|by lyle e davis
Though it only lasted for 18 months, The Pony Express was, for that era, a fast mail service crossing the North American continent from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, from April 1860 to October 1861.
During that time it had become the nation's most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph and was vital for tying California closely with the Union just before the American Civil War. In that short time span, the Pony Express developed a legendary status that is still talked about, and celebrated, today.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, there are five of the original Pony Express riders that are buried at various cemeteries. They are:
Charles Cliff at Mount Mora Cemetery
James W. Brink at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Michael Whalen at Ashland Cemetery
John Phillip Koerner at Ashland Cemetery
Cyclone Charlie Thompson at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Of the above, James W. Brink has an even more fascinating history than being a Pony Express rider. He was one of three men accused of murdering a man at Rock Creek Station, Nebraska. One of the other men was James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok. It is said the man was unarmed and defenseless. The three were not found guilty, however, (one witness, a son of one of the players, was not allowed to testify). Brink finished out his life in St. Joseph, Missouri, and never discussed his escapades with Hickok.
To give an idea of the rigors a Pony Express rider went through, we present excerpts from a letter from L. L. Hickok (no relation to Wild Bill) to his wife, Pruilla, back home in Wisconsin (whom he later abandoned). The spelling and punctuation remains intact:
North San Juan Nov 18, 1860
My Dear Blessed wife I place my pen to paper once more to inform you how londsom I am & of my health & other things in general first my health is good I am awfull lonsom & grow so more every day I want to see my family as bad as you can want to see me I know I wrote you on Oct 29 & sent you ten dollars & agreed to send you some more in 15 days but I have failed again but don't blame me for I could not get the bill of exchange in time I will send it the fifth of Dec. I want you should write when you recieve money from me every time for I have a receipt of the money & when you reieve it I have to deliver it ------the man I get the draft of I am still on the Pony Exprys yet & how long I shall stay there I don't know I have had a prety hard time of it through this Presidental Campaighn you bet Pruilla the Pony came through from St.Joseph on the Missouri river to Sacrimento in six days & 16 hours & I rode 75 miles of it 6 hours & 3 minutes by the time I changed Ponys only 6 times what do you think of that we had Presidential news from the states on my trip owt we had the same of Cal Cal has gone for Lincoln I voted for him you ought to see an election in Cal the man that can drink the most liquor is the best fellow & then at night my gad such a drunken set it is fighting gambling & raving oof all kinds I never want to see another in Cal nor don't believe I shall if I hold the mind I have now I my home here in San Juan looking for to make money faster at present I go out with the Exprys twice a week that take me two days in all the rest of the time I have to myself and it takes the rest of the week for me to get rested it is the hardest work that I ever done in my life think of me on every Thursday & Friday fro the hours of six in the morning untill the hours of 10 in the evening for sometimes I have to wait for the return exprys the longest I ever waited was 4 hours but it is seldom I have to wait any & then I get back about seven ! in the evening think of your husband riding a Pony at the rate of 12 miles an hour & on his back from 6 in the morning untill 7 in the evening you bet it is hard work but I can make the most money as it yet but I am going to try to get into different buisnys I dont know what it will be I want to earn money enough to come home with and lay it aside so when I get ready to come I shall have it to come with & the rest I earn I shall send it to you I have sent to SanFrancisco for a check to send to you & should have sent it in this letter but it hant come yet I cant get any any where else I will start it the fifth of dec I don't know butI shall send it by the Pony I shall if the agent comes out from Sacramento so I can get a pays for it it costs five dollars and ounce to send a letter from Cal to the states but if he comes out I can get a pays for it I think after you get the next draft I want you should drys y & the children and keep yourself so home & the be long now I rell You write for me to stay longer here and that I have ome ittle ranche here one mile from San Juan, (San Juan is pronounced San Wan), but wrote San Juan, & work long enough to get money enough to come home & fetch my family here but I don't to know what I shall do yet until I hear from you I have wrote you three letters sinc I have been in Cal & havnt got any answeres yet I begin to feel kinder homesick you bet but I am going to stick to the buisnys that I am at untill I get a better chance this is steady work & can have a steady employ for as long as I am a mind to stay & I shant run around for work for I see enough of that every day hundreds of around enquiring for work every day and cant get a stranger stands a poor chance here in Cal a man wants to be aquainted before he stands much of a chance, Pruilla I dont write mutch love you think why the reason is this the more love I write the homesicker I get get so homesick sometimes that if I had money to! come home with I should start rite off and then to think I have got to work for it before I can come it makes me feel bad now I tell you I have great many crying spells some nights I dont sleep at all and sometimes I go out in the woods and andsir & think how far we are apart& think of my starting from the only friend I had in the world & if I only prys you to my heart once more I never will leave you again no no no no never never more will I leave my loved one again you never Pruilla never you can rest asured of that but want for sending you this draft I should start for home in one month from this but I will wait untill I can earn more wagges will come up a little then I shant what I am a getting per month but doing well I cant write any more this time Excuse bad writing and bad spelling you will want Direct to North San Juan Direct to North San Juan Nevada Co California this iis from your mo neglectfull husband L.L. Hickok to his most blessed wife Pruilla Hickok.
