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The Pony Express

byTodd Underwood

The Pony Express was one of the most legendary of the frontier trails in the American West. It signified that mans need to communicate with his fellow man should supercede nearly all else, including his own safety. While not the first mail route or mail business to cross into the west, it was certainly the most famous.

Frank E. Webner, pony express rider," Ca. 1861.

Prior to the Pony Express, mail was transported over a 2,800 mile southern route which often took months to complete. Sometimes the mail never even arrived. The Civil war was threatening to close down the southern route and northern politicians and statesman were anxious to find a more northerly route to get the mail to and from the west. California Senator William Gwin and one Benjamin F. Ficklin had traveled a route that they saw fit for transporting the mail. An enterprising freighter by the name of William H. Russell saw the opportunity and immediate began work on the logistics of what would become the Pony Express.

The United States government then issued a contract (later to be worth one million dollars) to the firm that could provide mail service along this route. William Russell and his company set out to win that contract. Russell and his partners started a new firm called the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Company to handle the mail service along the new 1,996 mile route.

This new route ran through parts of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Its point of origin was St. Joseph, Missouri, which was the western most point in the United States serviced by the railroads at the time. The route traveled over what was dry, dusty salty deserts in the summer and snow filled icy death traps in the winter.

Russell began advertising for riders to employ in bringing the mail along this route. His ad read, "Wanted: Young, Skinny, Wiry Fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Most of the young riders wound up being about 20 years of age. The youngest, Bronco Charlie, was only 11 and the oldest was in his mid 40's. A book entitled, "Tales of Bronco Charlie" provides addition fascinating reading on this ride who was also once part of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Show. The average weight of the riders was 120 pounds. There were eventually 183 men known to have ridden for the Pony Express.

April 3, 1860 was the date of the first ride. The St. Joseph Dail Gazette's Pony Express Edition declared it would "forward, by the first Pony Express, the first and only newspaper which goes out, and which will be the first paper ever transmitted from the Missouri to California in eight days." At 7 P.M. that evening the first westbound rider, Johnny Fry, and the first eastbound rider, Billy Hamilton, were underway.

The eastbound mail reached St. Joseph, Missouri on the scheduled day, April 13th. The Weekly West, a newspaper in St. Joseph, Missouri printed this upon arrival of the first Pony Express:

The first through messenger on the Pony Express from San Francisco, which place it left on the 3d, reached this city about 4 o'clock last evening, bringing dates from the principal Pacific cities, ten days later, and to the 7th from Salt Lake City. The courier left San Francisco at 4 P. M. of the 3d; Sacramento 4 A. M. of the 4th; Placerville 6:50 A. M.; Carson City 10:10 P. M., reaching Salt Lake City on the 7th, which place he left at 12:10 of that day. The number of letters brought through was eighty-five. The complete success which was attended the first trip on this great overland route is due in no small degree to the efforts of Ben. Ficklin, the efficient superintendent, who has been over the route and has the general management of the enterprise.

The westbound mail reached its destination, San Francisco, California, one day late on the 14th of April about 1 A.M. Along the last parts of the route were bands, banners and crowds cheering and greeting the rider.

From that first trek on, riders rode once a week from April 3 to mid-June making the trip both west and eastbound. Then from mid-June to late October 1861, the adventurous souls made the journey two times per week. The average trip length in the summer was 10 days, and in the winter 12-16 days. Most riders averaged about 10 miles per hour getting a fresh horse from the Pony Express' stock of 400 every 10-15 miles at one of the 165 stage stations along the way. Riders would average about 75 to 100 miles before they were too weary too continue. Then they would return to their station of origin the next day. The longest ride by ponyman Bob Haslam was an incredible 380 miles over terrain that is in present day Nevada. The shortest trip was 7 days and 17 hours.

Weight soon became an issue as more people were using the mail service and riders needed to be "light and airy." The price per 1/2 ounce was $5.00. This lead to newspapers and mail being written on the lightest paper possible. Mark Twain once remarked of the Pony Express rider from his stagecoach, "heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows." Riders earned $25 a week plus room and board. They were issued a pair of revolvers, a rifle and a knife for self defense but many riders rode with no firearm at all to save weight. Each rider carried 20 pounds of mail and 25 pounds of equipment.

Riding for the Pony Express was a dangerous job. No one has an exact amount of riders that lost their life while delivering the mail, but there are stories. One riderís horse arrived in the summer at a Nevada station with its rider presumed dead. Another got lost and froze to death. Still another was killed when his horse stumbled over an ox in the road. On Bob Haslam's famous 380 mile trip, he found one station master dead and persuaded the next one to come along with him. Upon return, they found the second station burned to the ground by Indians.

The completion of the overland telegraph system on October 26, 1861 spelled the end of the Pony Express. The last run was made in late October 1861. With the ability to send instant telegraphs, the importance of the mail service was diminished. Although the Pony Express only lasted 18 months, it carried 34,753 letters on 308 runs that covered 616,000 miles. It remains an American legend, a tribute to our heartiness, determination and will to succeed. Each year to this day, riders retrace the Pony Express' trail. If you are looking for the adventure of a lifetime, maybe you will too...

For more information, visit the Pony Express Home Station at


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