The legends about the original Pony Express are legion and integral to the aura surrounding our ideas about life in the United States during the 19th Century. Most of us learned that the Pony Express was also very short-lived. We were told that the advent of telegraph service caused its end.
During the 1800s, the US was going through massive growing pains. Communication from the more established states of the eastern seaboard to the upstart territories of the West were sporadic or non-existent. Meantime, the Federal government was constitutionally charged with the responsibility of providing mail service to the nation.
After the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, vast new territories were opened up. The discovery of gold in California triggered the rapacious Forty Niners’ Gold Rush for wealth. There was suddenly a more urgent need for communication. Constitutionally mandated postal service to the West Coast was finally established in 1847.
Private contractors were hired by the government with costly subsidies. Stagecoach companies carried the mail through some of the most hostile and rugged terrain in the US territories. A simple letter usually arrived three or four weeks after it was posted. For instance, along the “easier” southern route, overland coaches left Arkansas, drove through El Paso, Texas and Arizona Territory then finally to California. Powerful private interests funneled money into Washington to maintain their government contracts on the Southern Route. Does this seem familiar?
The area from Missouri and Iowa to California and Oregon Territory was the stuff of our Western Movies. Travel through the massive wilderness inhabited by Indians, trappers, and outlaws was difficult or impossible because of the harsh weather of the Great Plains. The only alternative to overland coach service was via ships that usually took over a month to arrive.
Not only did the settlers in Oregon Territory and California demand news from business and family connections in the East, but the political situation was heating up. More indications of a possible Civil War made it imperative that the gold-rich State of California remain in contact with northern powers. If the Southern States would secede, a Civil War would make the established southern stagecoach routes inaccessible to northern interests.
A northern route was absolutely necessary to keep a link between the East and the West. Senator William Gwin of California proposed that the Federal Government provide overland mail service using a mounted horse relay. William Russell, a partner in the Russell, Majors & Waddell freight company smelled opportunity. Since the firm already shipped and provided passenger service from Missouri to Salt Lake City. Russell figured his company should provide the relay service, too. Russell, to the dismay of his partners, but with the support of Senator Gwin, committed to mail delivery via the northern route.
Deliveries were to begin in April of 1860. The service was to be simple, but not easy. The new Pony Express was structured around relays of men on horseback carrying saddlebags of mail along a trail of about 2,000 miles.
On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express officially commenced. Riders simultaneously departed from Sacramento, California and St. Joseph, Missouri. The relay from California took eleven days and twelve hours. The relay from Missouri lasted nine days and 23 hours. The route was extremely dangerous, but during the lifetime of the Pony Express, only one relay was ever lost.
Soon, the Pony Express boasted of over 100 stations, around 80 horsemen, and nearly 500 horses. The mail was relayed once each week from both directions. The initial schedule lasted only about a month because many of the facilities between Carson City, Nevada and Salt Lake City were disabled during the Paiute Indian uprising in May of 1860. After the battles came to an end in July, mail service resumed and was increased to twice per week, each way. Average delivery time from St. Joseph to San Francisco was about nine days.
One of the most noteworthy and important relays was ridden in March of 1861. Civil War was almost a bygone conclusion, and California’s loyalty to the Union was not fully assured. People on both coasts worried that the Golden State could align with the Confederacy at any time. Officials knew that the text of the new President’s Inaugural Address must reach California as soon as possible. Californians were deeply anxious about the attitude of Abraham Lincoln towards the pending national emergency.
Because of such importance, the Russell, Majors & Waddell Company made proactive preparations to expedite delivery of the Inaugural Address. Fresh relay horses were at the ready every ten miles on the route and hundreds of new riders were hired. On Inauguration Day, March 4, 1861, the entire text of Lincoln’s speech was telegraphed from Washington D.C. to the St. Joseph Pony Express office. Seven days and 17 hours later, the speech arrived at the Sacramento, California office. It was the quickest trip ever made by the riders of the Pony Express.
Even though people on the West Coast came to rely upon news relayed by the Pony Express in the early weeks of the Civil War, the company had never been a financial success. The extremely high business overhead and risks led Russell, Majors & Waddell to bankruptcy. The fiscal disaster, combined with the completion of the Pacific Telegraph line on October 24, 1861, meant the end of horse rider relays.
On October 26, 1861, Russell, Majors & Waddell officially announced that the Pony Express was to conclude operations. The company had lost $200,000 by the end of service. Russell, Majors & Waddell only grossed $90,000, which was just short of the cost of buying the horses for the company.
Even though the Pony Express was only in existence for 19 months, the drama and legends have remained almost as strong today as they were back in the heyday of the messenger service. Those young, skinny, wiry fellows atop their speeding ponies are still alive in the imagination of the American past.
The Blue Jay of Happiness relays a very short excerpt from Mark Twain’s Roughing It. “…Both rider and horse went ‘flying light.’ The rider’s dress was thin, and fitted close; he wore a ’round-about,’ and a skull-cap, and tucked his pantaloons into his boot-tops like a race-rider. He carried no arms–he carried nothing that was not absolutely necessary….”