“Wanted, young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week.”
On April 3, 1860, the citizens of St. Joseph, Missouri, knowing something big was about to happen, gathered just after dark to witness an event never before attempted.
Major M. Jeff Thompson, who would soon leave St. Joseph to make a name for himself as a Confederate General, initiated the Pony Express with the following words:
“This is a great day in the history of St. Joseph. For more than a decade she has been the portal through which passed the wagon trains for the great west… Now she is to become the connecting link between the extremes of the continents… For the first time in the history of America, mail will go by an overland route from east to west… Citizens of St. Joseph, I bid you three cheers for the Pony Express – three cheers for the first overland passage of the United States Mail.”
With that, the first rider, either Johnny Fry or Billie Richardson–historians can’t agree on which–galloped out of the barn and into history.
The first westbound trip was made in 9 days and 23 hours. A rider left simultaneously from Sacramento, California, and made the eastbound journey in 11 days and 12 hours. On average, the pony riders covered 250 miles in a 24-hour day.
The route of the Pony Express was 1840 miles of brutal riding: west out of St. Joseph, following the Oregon Trail through Kansas, up the Little Blue River to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, along the Platte River to Fort Laramie, Wyoming; then the Sweetwater River to Fort Caspar, Wyoming, through South Pass to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on to Salt Lake City; across the Great Basin and Utah-Nevada Desert, skirting Lake Tahoe; then over the Sierra Nevada mountains into Sacramento, California.
Riding day and night, the Pony Express delivered the mail in less than 10 days. [The westbound trip took 11 ½ days-don’t ask me why.]
But that wasn’t the end of the line. Upon arrival in Sacramento, the mail was placed on a steamer and continued down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. In all, the mail traveled 1966 miles.
Delivery of the print version of Lincoln’s inaugural address set a new record for delivery, crossing the west in slightly less than eight days.
The Pony Express service lasted only 18 months, ending on October 24, 1861, when the completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for its existence. But in that time, the less than 100 riders covered 650,000 miles on horseback and rode into a permanent place in the history of the American West. Though the route was extremely hazardous, only one carrier was killed and one bag of mail lost.
Exciting as it was, the Pony Express was a financial bust. And it was never a part of the U.S. Postal service, although the galloping Pony Express rider was the official symbol on every letter carrier’s shoulder until the invention of Mr. Zip.
The most significant accomplishment of the Pony Express, besides keeping families in touch, was helping hold California – and its gold – for the Union at the start of the Civil War.
The Express was started by businessmen William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell, and Alexander Majors, who were already in the freighting business and held government contracts for delivering army supplies in the West. Russell envisioned a similar contract for fast mail delivery. That contract never came about.
According to the Pony Express Museum website [ponyexpress.org], Russell, Majors and Waddell lost $500,000 on the Pony Express. Eventually, entrepreneur Ben Holladay bought what remained of the Pony Express and merged it with his Central Overland Stage Lines.
If you’re ever in St. Joseph, Missouri, just a few minutes north of Kansas City, stop in at the Pony Express Museum. St. Joseph was the terminus for the westbound trains, and the launching point of the Pony Express. The original structure used by The Pony Express, Pikes Peak Stables, still stands at 9th & Penn.
Within its walls you can hear a recreation of the countdown and release of the very first rider, complete with the cheers of the assembled crowd. You can wander through exhibits showing the gear a rider carried and the route they took. They have several original saddles on display, and even a typical Pony Express “station” – which was nothing more than a 10-foot by 8-foot log cabin with an open fireplace.
The museum also houses displays of period settlers’ wagons and other historical memorabilia. All in all, a nice way to spend an afternoon.
And if you want to relive the experience, April 3, 2010 is the 150th Anniversary of the first ride. Check out the celebration plans on ponyexpress.org.
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