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OUT OF THE PAST
History Lessons

1860
Pony Express


In 1860, freight entrepreneur William H. Russell and his partners Alexander Majors and William Waddell created a cross-country mail service -- the Pony Express -- linking California with the Midwest.

On April 3, 1860, the first Pony Express rider galloped out of St. Joseph, Missouri, with saddlebags full of mail. Ten days and thirty riders later, the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento, California. 

"The Pony Express was one of the most exciting and adventurous episodes of early American history," wrote Joseph J. DiCerto in his book, The Pony Express: Hoofbeats in the Wilderness. "To this day, the stories of the brave riders who carried the U.S. mail across the life-threatening wilderness remind us that the settlement of the West was made possible by people of great character and foresight, who were ready to make the supreme sacrifice for their country."

The route of the Pony Express passed through the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. It was supported by a system of 190 relay and home stations, each about 10 to 15 miles apart. Riders changed horses at relay stations; a new rider took over at home stations. Riders typically traveled 75 to 100 miles before being replaced by another. 

Eighty riders and 400 station keepers were hired by the Pony Express. The riders were equipped with the finest horses available, usually mustangs or Morgans. Buffalo Bill Cody is probably the best known of the Pony Express riders. Long before he became famous for his Wild West shows, Cody served as a substitute rider, then received a permanent route in Wyoming.

The Pony Express fascinated Americans, including newspaperman Mark Twain was hooked. While traveling cross country by stagecoach, Twain spotted a Pony Express rider and wrote about the experience in Roughing It.

"...In a second 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 hoofs comes faintly to the ear another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hands but no reply and man and horse burst past our excited faces and winging away like the belated fragment of a storm!"

Unfortunately, the Pony Express was a costly experiment its owners could not sustain. It required approximately 500 horses, nearly 200 stations, a similar number of station employees, and 80 riders. Even with charges of $5 per letter, the company could only recover about 10 percent of its costs. The transcontinental telegraph line, completed by the fall of 1861, sealed its doom. One of the original pony express stops, Hollenberg Station State Historic Site, is located near Hanover in Washington County and is administered by the Kansas State Historical Society.


Hollenberg Station State Historic Site




The Saga of the Pony Express 
by Joseph J. Di Certo
Mountain Press, 2002

Writer Joseph Di Certo recounts the brief but romantic history of the Pony Express, a transcontinental mail service that united Americans East and West with both timely communications and great adventure.

Riding from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, the riders of the Pony Express carried mail in relays of 33 miles each across a 2,000-mile route that took 10 days to complete. This was three times faster than any other delivery service at the time.

"When the Civil War broke out, it was the Pony Express that provided the most rapid source of crucial news to the concerned citizens of California. This long human chain that could at any moment fall victim to an Indian attack or the whims of Nature was the West's primary source of communication with the East in this time of rapidly unfolding events," Di Certo explains.

Although short-lived, the Pony Express provides an important and exciting chapter in the history of the American West.

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