On the Trail of the Pony Express

Following the Pony Express National Historic Trail
Gorp.com
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Stained glass window showing a fabled Pony Express courier.
Stained glass window showing a fabled Pony Express courier.

It was twilight on April 3, 1860, when the train reached the end of the line at St. Joseph, Missouri, and unloaded a small batch of letters and newspapers, urgent mail that would test the speed and courage of the newly organized Pony Express courier service.

The crowd that had come out to see the start of the inaugural run had already stood through several speeches, including remarks by William H. Russell, the founder of the Pony Express and a partner along with William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors in a freight and stagecoach company. These owners of the Central Overland, California, and Pikes Peak Express Company were gambling on the success of this new venture—a fast mail delivery system from the Midwest to California.

One of its fastest horses, a fleet bay mare, had been led out of the company stable. A lightweight saddle was cinched to its back, placed atop a unique rectangular leather apron called a mochila (mail pouch) with pockets at each of its four corners. Three pockets called cantinas were filled with the letters and papers from the train and stayed locked for the entire journey; the fourth pocket would be filled with letters the rider would pick up and deliver along the way. Johnny Fry, an ex-jockey and the first of many intrepid riders who would carry the mail west, was ready.

At 7:15 in the evening, to the boom of a brass cannon and a great shout from the crowd, Johnny Fry shook hands with William Russell, bounded into the saddle, galloped down the streets to the banks of the Missouri River, and clattered aboard a waiting ferryboat. In about half an hour he landed on the far shore in Kansas Territory, in the hamlet of Elwood, and spurred his mount westward. He found the route easy to follow, even after darkness descended. Blazed by emigrants who knew it as both the Oregon and the California Trail, it had since been turned into a broad, grassless strip by the heavy traffic of forty-niners and the freight wagons that followed them across the rolling prairie.

About 45 minutes beyond Elwood Fry trotted into the first relay station at Troy, Kansas, and got a two-minute break while the station attendant threw the mochila and the saddle onto a fresh horse. Then Fry galloped off, reaching the little settlement of Granada at 11:30 p.m., where he turned the mochila over to the next rider. At 5:25 in the afternoon of April 13 the final westbound rider galloped into Sacramento, redeeming the Pony Express's promise to deliver the mail in the new record time of ten days.

Thus began the inaugural ride of the Pony Express, a short-lived but dramatic effort to create a fast mail service over a central overland route that would cut by half or more the time it took for messages to get from the East to California. The Pony Express operated from April 1860 to October 1861, when the completion of a telegraph line across the country provided a speedier way to send messages.

By 1860 almost half a million Americans were living west of the Rocky Mountains, most of them in California. The new settlers yearned for news from back home in those settled states east of the Missouri River. A standing joke of the time was that events had already been forgotten on the East Coast before they were known on the West Coast. Moreover, as civil war loomed, people yearned for news of the approaching conflict. Such isolation of the West fueled secessionist hopes of persuading California to join with the southern states in their confederacy.

Before the Pony Express mail to California could take as long as six weeks by packet boat from New York via the Panamanian isthmus. The Butterfield Stage could get it there in three weeks over the so-called Oxbow Route, which curved southward through Yuma, Arizona.

The prime objective of the Pony Express was to prove the feasibility of a year-round central route as an alternative to the secessionist-threatened southern route. Once it was proved feasible the new route would make it logical for the federal government to send its mail on the central route and thereby provide a handsome profit for the entrepreneurs.

In the short span of two months before the inaugural run Russell, Majors, and Waddell had already accomplished a minor miracle as the company put together a chain of more than 150 relay stations 10 to 15 miles apart, with four hundred horses, some eighty young riders, plus station keepers, stock tenders, route superintendents, and shuttling supply wagons.

Beyond Salt Lake City, where the route departed from existing stage and freight lines, new stations had to be constructed. Because of the lack of timber in parts of the Great Basin, particularly western Utah and Nevada, stations were made of adobe brick or stone. In some instances dugouts and tents served as temporary shelters.

On the eastern portion of the trail many of the stations had already been built and were operating as the company's overland stage stops. The distance between all the stations was based on how far a horse could travel at its fastest sustainable speed over the existing terrain before it would become fatigued. For the entire distance, the average rider speed was 250 miles in a 24-hour period, an average of 10.7 miles per hour. Individual riders would cover from 75 to 100 miles before reaching a home station to be relieved by another rider.

Initially eighty riders were recruited by division superintendents."Young, skinny wiry fellows not over eighteen," one advertisement called for. "Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages—$25 per week." Some riders weighed only 100 pounds. Many were already skilled guides, scouts, and couriers. Each rider took an oath, was issued a small Bible, and was housed and fed at company expense.

The route the pony riders traveled is now commemorated as the Pony Express National Historic Trail, a nearly two thousand-mile track that runs through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Understandably there are few historic remains of the actual trail—a solitary rider leaves little physical trace of his presence. What's more, the riders changed their routes from time to time because of weather, swollen streams, snow, and the threat of Indian attack.

Approximately a dozen of the historic relay stations and home stations, however, have been preserved, restored, or reconstructed. Interpretive signs at waysides mark a number of significant points along the trail although an official auto-tour route has yet to be laid out.

Each June members of the National Pony Express Association who live in the seven states along the trail reenact the historic ride. As many as 600 reenactment riders don the typical brown western hat, red plaid shirt, brown vest, yellow scarf, blue jeans, and boots and maintain the same timetables as the actual express riders as they ride the distance in the customary ten days. People line town streets as the latter-day riders gallop through. Whereas the pony rider of 1860 rode a section of about 75 miles and changed horses every 12 to 15 miles, reenactment riders cover a shorter segment of 3 to 5 miles and use their own horses, turning the mochila over at the end of their ride to the next rider. The trail association has staged the rerun almost every year since 1960, the centennial of the Pony Express. Riders go eastbound one year and westbound the following year.

Just as in the old days each rider is given a special edition of the Bible, similar to the one given the original Pony Express horseman, and takes the traditional oath: "I do hereby swear before the great and living God that during my engagement with Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will under no circumstances use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with other employees of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful in my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God."

The trail association prints a commemorative letter each year that interested persons may purchase by writing to the association. The letters are carried across the country by the reenactors, canceled at St. Joseph and Sacramento, then mailed to the recipient as a memento.

The original Pony Express riders followed the established overland trails wherever they could. As a result the Pony Express Trail follows the same track as the well-defined Oregon, California, and Mormon Pioneer Trails through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming, then traces the Mormon Pioneer Trail and Salt Lake cutoff of the California Trail from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City. At Salt Lake City the pony trail departs from the other overland trail routes as it cuts across central Utah, crosses the Great Basin through central Nevada, then follows the Carson River until it scales the Sierra Nevada on its way to Sacramento.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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