In 1858, William H. Russell of the famous transportation firm Majors, Russell and Waddell conceived the idea of a line of daily coaches on the Smoky Hill Trail between Leavenworth, Kansas, on the Missouri River and Denver, Colorado. However, his partners thought the idea fool-hardy and refused to go in with him. Russell persevered, however, and soon took on partners John S. Jones and Luther Smoot to develop the 687-mile line to the Colorado goldfields. The company was incorporated in February 1859, and the first stage of the newly formed Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express reached Denver on May 17, 1859.
The route followed the military road to Fort Riley, Kansas, before angling northwest to the Republican River near present-day Benkelman, Nebraska, through areas lacking wood or water. The stage line cost the passenger $125 and stopped at some 25 stations, which were located about every 25 miles. When noted newspaperman Horace Greeley took the stagecoach line to Denver and stopped at the temporary tent station on June 2, 1859, he wrote:
“I would match this station and its surroundings against any other scene on our continent for desolation.”
As Russell’s original partners in the firm of Majors, Russell, and Waddell, suspected, the project proved to be premature. It was fraught with financial difficulties and Indian attacks from the beginning. After just 90 days of operation, Majors, Russell, and Waddell transferred Russell’s equipment to their regular stage line on the Platte River in Nebraska and abandoned the other stations. Later, when the firm acquired George Chorpenning’s contract for mail service from Utah to California in May 1860, the former Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company was reorganized as the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express, the parent company of the Pony Express.