JULY / AUG 2017: BY LILA DONOVAN
Before overnight snail mail, texting, video chats, instant messages, and phones there was the pony express. It only existed for eighteen months but it left its mark in history.
When the U.S. tried to expand the West in the mid-19th century, a need arose for reliable mail delivery. Stagecoach or steamship routes was the typical mail delivery system. This took weeks; the country needed a faster way to deliver letters. A firm invested in the Pony Express, originally named Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company. The Pony Express route was 2,000 miles with 190 stations and took about ten days.
The route started in St. Joseph, Missouri and went to Sacramento, California; from Sacramento to San Francisco by steamer. Each rider had to ride 75-100 miles, exchanged horses every 10-15 miles, and proved a well-oiled machine. The Pony Express served businesses and newspapers of the time, and records claim that during its 18 months of operation it lost only one mail bag.
Every station house had a keeper to saddle the horse for each rider and keep a verifiable record of their rider’s arrival and departure. The stations themselves were basic. Many were cabins their keeprs could not defend from invasion. Most had dirt floors and wooden crates for furniture. There was a corral and stall for horses. It provided cured meats, coffee, dried fruit, cornmeal, etc. Most of the stations weren’t built for comfort. There were a few nicer places called “home stations.” They were bigger, and could accommodate two riders, where they were better fed and got a good rest for the next day. Home stations also had horse stalls and a corral.
The rides depended where on the West you were at. On flatter parts of the United States the trail was easier and the stations further apart; in the mountains, the trail was more difficult and the stations closer.
Native Americans could attack riders between Carson City and Salt Lake City; insects, rough terrain, harsh weather, and even water could be scarce on the trail. Sometimes even station keepers and their assistants faced Native American attacks. There were peaceful tribes… and those that weren’t. The Pony Express was dangerous work and not for the faint of heart. When it first started, some of the riders carried rifles but they stopped because they were too heavy. Other riders carried pistols; some carried horns to announce their arrival to the station. Recognized for their courage, the Pony Express became heroes. Many of the riders were young boys.
Riders took a special pledge to do their job to the best of their abilities, not curse, not drink while on the job, etc. The pledge was about a paragraph long and mostly it made sense. If a rider violated the oath, the Pony Express could fire them.
Many riders took the job seriously and went on to national fame. Two of the most famous riders were William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Robert Haslam. Buffalo Bill had a continuous 22-hour ride in Wyoming from Red Butte Station to Pacific Springs. Robert Haslam traveled 360 miles in one day, replacing a rider who did not show up. Haslam carried the news of Abraham Lincoln becoming president.
The Pony Express wasn’t considered a great investment, but a financial disaster; many things led to its demise. Russell, Majors and Waddell, the company that owned the Pony Express, had lost a huge investment before the Pony Express began. Then came the Pyramid Lake War where several Native American tribes banded together in the Spring and Summer of 1860; they burned many stations to the ground, stole horses and equipment, and killed station keepers. In their defense, the tribes felt early American settlers were intruding on them. The Pony Express got caught up in the middle of the dispute.
Also, the mainstream public didn’t use the Pony Express. Originally it charged $5/ounce but even when it lowered costs to $1/ounce, most people couldn’t afford it, so businesses and newspapers used it the most. Then, one partner, Russell, got arrested in New York for stealing government bonds. The final nail on the coffin was the invention of the telegraph, the equivalent of the Victorian internet. The Pony Express delivered its remaining mail and closed for good.
Even though the Pony Express was short lived, it left its stamp on the American frontier. As Americans, we romanticize the American frontier and the Pony Express is definitely a part of that legend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lila Donovan is a Christian and a university student. She loves to read, draw, write, and has a blog.