Frank E. Webner
Pony Express rider ca. 1861
The Pony Express service had messages carried by horseback riders in relay across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. It briefly reduced the time for mail to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about ten days. By traveling a shorter route and using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches, the founders of the Pony Express hoped to establish their service as a faster and more reliable conduit for the mail and win the exclusive government mail contract.
The Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system could be built and operated continuously year round. Since its replacement by the First Transcontinental Telegraph, the Pony Express has become part of the lore of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of individual riders and horses over technological innovation was part of "American rugged individualism".
A total of about 190 Pony Express stations were placed at intervals of about 10 miles along the approximately 2,000 miles route. This was roughly the maximum distance a horse could travel at full gallop. The rider changed to a fresh horse at each station, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila, (from the Spanish Language--"pouch") with him. The employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did. The Mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse, allowing for a total of 165 pounds on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, changed about every 75–100 miles. Included in that 20 pounds were: a water sack, a Bible, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver. Eventually, they took away everything except one revolver and a water sack to cut down on the weight. In case of emergencies, there are several documented cases where a given rider rode two stages back to back--over 20 hours on a galloping horse. The riders rode day and night, winter and summer. Departures were from both the Midwest and the far West.
It is unknown if riders tried crossing the Sierras in winter but they certainly crossed central Nevada. By 1860 there was a telegraph station in Carson City, Nevada. The riders received $25 per week as pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor was about $1/day for a 12-hour day's labor.
Wells Fargo had acquired from 420 to 500 horses for the project, and these averaged about 14½ hands high and averaged a light 900 pounds each; thus, the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct for all the horses.
The roughly 1,900 miles route roughly followed the Oregon Trail, and California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it roughly followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierra Nevadas into Sacramento, California.
The route started at St. Joseph, Missouri, on the Missouri River, it then followed what is modern day US 36—the Pony Express Highway—to Marysville, Kansas, where it turned northwest following Little Blue River to Fort Kearney in Nebraska. Through Nebraska it followed the Great Platte River Road, cutting through Gothenburg, Nebraska, and passing Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, clipping the edge of Colorado at Julesburg, Colorado, before arriving at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From there it followed the Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock, Devil's Gate, and Split Rock, to Fort Caspar, through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then down to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City it generally followed the Central Nevada Route blazed by Captain James H. Simpson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859. This route roughly follows today's U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada and Utah. It crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, and the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe before arriving in Sacramento. Mail was then sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. On a few instances when the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland, California.
The First Ride
Pony Express Rider Billy Fisher
The riders were scheduled to leave San Francisco and St. Joseph simultaneously on April 3, 1860. The westbound route has gotten more publicity. No photographs of riders beginning in either direction are known and none are believed to exist.
The messenger delivering the mochila from New York and Washington missed a connection in Detroit and arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, two hours late. The railroad cleared the track and dispatched a special locomotive called the "Missouri" with a one-car train to make the 206-mile trek across the state in a record 4 hours, 51 minutes — an average of 40 miles per hour It arrived at Olive and 8th Street — a few blocks from the company's new headquarters in a hotel at Patee House at 12th Street and Pennsylvania and the company's nearby stables on Pennsylvania. The first pouch contained 49 letters, five private telegrams, and some papers for San Francisco and intermediate points.
St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson, William H. Russell and Alexander Majors gave speeches before the mochila was handed off. The ride began at about 7:15 p.m. The St. Joseph Gazette was the only newspaper included in the bag.
