A circa 1850s stagecoach, turned black from layers of varnish and embedded dirt, has been returned to its original light green brilliance after two years of painstaking work.
Operated by California Stage Co. during Gold Rush days, the coach will be on permanent display beginning today in the Spirit of Conquest Gallery at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
"It was quite shocking to see it, since when it left, it was black. Now you can see the eye-popping array of colors," said Michael Fox, one of two curators who worked on the project. "Historians called it 'Old Smoky' because they had no idea of the colors underneath."
The body of the Concord stagecoach is embellished with intricate three-dimensional scrollwork and bold gold-leaf lettering; painted landscapes decorate the doors. Much of the leather interior is original, although the ceiling fabric had long ago worn away. Luckily, a snippet of it was folded under a tack. After examination by microscope to determine the fabric's original color, texture and weave, a reproduction of it was made and installed, Fox said.
The Autry Museum purchased the rundown stagecoach from the Native Sons of the Golden West for an undisclosed amount. Funding for the $150,000 conservation project came from Thomas M. Teehee, a Western history buff and longtime Autry Museum supporter; and an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. Conservation work was done by Brian Howard in Carlisle, Pa.
"This gives you the best picture of what a coach of this era was like," Fox said. "If you stepped out of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, this is what you would have taken to the gold country."