A rider and his horse thunder into view over the desert horizon, barreling towards the way-station where water and a fresh horse await. As the rider leaps off his horse and onto another, his mail bag swinging from his hand, he shoots the station manager a devilish grin. With a hollered “Thanks!” he’s off again, rapidly disappearing from view in the desert twilight.
The Pony Express has long been an icon of the American West. Although it only ran for 18 months, it played a crucial role in delivering important news, letters, and telegram messages across the country efficiently at a time when our country desperately needed it.
The Pony Express began operating on April 3, 1860, roughly a year before the American Civil War officially began. The route went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and covered nearly 2,000 miles.
The Pony Express was first created as an attempt to connect the West Coast with the central government power in the Eastern part of the country. The idea was first thought up by Senator W. M. Gwin, who proposed it to William H. Russell. Russell was one of the partners of the Russell, Majors, and Waddell freighting firm, currently operating in the Western territories.
When Gwin first suggested the ideas to Russell, he intimated that “the seeds of possible division within California, as between the North and the South, might be rendered impotent by fast mail communication east and west.” During this time, there was a movement to remove California from the Union. If the Pony Express had not been created by and maintained at a great personal loss to Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the only communication between the East and West coasts would have been the sea. The Pony Express was created to prevent massive miscommunication due to distance during a tumultuous time in America’s history.
Stations were placed along the entire route where fresh horses or riders were swapped out. When the Express first began, stations were 25 miles apart. This turned out to be too far of a distance, however, and the system was altered to make each station roughly 10-15 miles apart. Every 10-15 miles, the horse was swapped out, and every 75-100 miles, the rider swapped.
In total, there were about 190 stations along the Pony Express route. Each station was manned by two or three men and contained provisions needed for survival. One of the original Pony Express stations in Hanover, Kansas, actually still stands today and is preserved as a historical site. Of the stations, there were about 25 where riders would be swapped out. These were much larger to accommodate the riders who slept there. Riders were able to keep up an average pace of about 10 miles per hour and delivered mail from Missouri to California in eight to ten days.
An ad was placed in the Leavenworth Daily Times on April 2, 1860 reading “The great western enterprise, the Pony Express to California, starts on Tuesday, or April the 3d. It will run through in ten days, and will carry letters and messages at four dollars each. The telegraph on the California side, is finished to Carson Valley. Virtually then, the Pony Express will put the Atlantic States within eight days of San Francisco. For a private enterprise, this is one of the most important yet undertaken in this country.”
As previously mentioned, the Pony Express only lasted 18 months. During the time the Express was running, workers were busy stretching telegraph wires across the American West. By October 24, 1861, the telegraph wires connected the East Coast to the West Coast. On October 26, 1861, the Pony Express was terminated. However, the final letters in transit on the Pony Express route were not delivered until November.
Riders on the Pony Express were some of the toughest people in the West. They endured fast-paced, grueling horseback rides across the country in all sorts of weather, often riding through dangerous terrain for hours on end. Now, we’re able to send messages with a single tap of our finger. We’ve come a long way from paying someone to deliver a message by pony.
Post contributed by Archives Aide Sarah Kesterson, AHC Reference Department.