Stagecoach No. 276, the Ben Holladay, today stands immobilized — the centerpiece of the Wells Fargo Museum in Phoenix. But before reaching its home at the museum, it was in service for more than 100 years and helped make the stagecoach a symbol of Wells Fargo.
The stagecoach takes its name from Ben Holladay, a famous western stagecoach entrepreneur who operated the stage lines from Kansas to Utah and throughout the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s. In November 1866, Wells Fargo took over Holladay’s stage empire, creating its own extensive overland network of stage lines covering thousands of miles of western territory. Concord coaches, each capable of carrying nine passengers and sacks of mail and covering long distances, helped Wells Fargo serve its customers by stagecoach.
Wells Fargo purchased a number of stagecoaches from New Hampshire coach makers Abbot, Downing & Company. Workers at their Concord shops completed Coach No. 276 — later named the Ben Holladay coach — in 1868. This vehicle traveled western roads for decades, although its exact path remains unknown. In 1916, Wells Fargo & Company purchased this original coach and sent it on a nationwide tour of parades and fairs as a symbol of the company’s heritage and spirit.
Just two years later, Wells Fargo handed over its wagons, horses, and three historic stagecoaches — including the Ben Holladay — to American Railway Express when the federal government consolidated the operations of the nation’s express companies as a wartime measure in 1918. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Ben Holladay continued to make appearances in California for American Railway Express and its successor, the Railway Express Agency. In 1952, REA sold the coach to a private collector, and it gathered dust in a Sonoma County barn for the next decade.
During that time, Wells Fargo increasingly incorporated the stagecoach as part of its brand image and advertising. In 1958, the bank borrowed a stagecoach and horses to help celebrate a branch opening in Hayward, California. The stagecoach drew crowds in an era when television was rapidly growing in popularity and nearly all of the most popular shows were Westerns. A stagecoach and horses paired with the Wells Fargo name became a public relations bonanza — and it represented an authentic part of the company’s history.
Back in service
In August 1961, bank officers purchased the Ben Holladay coach for use in parades and branch openings and immediately put the veteran coach into service at events throughout northern California. A.D. “Sport” Fellingham, a local rancher, drove the coach in these appearances, including the opening of the bank’s new headquarters building in San Francisco in 1962.
By 1964, the old coach needed a complete overhaul, and for six weeks in the summer of 1964, it underwent a full restoration. A dozen experts painstakingly cleaned varnish and grime off the coach body one layer at a time, eventually uncovering its original factory paint in rich burgundy red and gold. Disassembly of metal parts revealed the mark of a Concord blacksmith named J.G. Chesley, who proudly stamped his name onto his metalwork in the 1860s. Restorers also found the number 276 stamped in the wood interior, an identification number assigned to the coach in the Abbot Downing factory. Master craftsman Dean Johnson directed the restoration project, and after repairing the wheels, roof, and leather seats, he made the coach mechanically good as new, although it retained the rich patina appropriate to its age. The Ben Holladay coach continued to shine at events and star in early advertisements and television commercials for Wells Fargo.
The Ben Holladay coach was kept on the Fellingham Ranch in California and driven by Virginia Fellingham after Sport’s death. Although the Ben Holladay was over a century old, it was still roadworthy, and it remained Fellingham’s favorite “ride” for 30 years. She handled the reins when the historic coach participated in President Richard Nixon’s inaugural parade in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 1973.
After well over a century of service, the Ben Holladay coach was retired from active use in 1992. It is now proudly displayed in the Wells Fargo Museum in Phoenix, where a new generation of fans can appreciate this symbol of Wells Fargo and icon of western history.