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Duquesne Students Trace Historic Hoof Prints of Pony Express

Film Premieres in Advance of 150th Anniversary of Rugged Mail System

The romance of the Pony Express, which marks its 150th anniversary this year, and the wide-open spaces of the West has been captured in a new documentary produced by students in the journalism and multimedia arts program at Duquesne University. The 70-minute film will premiere in Duquesne’s Power Center Ballroom on Monday, March 15, at 4:30 p.m., followed by a reception.A crew of 10 Duquesne students, faculty and alumni followed in the hoof prints of Pony Express riders, who provided a speedy—and dangerous—way to move mail across the country from April 1860 to October 1861. The record Pony Express time from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., 7 days and 17 hours, provides the title for the documentary.

“We decided to take our modern horses and pace ourselves with that time,” said James Vota, the journalism and multimedia arts instructor who facilitated the project.

The crew began at the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph and followed the route as closely as possible, visiting station houses that once kept a change of horses for the riders.

“The Pony Express Trail is mostly unpaved and unbelievably remote. We wanted to see the scenery and appreciate what these people did,” Vota said. “Even though the Pony Express ran for a very short time, it was part of the American experiment.”

Following what he describes as “a track in the Earth,” the crew felt an emotional wrenching at leaving Fort Laramie, Wyo., the last Western safe haven for riders. “After that, they were on their own. The students and I felt this; even today, it’s an incredibly remote area. You don’t see anything or anybody. All we had to tell us we were on track was a GPS line. The desert river basins would go on for hours and hours—and that was at 50 miles an hour.  So that was challenging, even in modern day.”

In the middle of Utah, student Joe Ball stopped to reflect amid the sage brush with his camera in hand. “I imagined what it must have been like to be a rider of the Pony Express in this exact spot, 150 years prior,” Ball said. “It was quite possible that no man stood in that spot, 100 feet off of the trail, in the hot Utah desert, since the days of stage coaches and horsemen. On the trip, our group had motor vehicles, four-wheel drive, motorcycles with off-road tires, GPS devices, air-conditioning, freeze dried food, as well as high tech camping equipment. The brave riders only had their horse, mail, a water sack, a revolver and the fear that they would get attacked by the Native Americans. They traveled many miles on their horses in solitude without a well-defined trail, using scattered landmarks to guide them to their next destination. They were heroes of the American Wild West, helping to defining our history one day at a time.”

For Ball and other students, the trip provided an experiential learning environment and real-life deadlines, Vota observed. “It’s not just a class assignment or projects, but something for the public, and beyond the normal subject matter of a university,” Vota said.

This project received funding from The Wimmer Foundation, along with support from private supporters, including Wolfman Luggage USA and Aerostich/Rider Wearhouse, both makers of specialty motorcycle gear. This is the second documentary produced by Vota and ALT Projects group. Last year’s Telly Award-winning documentary focused on national parks, wildlife refuges and American Indian reservations, and included special reports from Nick Sinagra, then a graduate assistant, who documented his perspective of the trip as a person with disabilities.

More information on the trips is available at www.jma.duq.edu/alt.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.