Elegance in peril: Historic horse-drawn carriage faces decay at Curtin Village

Above: A carriage that belonged to Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin that is now displayed at Curtin Village faces an uncertain future as exposure to the elements is taking a toll. Curtin, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, rode the carriage to the Gettysburg Address.
Above: A carriage that belonged to Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin that is now displayed at Curtin Village faces an uncertain future as exposure to the elements is taking a toll. Curtin, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, rode the carriage to the Gettysburg Address. CDT photo

Inside a drafty building at historic Curtin Village stands a picture of elegance in peril.

The rare “Victoria” model horse-drawn carriage once belonged to Andrew Gregg Curtin, the governor of Pennsylvania during the Civil War and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln. Curtin also was the son of Roland Curtin, the ironmaster who founded the Eagle Ironworks in Boggs Township in the early 19th century.

Until Andrew Curtin’s death in 1894, the carriage carried him around his hometown of Bellefonte. Today, it rests among tools and artifacts from the village’s 19th-century heyday in the charging house, where charcoal fires stoked the iron production for a century.

If nothing changes, the house could be the carriage’s final resting place.

Light streams through gaps between planks in the barn-like walls enclosing the unheated interior. Blowing rain and snow can easily follow suit. Dust and mildew have free reign.

“It’s open to everything,” said John Romani, the village’s tour guide who lives on the property. “The only thing different from being outside is it has a roof.”

Though the restored carriage’s painted chassis, brass fixtures, upholstered seats and spoked wheels appear sound, mold is spreading across the leather canopy — one sign that the rustic surroundings may be taking a toll.

‘Not the best place for it’

Gloria Briggs knows the setting is far from ideal.

She’s the director of the Roland Curtin Foundation, which manages the state-owned historical site and co-owns the carriage along with Bellefonte Victorian Christmas. The carriage should be displayed somewhere more protected and climate-controlled, Briggs said, but the cash-strapped village can’t manage that.

“It’s not the correct place for it to be,” Briggs said. “Birds get in there. It’s not the best place for it, but it’s the only place we have.”

In the early 1980s, the foundation received the carriage from Hugh “Bud” Curtin, the great-grandson of Roland Curtin. Partially intact after moldering for decades on the village property, its riding days were decades behind it.

“It was in pretty bad shape,” Briggs said.

Joining with Bellefonte Victorian Christmas to split the costs, the foundation looked in Lancaster and elsewhere for an Amish restorer, a natural choice. They settled on a local craftsman with the last name of Glick, each contributing $2,500 to the project.

By 1986, Glick had replaced the upholstery, canopy, wheels and other authentic, period-correct parts to bring the carriage back to life.

“It took quite a while, probably over a year, because he had a difficult time finding the right parts,” Briggs said.

Early on, the carriage provided festive holiday rides during one Bellefonte Victorian Christmas. But concerns over the carriage’s sturdiness ended its brief renaissance, and from then on, it stayed in the village.

Other than during a commemorative day at the village years ago — when the carriage was rolled out on the grounds to accompany “Andrew Curtin” played by one of his descendants — it hasn’t left the confines of the charging house.

‘It’s not only historic, it’s rare’

It’s not clear how distinctive the carriage is.

Briggs said the foundation has never had the carriage formally assessed. From their research, Romani and his wife believe the Smithsonian Institution owns an identical model used by the White House during three presidential administrations for official processions. They also claim only a few examples are left.

A cursory Internet search yields a 1932 photo taken in the Smithsonian of a carriage that resembles the Curtin Village antique. The caption merely states that the carriage, displayed with a sign identifying it as a “Victoria,” was the last one at the White House.

What’s more certain is that the carriage needs a better home.

A museum might be the ideal solution, but Briggs said the foundation and Victorian Christmas aren’t shopping the carriage around.

“I think because it was Andrew Gregg Curtin’s, it would be appropriate that it would be in the Curtin area or Bellefonte,” Briggs said. “I don’t think it should be sold out of the area.”

Where it could go remains the big question. The renovated Match Factory in Bellefonte was suggested years ago, but nothing came of it. Briggs has heard interest in relocating the carriage to the now-vacant Bellefonte Armory, though so far, it’s gone no further than talk.

In the meantime, a beauty languishes in winter’s gloom. Romani said the carriage is a highlight of summer and fall tours during the village’s season, but he’s not sure how many more years it can survive in its current state.

“It’s not only historic, it’s rare,” he said. “Having it up here makes me nervous.”