The identity of the first rider has long been in dispute. The Weekly West (April 4, 1860) reported Johnson William Richardson was the first rider.
The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about a half mile from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Johnny Fry is credited as the first westbound rider who carried the pouch across the Missouri River ferry to Elwood, Kansas. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river. In later rides, the courier crossed the river without a horse and picked up his mount at a stable on the other side.
The first westbound mochila reached its destination, San Francisco, on April 14, at 1:00 a.m. James Randall is credited as the first rider from the San Francisco Alta telegraph office, since he was on the steamship Antelope to go to Sacramento. At 2:45 a.m., William (Sam) Hamilton was the first rider to begin the journey from Sacramento.
Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern mail route was viable, Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Jeremy Dehut in March 1861, who had taken over the southern Congressionally favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line. Holladay took over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches.
Shortly after the contract was awarded, the start of the American Civil War caused the stage line to cease operation. From March 1861, the Pony Express ran mail only between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska, and Sacramento, California. Other telegraph lines connected points along the line and other cities on the east and west coasts.
The Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866, after the American Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.
183 men are known to have ridden for the Pony Express during its operation of just over 18 months. One of the riders was Bronco Charlie (also spelled “Broncho Charlie.).
Broncho Charlie - The Youngest Rider of the Pony Express
In July, 1861, 11 year old Broncho Charlie mounted a riderless Pony Express horse, dashed out of Sacramento, on his way to Placerville and hence, became the youngest rider of the Pony Express. He rode faithfully for five months, until the operation shut down in November of that same year.
In 1931, at 81, he rode again from New York City to San Francisco on a seven month adventure to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Pony Express!
Most riders were around 20 with Bronco Charlie being the youngest at 11. The oldest was in his mid-40’s. Not many were orphans. They usually weighed around 120 pounds.
Riders were paid $100 per month, excellent money in those days, when the average pay was $1 per day for other work.
New riders took over every 75 to 100 miles. Riders got a fresh horse every 10 to 15 miles. Horses traveled an average of 10 miles per hour. The approximate 400 horses purchased to stock the Pony Express route included thoroughbreds, mustangs, pintos, and Morgans were often used. There were approximately 165 stations, the trail length almost 2,000 miles.
The westbound route began in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, through the present day states of Kansas, Nebraska, the northeast corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
The Express ran once a week from April 3 to mid-June 1860. Twice a week from mid-June, to late October 1861. Departures were from both the east and the west. The schedule was usually completed in 10 days during the summer, 12 to 16 days in winter.
The fastest deliver on record was 7 days and 17 hours between telegraph lines, which delivered Lincoln's Inaugural Address.
The longest ride recorded was that of Pony Bob Haslam, who rode 370 miles (Friday's Station to Smith Creek and back. This is in present-day Nevada.)
The cost of the mail was $5.00 per 1/2 ounce at the beginning. By the end of the Pony Express, the price had dropped to $1.00 per 1/2 ounce.
The Founders were William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. The original company was the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. The Pony Express was a subsidiary of the famous freight and stage company.
On October 24, 1861, the Pony Express officially ended.
Financially, the owners spent $700,000 on the Pony Express and had a $200,000 deficit. The company failed to get the million dollar government contract because of political pressures and the outbreak of the Civil War.
St. Joseph was fortunate, with the arrival of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Feb. 14, 1859, this city was on the western edge of civilization.
Settlers headed west from here faced a 2,000-mile trip by wagon train that often took three months of hardships. Those who had already reached California and its promise of gold found themselves cut off from the rest of the world. At a time when there were no telephones, radios or telegraph, letters from New York to San Francisco took 30 days by steamship around South America. An overland mail route by Butterfield Express took 23 days for delivery. Most knew it was a matter of time before the telegraph and the railroad would span the nation, but with the Civil War looming on the horizon, something was needed now.
William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors were already in the freighting business with 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons and 40,000 oxen in 1858. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies in the West, and Russell envisioned a similar contract for fast mail delivery.
Their proposal was a fast mail service between St. Joseph and Sacramento, California, by a Pony Express with letters delivered in the unheard time of 10 days. It was not exactly overnight, but perhaps overpriced for the time, at $5 a half-ounce. Their goal was to snare a government contract for delivery of the mail, something that did not come about.
