Since 1965 the landmark has been a Western history museum.
Is St. Joseph, Missouri, better known as the jumping-off point for the captivating if short-lived Pony Express or as the community where Robert Ford pulled a gun behind Jesse James’ back and fatally shot the infamous outlaw? There’s no need to choose. An interest in either monumental Western historic moment (well, Jesse did die in a flash, while the Pony had 18 months’ worth of moments) warrants a visit to the Patee House Museum. The Jesse James Home now rests on museum grounds.
The museum management favors the Pony, but that’s understandable. The nonprofit Pony Express Historical Association owns and operates both the old hotel and the old house. The official line reads: “Our primary objective is to put across the message that Patee House Museum served as the Pony Express headquarters from 1860 to 1861. That is the most important role in history the building has played.”
The Pony Express, sponsored by the freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell and inaugurated on April 3, 1860, operated between St. Joseph and Sacramento, Calif. The nearly 2,000-mile trip usually took 10 or 12 days, and riders traveled both ways, so St. Joseph was sometimes the end of the trail. It was an exciting run while it lasted, but financial troubles and completion of the transcontinental telegraph brought the operation to its knees in October 1861.
These days riders stage an annual Pony Express rerun in late June. The Patee House Museum serves as either the starting or stopping point for the 10-day, round-the-clock commemoration of the horseback letter carriers. Last June more than 550 riders of the National Pony Express Association helped carry commemorative letters in a traditional mochila. They started in Sacramento on the 18th and, 1,966 miles later, reached the Patee House on the 28th.
In 1858 entrepreneur John Patee (pronounced Pay-tee) spent $180,000 to build the 140-room, four-story luxury hotel. He operated it as such until 1865, when it served a three-year stint as a women’s college. Hotel Patee House was back in business from 1869 to 1872. After that, the brick building housed a number of ventures, including a women’s college again, a hotel for the third time (with an epileptic sanitarium on the top floor) and a shirt factory for 80 years. Since St. Joseph was also a “last chance” supply stop for many westbound pioneers, some of the better-off emigrants enjoyed the Patee House beds before pushing onward.
On April 3, 1882, when Bob Ford shot Jesse in his home on a hill about two blocks away (at 1318 Lafayette), Patee House was called the World’s Hotel. Zee James and her two children, Jesse Edwards and Mary Susan, stayed there briefly after the assassination. Meanwhile, the house on the hill where Ford made his kill became an instant tourist attraction. In 1939 the house was moved to the Belt Highway in St. Joseph to draw more tourists. In 1977 Mr. and Mrs. Robert Keatley bought the James Home and donated it to the Pony Express Historical Association. The house returned home, so to speak, or at least to the old neighborhood.
Today the Jesse James Home presents information on the outlaw and the 1995 exhumation of his body. The Patee House Museum features the restored Pony Express headquarters, the 1854 Buffalo Saloon (don’t count on anything stronger than sarsaparilla), a re-created St. Jo street, the last Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad steam locomotive at rest beside the 1878 railroad depot from Union Star, Mo., and Western art. For a moving experience, kids of all ages can ride the Pony Express horse on the Wild Thing Carousel.
The Patee House Museum, at 12th and Penn streets, is open April through October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. It also opens on weekends November through March. For more info, call 816-232-8206, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.stjoseph .net/ponyexpress.Visitors seeking even more interaction can also visit the Pony Express Museum, 914 Penn St. (see www.ponyexpress.com or call 816-232-8206). The 150th anniversary of the Pony Express arrives in April 2010.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.