On the Trail of the Pony Express


For the final leg of the famous east-west mail run pony riders had to surmount the Sierra Nevada, where peaks soared a mile high and snow covered the mountaintops most of the year. By the 1860s the gold-hungry forty-niners and the emigrants who followed had defined and improved the Johnson Pass route, which skirted Lake Tahoe, climbed to Echo Summit (7,382 feet), and threaded its way through steep-sided valleys and along mountain streams as it twisted downslope to Sacramento. The Johnson Pass route replaced the earlier Carson Pass route to the south. The Carson Pass route was a more difficult route that reached as high as 9,500 feet before it passed over the crest and often retained its snowdrifts well into the summer.

The motorist who drives U.S. 50 from Carson City to Sacramento retraces much of the Johnson Pass route. If the traveler watches closely he will see along the roadside remnants of a century or more of transportation history across the Sierra: segments of the trail, fords, and rock retaining walls that buttressed the winding roadway that carried wagons, stagecoaches, and the hurrying horses of the Pony Express. In the 1930s the trail, then called the Placerville Road, provided the right-of-way for the famed Lincoln Highway, the first U.S. roadway to span the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In later years the route evolved into present-day U.S. 50.

Snow, wind, and rain often assaulted the riders in the high Sierra but rarely defeated them. On the inaugural ride eastward of the Pony Express on April 4, 1860,"Boston" Upson took over from the first rider as rain turned to snow. Ralph Moody wrote in The Old Trails West:

Above the 4,000-foot level a raging blizzard was blowing, and gales at more than 60 miles an hour piled snow 15 to 20 feet deep. The trail was completely obliterated, and visibility reduced to less than 100 feet, but "Boston" fought his way upwards from one isolated relay post to another. He made the last three miles to the summit relay post afoot, shouldering the mochila and leaving his pony bogged belly-deep in a snowdrift. Beyond the summit the blizzard was less severe, and at 2:18 in the afternoon he rode a staggering pony into Friday's Station on Lake Tahoe. In a storm that few men could have lived through, he had carried the first Pony mail 55 miles across the high hump of the Sierra Nevada in just eight hours, better time than the fastest stagecoaches could make in summer weather.

Each westbound rider ended his journey at Sacramento, at the terminus at the B. F. Hastings Building, a structure that has been restored as part of Old Sacramento. Old Sacramento State Historic Park preserves much of Sacramento's original downtown. Its restored historic buildings are alive with shops and exhibits, including, in addition to the Pony Express terminus, the first permanent home of the California Supreme Court, the first theater built in the state, and the extensive California State Railroad Museum.

Here the pony riders pulled up and delivered their mail. Wells, Fargo had the responsibility of delivering the letters to the addressees, putting some of the letters on packet boats to San Francisco.

In April 1861 Russell, Majors, and Waddell suffered a serious financial reverse when the federal mail contract they sought was awarded to their rival, the Butterfield Overland Mail, which then shifted its operations to the central route. Moreover the federal postal contract, which went into effect in July 1861, made the company's financial losses even greater. It cut the original postal rate from $5 to $1 per half ounce, with six pounds of government mail to be carried each trip by the Pony Express for free.

The loss of the government mail contract, questionable financial dealings to cover its losses, and completion of the telegraph sealed the Pony Express's fate. The Butterfield Overland Mail bought them out, leaving Russell, Majors, and Waddell to operate only the trail's western end as a subcontractor. Shortly afterward, when the telegraph linkage was completed across the country, the colorful Pony Express came to an abrupt halt. Although the Overland Mail continued to offer a slower mail service by stagecoach, the day of the fast, ten-day mail was over.

In the entire 18 months of the historic Pony Express experiment, a total of 120 riders rode 650,000 miles with only one scheduled run not completed on time. Only one mochila of mail was lost and one rider was killed by Indians. At the peak of its service the pony riders carried as many as seven hundred letters a week, each transmitted in a special government-stamped envelope.

"Farewell pony: Our little friend," wrote the Sacramento Bee newspaper in a final salute. "The Pony is to run no more. Farewell and forever, thou staunch, wilderness-overcoming, swiftfooted messenger. For the good thou hast done, we praise thee."

Newspapers as far away as Europe lauded the Pony Express. Pulp magazine writers made some of the riders famous, detailing their exploits as they won out over floods, snowstorms, buffalo stampedes, and Indian attacks with self-confidence and devotion to duty. This elite band of daring horsemen who sped the mail across the wildest miles of the continent had won the admiration and captured the hearts of people all over the world.

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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