While we were in St. Joseph, MO, we toured the Pony Express Museum. (I’m sure you know why I was interested in it!)
“The mail must go. Hurled by flesh and blood across 2,000 miles of desolate space—Fort Kearney, Laramie, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City. Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains and Indians, burning sands or snow must stop the precious bags. The mail must go.” –M. Jeff Thompson, Mayor of St. Joseph, Missouri, April 3 1860, before the inaugural ride of the Pony Express.
The Pony Express was founded because of the need for faster communication with the West and the looming Civil War. On April 3, 1860, riders left simultaneously from St. Joseph and Sacramento, CA, carrying specialized saddlebags, called mochilas, filled with mail. The first westbound trip took 9 days and 23 hours, and the eastbound journey took 11 days and 12 hours. The riders covered approximately 250 miles in a 24-hour day. A letter cost $5 per half-ounce to mail (approximately $95 today!) and a rider could carry only about 20 pounds per ride.
Riders had to be light (under 125 pounds), tough and most of them were age 20 or younger. Riders included many “colorful characters,” like 15-year-old William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Even though it was called the “Pony” Express, Mustangs, Morgans, Pintos and Thoroughbreds were chosen for use.
"Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." A (probably apocryphal) ad in a California newspaper.
Pony Express service lasted only 19 months, until Oct. 24, 1861 when the Pacific Telegraph line was completed and the Express was no longer needed. The Pony Express eventually had more than 100 stations, 80 riders and between 400 and 500 horses. Despite the hazards of the route such as Indians, extreme weather conditions and wild animals, only one mail delivery was ever lost and one rider killed.
“It was not until December 1860, that I had an opportunity to ride. The boys were dropping out pretty fast. Some of them could not stand the strain of the constant riding. It was not so bad in summer, but when winter came on, the job was too much for them… My first ride was in a heavy snow storm, and it pretty nearly used me up.”—William Campbell, Pony Express rider.
“There were about eighty pony riders in the saddle all the time, night and day, stretching in a long, scattering procession from Missouri to California, forty flying eastward, and forty toward the west, and among them making four hundred gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and see a deal of scenery every single day of the year.”—Mark Twain, Roughing It
Despite the romance of the idea of the Pony Express and its usefulness to those relying upon its news, it was not profitable and led its founders to bankruptcy.
Original Pony Express desk
The Pony Express is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. For more information, go to www.ponyexpress.org.