“In mid-century America, communication between St. Joseph, on the fringe of western settlement, and gold mining communities of California challenged the bold and made skeptical the timid. Into this picture rode the Pony Express. In rain and in snow, in sleet and in hail over moonlit prairie, down tortuous mountain path . . . pounding pony feet knitted together the ragged edges of a rising nation.”
— Frank S. Popplewell
The Pony Express was the first “express” mail line across the United States. The outfit actually began as a “publicity stunt,” in hopes of winning a million dollar government mail contract for the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, a freight and stage organization. Owned by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, the Pony Express became a subsidiary of the larger Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company. Prior to the Pony Express, the freight and stage company held government contracts for army supply delivery, employing 4,000 men, and owning 3,500 wagons and 40,000 oxen. Envisioning a similar contract for fast mail delivery, the Pony Express was born.
The first successful Pony Express run, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California took place on April 3, 1860, when a lone rider on a bay mare galloped from Pike’s Peak Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri, thus inaugurating the famous Pony Express.
Before the advent of the Pony Express, the railroads and telegraph lines extended no further west than St. Joseph, Missouri and mail traveled west by stagecoach and wagons, a trip that could take months, if it arrived at all. The Pony Express alleviated this problem with riders who could dramatically reduce the amount of time it took for the mail to be delivered. But, it was a dangerous job, fraught with Indian attacks, rough terrain and severe weather.
Between the Missouri River and the Pacific coast, the Pony Express carried mail rapidly overland on horseback for nearly 2000 miles. The cost of the mail was at first $5 per ½ ounce, but was later reduced to $1 per ½ ounce. Closely following the Oregon-California Trail, the path diverted south of the Great Salt Lake and headed west across the Sierra Nevada Mountains to save over 100 miles.
Passing through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, the schedule allowed ten days for the trip across plains, deserts, and mountains. The mail was then carried by boat to San Francisco. Though the schedule allowed for ten days, most trips were usually made in eight or nine days, the quickest run occurring in seven days and 17 hours when riders were carrying President Lincoln’s Inaugural Address. Though the average ten days was approximately 12-14 days shorter than the time required by the Overland Mail Company, the million dollar government contract was awarded to the other carrier. However, due to the success of the Pony Express, the government insisted in 1861 that the Overland Mail Company move its route from its southern Butterfield Route to the Central Route.
Pony Express riders were usually lightweight young men, often teenagers. For this reason, an 1860 Pony Express advertisement in California read: “Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Most of the riders were around 20, but there was one by the name of Bronco Charlie Miller who was only 11 and the oldest rider was in his mid-40’s. Most weighed an average of 120 pounds. The Pony Pony Express’ most famous rider was Buffalo Bill Cody. One Hundred, eighty-three men rode for the Pony Express, each receiving $100 per month in pay.
However, before they would be hired, they were required to make this oath to owner and religious man, Alexander Majors:
“While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.”
Riding in a relay fashion, each rider averaged 10 miles per hour, covering about 75-100 miles before another rider took his place on the route.
Pony Express stations, which eventually numbered somewhere between 150-190, were originally established about 25 miles apart, then increased in number to allow for fresh horses at intervals of 10 to 15 miles. The Pony Express owned about 400 Mustang and Morgan horses, on which the riders traveled.
Special saddle bags that could be moved to a fresh horse very quickly at a change station were used. The rider changed to a fresh horse at each station, taking only the mail pouch (called a mochila) with him. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse, allowing for a total of 165 pounds on the horse’s back. Riders were changed about every 100 miles.
Amazingly, these young riders carried approximately 35,000 pieces of mail over more than 650,000 miles during the time the Pony Express existed. Further, only one rider lost his life when he was killed by hostile Indians, and only one sack of mail was lost during this time.
The Pony Express is credited with helping to keep California in the Union by providing rapid communication between the two coasts. News of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the United States presidency in 1860 and of the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 reached California via the Pony Express.
While the Pony Express dramatically improved the communication between the east and west, it was a financial disaster for its owners. Hoping to gain the million dollar government mail contract, the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company spent about $700,000 on the project, losing about $200,000 of their investment. After the Pacific Telegraph Company completed its line to San Francisco in October, 1861, the company declared bankruptcy and closed down.
Ben Holladay, then owner of the Overland Mail Company who had been awarded the million dollar government contract, acquired the Pony Express through foreclosure on March 21, 1862. Four years later he sold out to Wells Fargo for $2,000,000.
The Pony Express marked the highest development in overland travel prior to the coming of the transcontinental railroad, which it preceded by nine years. It, in fact, proved the feasibility of a transcontinental road and demonstrated that such a line could be built and operated continuously the year around – a feat that had previously been regarded as impossible.