On the Trail of the Pony Express


Another carefully restored roadhouse still stands just across the Kansas-Nebraska border at Fairbury. Trail ruts left by the Oregon Trail, creating a depression up to five feet deep through the tall-grass prairie, greet visitors at the two ranches that were once owned by David McCanles and have been reconstructed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The West Ranch consisted of a log cabin, stables, and corral. McCanles then built the East Ranch across the creek, with its ranch house, barn, well, bunkhouse, and corral. He connected the two ranches with a toll bridge and rented out the East Ranch as a stage and Pony Express station.

But the Rock Creek station was clouded by tragedy. A stablehand named James"Wild Bill" Hickok treacherously ambushed and murdered McCanles at the East Ranch when the owner came by to collect a payment on the mortgage that was due him. Two other men were killed in the shooting as well. Even though McCanles's son was an eyewitness to the murder, as a minor he was not allowed to testify, and Hickok was acquitted. Hickok later had a checkered career as a gunfighter and was himself murdered during a card game. A contemporary visitor center offers a slide presentation on the area's history as well as various events, including a covered wagon ride.

In Nebraska the Pony Express riders took the Oregon Trail to Fort Kearny on the Platte River, where the various feeder trails from the east blended into the "Great Platte River Road," which followed the river across the state much as I-80 does now. The Pony Express riders kept to the south side of the river along with those on the Oregon and California Trails while the Mormons used the north side.

At Fort Kearny the Express riders changed horses at a relay station that was probably located just off the military reservation since the courier service was a privately run business, not a government operation. On the grounds of the fort today are a replica stockade and a reconstructed sod blacksmith shop where a Pony Express stationhand could have had a repair job done in a pinch. A slide show at the visitor center of this Nebraska state historical park tells the story of Fort Kearny and of the Pony Express.

Two towns within easy reach of I-80 have preserved cabins once used as Pony Express stations. At Cozad a rough-hewn log cabin, 40 feet by 20 feet, stands in a city park in the middle of town. A bronze plaque on its front wall attests to its authenticity. Those who peek in the windows see a table set with pewter plates, mugs, and utensils—as well as a can of chewing tobacco.

Ten miles to the west, at Gothenberg, is a similar cabin, which was moved from its original site south of the river in 1931 by the local American Legion post. Now located in a town park, the cabin displays artifacts of the trail days and includes a museum and gift shop that sells Pony Express memorabilia. It attracts some sixty thousand visitors each year.

Pony Express riders continued on the well-used Oregon Trail along the Platte River across Nebraska until the river divided into two tributaries near Julesburg in what is now the northeastern tip of Colorado. A trading post, built by Jules Reni at this river junction, provided supplies to the emigrants as they reached the point where they had to ford the river in order to continue up the North Platte.

The mail couriers also had to ford the river, which posed a problem when the stream grew wider and rougher during the springtime runoff. Horse and rider often had to risk swimming these swollen streams. Once safely across the rider sped on past the buttes, spires, and mesas that dotted the landscape, grateful for the recognizable landmarks that showed him the way, landmarks such as Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. The pony route along the North Platte as far as Casper, Wyoming, is paralleled today by U.S. Highway 26.

The thrill of seeing a Pony Express rider beating a tattoo across the plain was once described by Mark Twain as he craned his neck out of a stagecoach window:

Presently the [stagecoach] driver exclaims: "Here he comes!" Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling—sweeping toward us nearer and nearer—growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined—nearer and still nearer, and the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear—another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go swinging away like a belated fragment of a storm!

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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