150 Years Later, Pony Express Rides On In Legend

Pony Express Stamp i i

A stamp from a piece of mail delivered by the Pony Express. In the early days of the enterprise, it cost almost $100 in today's dollars to mail a letter across the country. Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Wikimedia Commons
Pony Express Stamp

A stamp from a piece of mail delivered by the Pony Express. In the early days of the enterprise, it cost almost $100 in today's dollars to mail a letter across the country.

Wikimedia Commons

The Pony Express dispatched its first rider from St. Joseph, Mo., on April 3, 1860. It was an all-out, high-speed information delivery service that traversed nearly 2,000 miles of open, desolate and hostile land.

The goal was to bring faster mail service to California. As a business proposition, it was a total failure. The service was expensive — $5 a letter (more than $100 by today's standards). But as a Western legend, the Pony Express has been going strong for 150 years.

Delivering The News And Mail Faster

In 1860, the American West was booming, and the East was boiling. Civil war was at hand. A vast wilderness and high mountains blocked the rich West from the rest of the country.

Rail and telegraph lines stopped in St. Joseph. It took a month for news reports and government dispatches to cross that information abyss by stagecoach, says Cindy Daffron, director of the Pony Express National Museum.

"This is what people [in the West] didn't like — they were living out there with money," says Daffron. "The fastest means was four weeks, so the idea became, 'How do we do it faster?'"

A stagecoach line ran through the country to the south, but that territory was increasingly hostile to the Union. A shorter but rougher trail took a northerly route over the mountains.

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    One of several conflicting accounts attributes the idea for the Pony Express to Sen. William McKendree Gwin of California. Riding horseback from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in 1854, he realized the importance of better cross-country communications.
    Keystone/Getty Images
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    William H. Russell is credited with making the Pony Express popular and blamed for contributing to its downfall with bad investments.
    Courtesy of the Pony Express National Museum
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    The route was 1,966 miles long — from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento, Calif., on horseback and then to San Francisco by steamer. Each rider would cover a 75- to 100-mile stretch and change horses about every 10 miles. Along the route, 400 to 500 horses were used.
    Wikimedia Commons via the National Park Services
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    The Express, operated by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Co., sent its first riders from St. Joseph, Mo., and San Francisco on April 3, 1860. The first Missouri-San Francisco trip took 11 days and 75 ponies.
    Three Lions/Getty Images
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    A postmarked envelope from the Central Overland Pony Express Company from January 1861. The original cost to send a letter via the Pony Express was $5 in gold per ounce of mail. Prices later dropped, and a 10-page letter could be sent for about $2.50.
    AP/Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Inc.
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    This ad for riders is probably not genuine, likely created years after the Express stopped. Records do indicate that some 200 men were employed by the Pony Express as station keepers, and 80 men were hired as riders.
    Courtesy of the Pony Express National Museum
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    Pony Express riders like this one were often glorified as adventurous and rugged. Mark Twain famously described the horse and Pony Express rider in his book Roughing It. "HERE HE COMES," Twain wrote. "Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves."
    Wikimedia Commons
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    A photo of a Frederic Remington painting, entitled "The Coming and Going of the Pony Express," which depicts the mail relay at a Pony Express station. It is thought that riders were paid anywhere from $50 to $150 a month.
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    The Diamond Springs Pony Express Station in Nevada. The Express route was divided between main stations in St. Joseph, Mo.; Ft. Kearney, Neb.; Horseshoe Creek Station, Wyo.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Roberts Creek, Nev.; and San Francisco. About 165 stations made up the entire route, and depending on the terrain, stations were spaced 10 to 25 miles apart.
    Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society, Reno, Nev.
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    On Oct. 26, 1861, the Pony Express was officially discontinued after a little less than 19 months of operation. Having survived poor business decisions, inclement weather and skirmishes with American Indians, the Express met its downfall with the advent of the telegraph, as depicted in this painting.
    Courtesy of the Pony Express National Museum

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Historian Gerry Chilcote says a struggling freight company called Russell, Majors and Waddell was already using it. "And so they came up with the idea of, 'why not carry the mail and get a government contract?'" says Chilcote.

Riders galloping 24/7 and relaying a mail bag from horse to horse and man to man could cover the distance in 10 days. The first Pony Express rider arrived in Sacramento, Calif., on April 13, 1860, and received quite a reception.

"Banners were hung across the street," says Joe Nardone, master historian for the Pony Express Trail Association. "It was lined — people were cheering."

Nardone is also among the modern Pony Express enthusiasts who re-enact the ride every year.

Legendary Folklore

Back in 1860, riding for the Pony Express was difficult work — riders had to be tough and lightweight. There's a famous advertisement that reportedly read: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

But like a lot of things associated with the Pony Express, that ad may be just another tall tale that grew out of an absence of hard information. Even the name of the first rider is disputed.

"This is a company that kept no records whatsoever," says Chilcote, "They didn't know who the riders were two years afterwards, so a lot of this is 'fakelore,' we call it."

Today you can drive much of the route the Pony Express followed, but aside from a couple of old station buildings and markers, there isn't much to see. The legend of the Pony Express, though, is still going strong.

Author Christopher Corbett wrote the book Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express. He says there's a good reason the mail service is still remembered today.

"It doesn't have the baggage of the slaughter of buffalo and the decimation of Indians," says Corbett. "I think that's part of its appeal."

Corbett says Buffalo Bill's Wild West show probably did the most to keep the legend of the Pony Express alive. He says the show, which toured the world, always included the Pony Express in its productions.

Nearly all portrayals of the Pony Express stretch the truth, Corbett says. Lucky for his research, some of the original riders were asked about their experience before they died.

Buffalo Bill i i

"Buffalo Bill" Cody probably did the most to keep the legend of the Pony Express alive, says historian Christopher Corbett. Cody included the Pony Express in his popular Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Buffalo Bill

"Buffalo Bill" Cody probably did the most to keep the legend of the Pony Express alive, says historian Christopher Corbett. Cody included the Pony Express in his popular Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"They remembered not outrunning outlaws and Indians — you know those kind of popular images that we would have," says Corbett. "They remembered how cold it was, and they remembered how dangerous it was if you got off the trail at night in winter."

And Corbett says some riders remembered not getting paid because the Pony Express never made a profit. It operated for only about 19 months. The transcontinental telegraph put it out of business in short order.

'Thou Hast Run Thy Race'

These days, the U.S. Postal Service owns the Pony Express trademark, which may seem fitting, considering the current financial problems the agency is having.

Still, the U.S. Postal Service celebrates the history of the Pony Express, despite its short life.

"It's a legend, and I think deservedly so," says Postal Service historian Meg Ausman. "Because something is successful in its own time and not successful forever, I don't think that diminishes the importance of it at that time."

The Sacramento Bee newspaper certainly took the demise of Pony Express seriously. It published a front-page editorial in the fall of 1861 that offered these words of praise:

"Nothing that has blood and sinews was able to overcome your energy and ardor; but a senseless, soulless thing that eats not, sleeps not, tires not. ... Rest, then, in peace, for thou hast run thy race, thou hast followed thy course, thou hast done the work that was given thee to do."

— Written by Jeff Brady



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