Many stagecoaches from the late 1800s had doors and smooth, polished wood inside. They were fancy for upscale travel.
Not the Western Passenger Wagon, also known as the Deadwood Stagecoach. Built in 1865, it was stronger, lighter and scrappier than its delicate counterparts. It spent years running a 300-mile trek from Cheyenne to Deadwood. It’s also Marietta Dinneen’s favorite wagon, if she had to choose one.
Dinneen, 83, knows most details about each of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum’s wagons, including where they worked, who owned them and when they were retired. The museum’s Deadwood Coach went on to be in C. B. Irwin’s Wild West Show and later represented Wyoming in the country’s bicentennial parade in Philadelphia.
“They were sometimes called mud wagons because they were always dirty when they came to the West,” Dinneen said. “They don’t have doors, just openings in the sides. They’re strictly a Western vehicle.”
The museum’s carriage collection has 168 vehicles. It turned 35 in July and 58 of its carriages will ride again during Frontier Days’ four parades on July 20, 23, 25 and 27.
But, before a team of men and women called the Wagon Doctors worked on the carriages, and before a museum protected them throughout the year, Cheyenne Frontier Days’ wagons sat outside, underneath the wooden stands, said Michael Kassel, curator of the Old West Museum.
“When they brought them out to clean them they had to chase out the raccoons and rats and cats and clean up after them,” Kassel said.
The carriages were also only available for public viewing during the parade, essentially hiding the valuable historical pieces from viewers.
In 1978, Cheyenne Frontier Days officials offered an old dance hall building to a group that wanted to start the museum.
Dinneen was charged with researching and documenting the history of the vehicles. She grew up on a ranch between Saratoga and Encampment and had used wagons pulled by horse teams in the field. Her ranch was the noon stop on a stagecoach trail between Wolcott and Encampment, though that was before her time.
Her husband’s family had long been involved in Cheyenne Frontier Days, which led to her early work on carriages.
“Then all of a sudden we were going to have a museum, and there hadn’t been records kept on the carriages,” she said.
Officials asked her to begin research. It fit nicely with her fascination for Wyoming’s history.
Since the museum opened, it also began chronicling the history of Cheyenne Frontier Days and collecting Western art, artifacts and clothing.
The carriages are often the real draw. They mostly came from homes and ranches around Cheyenne. When the automobile replaced the wagon, most sat abandoned in barns or yards.
“In many ways, it would be like somebody had an old bus in the yard,” Kassel said. “There would be a notion it had been used for something special or a means to get from point A to B and then fewer were around.”
Once the wagons had a home protecting them from the elements, they needed people to begin repairs. In 1979, Tom Watson became involved. He fixed antique cars in his spare time, and working on wagons in need seemed like a logical transition.
The team now tries to restore one wagon per year with its dozen or so members.
“Singly, we can’t do just about anything, but together we can do everything,” Watson said. “We have guys who do upholstery, are certified welders, wheelwrights, painters, carpenters. We can pretty much make anything.”
Watson is one of the certified wheelrights – someone who can build or repair wagon wheels. He went to school for a week in Nebraska to learn the craft.
All of the wagons have needed some kind of help. They were working vehicles at one point, which means they needed everything from new upholstery to brakes to floor boards to doors. Sometimes it takes as long as two years for the team of Wagon Doctors to restore an entire wagon.
They’ve built the value of the collection from $750,000 to $1.75 million, he said.
“We did that to put wagons in the museum that didn’t look like they just came off of the ranch,” Watson said.
His favorite wagon? One that isn’t broken.