Every time I send an email to friends, or a manuscript via internet to my editor, I realize how very lucky I am to live in today’s world rather than in period we write about. I still can’t even imagine how so many words fly between so many people in so many countries today.
So I decided to look back on how they communicated before the railroads brought the country together. It was with a great deal of difficulty.
Mail didn’t just mean letters from home for forty niners marooned in the gold country or emigrants in the Oregon wilderness. Telegraph lines hadn’t reached them in the early 1850’s, and newspapers was the only form of communication for the westerners.
The delivery of mail was the government’s obligation but in practice much of it was contracted to private carriers. Congress would decide on a route, and the Postmaster General would choose a contractor. If the contractor failed to deliver, the contract could be annulled and the contractor’s costs never recouped. They usually went to great lengths not to let that happen, often being killed in doing so.
For instance, the first contractors for a trek of 900 miles between St, Lake City and Sacramento was a two man outfit. They decided that one would start from Sacramento and the other from Salt Lake City. But within six months one was killed by the Indians on his trek, and the other barely survived when on one trip, all the firm’s stock – 13 mules and a horse – froze to death in a single night in northern Nevada. The survivor partner and his helpers loaded the mail on their backs and slogged 200 miles through deep snow to Salt Lake City.
These conditions produced some other stalwart characters. One was Snowshoe Thompson. An express service had been inaugurated in the mining town of Placerville, California. In 1856, a severe blizzard closed the road to the hamlet of Genoa some 90 miles away. John Thompson, a Norwegian despite the name, told the Placerville postmaster he could get the mail through. No one believed him. Then he produced a pair of long skies, an item no miner had ever seen before. The postmaster was dubious but had little to lose. He agreed, and our Mr. Thompson skied 90 miles across the Sierra Mountains, navigating by the sun during the day and stars at night. He had a 75-pound sack of mail on his back and made the run in three day. He made the return trip – mostly down hill – in two days, again carrying this time a pack back.
The skiing mailman, according to Time Life’s “The Expressmen,” was mobbed by grateful miners on his return and he was given a regular run through the winter months. It was said he could outpace and out howl wolves.
And then there was an ambitious Californian named Fenton Whiting who decided to use dogs to pull sledges to transport up to 600 pounds of packages and mail to miners on each trip over the mountains during winter time. It was successful for nearly seven years until a snowshoe for horses was introduced. Then he used horses.
So there we had what was probably the first mountain skier in the west and the first working dog sled. Western ingenuity was, it seemed, was limitless.
So today, when you turn on the computer or your cell or Ipad, you might give a thought to how wondrous they truly are. I would love for Mr. Thompson or Mr. Whiting to time travel to today. Can you imagine their expressions?