Russell, Majors and Waddell literally put together the Pony Express in a two-month period during the winter of 1860. It was an enormous undertaking, assembling 156 stations, 120 riders, 400 horses and hundreds of employees, all during January and February of 1860 - without the benefit of radio, telephones, telegraph or even mail service.
In St. Joseph, Russell, Majors and Waddell selected the first floor of the town's newest hotel, Patee House, as their headquarters. More than 30 riders checked into the hotel. Since the Pony Express was not part of the U.S. mail service, local letters bound for the Pony Express were mailed at the Patee House office for delivery to California.
The people of St. Joseph had an inkling they were on to something big, and about everybody in town turned out for the start of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860. Mail from the east coast was late and the crowd waited until almost dark for the arrival of the mail train from Hannibal.
The famous painting by Charles Hargens of the start of the Pony Express is not an historically accurate portrayal of that important day, because the first Pony Express rider actually left during the night.
Historians have never fully agreed whether Johnny Fry or Billie Richardson was the first rider, but whoever he was rode the short distance from the Pikes Peak Stables at 9th & Penn to Patee House at 12th & Penn.
Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved "by the help of God" to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a Bible and required this oath:
"While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services."
Major M. Jeff Thompson was soon to leave St. Joseph to become a famous Confederate general. This is a sample of his oratory the day he initiated the Pony Express:
"This is a great day in the history of St. Joseph. For more than a decade she has been the portal through which passed the wagon trains for the great west.
"Now she is to become the connecting link between the extremes of the continents. For the first time in the history of America, mail will go by an overland route from east to west.
"The time will come when steam will drive a railroad train through those vastness' and bear passengers from St. Joseph to California in less than a week.
"I see you smile, my fellow citizens, and nudge each other at the idea I am harboring. Some of you are saying, 'Jeff is dreaming as usual of the impossible and unknown, 'but I tell you all that, as sure as I stand here, the day will come when at this very town you may board a train which will take you through the gold fields, and that within a very few years.
"More than that, I say to you the wilderness which lies between us will blossom as the rose, cities will spring into existence where the Indians and Buffalo now hold possession. Mountains will be tunneled, streams bridged and the iron monster which has become mankind's slave will ply between our confines and those far distant shores.
"As the Indian vanishes, the white man takes his place. Commercial activities will replace the teepee and the campfire. Schools and colleges will spring into existence and the refinements of civilization will span the continent.
"Of all these things, the California Overland Express is the forerunner. Hardly will the cloud of dust which envelopes the galloping pony subside before the puff of steam will be seen upon the horizon.
"Citizens of St. Joseph, I bid you three cheers for the Pony Express - three cheers for the first overland passage of the United States Mail."
Well, it was an exciting start, but hardly a financial success. The owners knew it was only a matter of time before the telegraph would replace the Pony Express.
The Pony Express ran each week in each direction, with an average time of 10 days. Delivery of Lincoln's inaugural address set a new record of slightly less than eight days. The mail averaged almost 250 miles a day.
In the nineteen months the Pony Express existed, only one rider was killed by hostile Indians, and only one bag of mail was lost. The riders had covered 650,000 miles by horseback.
Exciting as it was, the Pony Express was never a financial success. It was never a part of the U.S. Postal service, although the galloping Pony Express rider was the official symbol on every letter carrier's shoulder until the invention of Mr. Zip.
The most significant thing the Pony Express accomplished was to help hold California - and its gold - for the Union at the start of the Civil War.
Russell, Majors and Waddell lost $500,000 on the Pony Express. Eventually Ben Holladay became the owner of what remained of the Pony Express. He merged it with his Central Overland Stage Lines.
William Russell, former president, died in 1872, broke and shunned. William Waddell never went back in business. A son was killed in the Civil War, his property was sold for taxes, and he, too, died broke in 1872.
Alexander Majors returned to freighting and in 1867 moved to Salt Lake City. He took part in construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, and died in 1900. And wealthy Ben Holladay died a poor man shortly after the Panic of 1873.
As a business venture, the Pony Express was a failure. It lasted only 19 months. But a century and a quarter later, it still fascinates the world as an example of good old American determination and know-how.
Today, the Pony Express, along with Jesse James who departed this earth here on April 3, 1882, keep St. Joseph on the map worldwide.