On the Trail of the Pony Express


The trail continues across Nevada, crossing terrain almost as empty today as it was during a mail carrier's solitary ride. Evergreen ranges alternate with broad valleys, most of them desert dry, but a few, like the Ruby Valley, set with lakes or marshes fed by snowmelt streams.

Travelers can follow the approximate route of the Pony Express and see much the same scenery by tracing U.S. Highway 50 across the state. Most of the twenty-eight stations that once dotted the trail in Nevada have disappeared or crumbled into a scattering of stones, but waysides and interpretive markers tell their story. One of the few where anything more than rubble remains is near the town of Cold Springs and bears the name of the original Cold Springs station. One mile east of U.S. 50 visitors can see still standing the walls of this station, which bore the brunt of several Indian skirmishes.

Sir Richard Burton, a noted English explorer who traveled by coach along this part of the route in October 1860, described another Nevada station in these uncomplimentary terms:

Sand Springs deserved its name . . . with drifted ridges of the finest sand, sometimes 200 feet high and shifting before every gale . . . . Behind the house stood a mound shaped like the contents of an hour glass. . . . The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts: it blistered even the hands . . . . The station house was no unfit object in such a scene, roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, and a table in the center of an impure floor, the walls open to every wind and the interior full of dust.

The Indian war took its greatest toll in Nevada. In May 1860 the Paiutes, numbering perhaps five hundred, rose in holy war to chase the white man from what today is most of Nevada and a slice of Utah. War parties attacked ranches, wagon trains, and stragglers. Along 300 miles of trail about half the Pony Express stations came under attack; horses were stampeded, several were burned, and sixteen employees were killed.

In spite of the continuing danger to riders and station hands the mail went through—except for one four-week period when the company suspended operations. Never following exactly the same route twice in succession, and avoiding the normal mountain passes whenever possible, the riders continued to make their way across the desert, trusting solely in the speed of their mustangs.

To quell these attacks and protect the pony riders the U.S. Army built Fort Churchill along the Carson River a few miles east of Carson City. The ruins of the old fort are now preserved as Fort Churchill State Historic Park, located on U.S. Highway 95A eight miles south of U.S. 50. Interpretive signs among its crumbling walls relate the story of the frontier fort, while displays at the park's visitor center tell of the pony riders and the Indian uprising. Nearby Buckland Station was the site of a relay station; the original log cabin is gone, but an inn later built for the stage line remains. Samuel Buckland constructed the inn with surplus materials he purchased when the fort was abandoned in 1869.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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