The presentation is free with Museum admission. The exhibit will run through May 2. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityhistory.org or call (435) 649-7457.