The Pony Express

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“Wanted, young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferrpony-express-want-aded. 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.

firstrideponyexpress-600The 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.pony20express

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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Written by Tracy Garrett

History, Texas, cowboys, horses—these are a few of Tracy’s favorite things. Check out her westerns at www.TracyGarrett.com.

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17 Comments on “The Pony Express”

  1. Melinda Elmore says:

    Tracy,

    I loved this post. I am excited over the link to the Pony Express. I will definitely check it out

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  2. Tracy Garrett says:

    Good morning Melinda! Looks like its just you and me avoiding the “Black Friday” madness. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    The museum in St. Jo is really good. They’ve taken a lot of care with it. And I love walking into an old building – I’d swear I can feel the ghosts of the previous inhabitants hanging around to give me a tour. :D

  3. Jennie Marsland says:

    Great post, Tracy. I wonder how long the Pony Express would have continued operations if the telegraph hadn’t made it obsolete.Thanks for a bit of colorful history, and hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

  4. Tracy Garrett says:

    Hi Jennie! That’s a great question. As successful as it was in fulfilling its “mission” I would think it would have gone on for quite some time–but who knows.

    I had a great Tgiving. Hope you did, too.

  5. Linda Broday says:

    Tracy, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Did you do the Black Friday shopping spree? Not me. I slept in. Besides I hate crowds. If I could do all my shopping online I’d be perfectly happy.

    What a neat subject for your blog. Those Pony Express riders sure knew how to move the mail! Just astounding. And I’m sure they’d beat today’s Priority Mail service. Just wish they could’ve had a longer lifespan. Eighteen months in operation was really short. Wonder what those guys did when they found themselves without a job.

  6. Addison Fox says:

    Tracy:

    What an awesome post! (or Pony Post, shall I call it?) :-)

    It never ceases to amaze me what an awesome, vast history we’ve created over the last several centuries.

    Addison

  7. Tracy Garrett says:

    Mornin’ Linda. I don’t do crowds, especially in a shopping mall. lol I also slept in. It was wonderfully decadent.

    One of the riders went on to be famous – William “Wild Bill” Cody. Others, from what I’ve been able to discover, went to work for the Army, because scouts and guides, or returned to their previous lives as farmers, cowhands, etc. If you want to see the list of riders, go to xphomestation.com/frm-riders.html. These site owners have done a tremendous amount of research on the Express.

  8. Tracy Garrett says:

    Hello Addison! Thanks for dropping in. I hope Thanksgiving with your family was most enjoyable.

    I think that’s what draws me to writing historicals – the truly interesting real-life events we can draw from.

  9. Kathleen says:

    Hi Tracy,
    I’m across the state of MO in St. Louis but have never been to St. Joseph. I will definitely keep it in mind for a fun weekend getaway!

  10. jeanne sheats says:

    Oh, my goodness – what a horrible want ad lol.

  11. Tracy Garrett says:

    Kathleen, it’s worth the trip. And not all that far away.

    Jeanne, the historians mostly agree it is a hoax, but it was too good not to include. I think it sums up exactly what the riders were getting themselves into.

  12. Estella says:

    Thanks for the history of the Pony Express. I have learned a lot about the Old West on this blog.

  13. Patricia Barraclough says:

    Thank you for a very interesting post. I didn’t realize the Pony Express was so short lived. I also didn’t realize that it wasn’t Post Office related. A big thank you for a heads up on the 150th anniversary of the first ride. Will have to check into that and see if we can work a trip into that somehow.

    Hope you had a great Thanksgiving. With everyones schedules in our family, it looks like we’ll be celebrating the Sunday after this coming one. The turkey will taste just as good and we won’t have to worry about the heavy traffic on the road.

  14. Tracy Garrett says:

    Hi Estella. I’m glad you enjoy our posts!

  15. Tracy Garrett says:

    Patricia, I didn’t realize they weren’t part of the Post Office either – especially since the P.O. used the Pony Express emblem for so many years.

    You’re right, it doesn’t matter when we celebrate, just that we get the family together. Enjoy yours!

  16. Cheryl St.John says:

    I didn’t know a lot of this! Great post.

  17. Petticoats & Pistols » St Joseph, Missouri ~ Stepping Off Spot for the West says:

    [...] you read my blog on 11/27/09, you already know St. Joseph was the starting point of The Pony Express in 1860. And in 1887, St. Joseph became only the second city in the U.S.–after Richmond, [...]