The image of the Pony Express is of young riders galloping across the
prairie. But hundreds of years ago when John Upson made his first run, he
spent a lot of the riding time walking. It was April 1860, The Pony Express
had a goal: deliver mail 1,966 miles between Missouri and California in less
than 10 days. Today, ten days is very slow to deliver mail, but a hundred
years ago ten days was very fast. Ships usually took months to cross oceans
and coaches took at least 25 days to travel 1,000 miles. So a
transportation company put out the call: "Wanted-young, skinny, wiry fellows,
not over 20. Must be expert riders, and are willing to risk their lives for
the job. Orphans preferred. Wages twenty five dollars a week." Company
employees came up with a relay system. Each rider would travel 100 miles
night and day, riders would stop every ten to twenty miles to change new
horses. When a rider got to their home station, a new rider would take over.
In all, there would be 190 stations along the Pony Express trail. Upsonís
route took him east from sportsmanís hall, near Sacramento, California.
Across the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The night of his ride, a blizzard
tested Upsonís courage and strength. Some bet Upson could not make it across
the mountains. But he was determined to uphold the Pony Express motto: "The
mail must go through." The reputation of the new mail service depended on
him. Snow covered the wagon tracks and landmarks along the way, making it
difficult to find the route. At times, Upson had to walk, leading his horse.
At other times, his sure-footed mustang, cut the trail. In steep canyons, a
wrong step could mean death. Slowly, Upson advanced from station to station
until reaching his home station. There, he passed the eastbound mail on to
the next rider. A few days later, the westbound mail arrived and Upson
crossed back over the snowy Sierra. Again, he was successful-and the Pony
Express was off and running. Less than two years later, progress caught up
with the Pony Express. The transcontinental telegraph was completed Oct. 24,
1861, and the Pony Express was no longer needed. The new "Talking wires,"
could carry information quickly across the country. But the Pony Express
left behind a stirring legacy. In less than 19 months, riders had covered
650,000 miles and carried 34,753 pieces of mail. Only one mail sack was ever
lost. Perhaps the California newspaper, the Pacific, put it best with its
tribute to the Pony Express: "Goodbye Pony! You have served us well."
Pony Express, mail service operating between Saint Joseph, Missouri, and
Sacramento, California, inaugurated on April 3, 1860, under the direction of
the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company.
At that time, regular mail delivery took up to three weeks to cross the
continent. The Pony Express carried mail rapidly overland on horseback the
nearly 2000 miles between St. Joseph and Sacramento; the schedule allowed ten
days for the trip. The mail was then carried by boat to San Francisco.
Stations averaging at first 40 km (25 mi) apart were established, and each
rider was expected to cover 120 km (75 mi) a day. Pony Express riders were
usually lightweight young men, often teenagers. Special saddle bags that
could be moved to a fresh horse very quickly at a change station were used.
Buffalo Bill was a famous Pony Express rider.
Eventually, the Pony Express had more than 100 stations, 80 riders, and
between 400 and 500 horses. The express route was extremely hazardous, but
only one mail delivery was ever lost. The Pony Express is credited with
helping to keep California in the Union by providing rapid communication
between the two coasts. News of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the United
States presidency in 1860 and of the outbreak of the American Civil War in
1861 reached California via the Pony Express. The regular Pony Express
service was discontinued in October 1861, after the Pacific Telegraph Company
completed its line to San Francisco.
The Pony Express was developed by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and
Alexander Majors. Financially, the Pony Express was a failure, leading its
founders to bankruptcy. However, the drama surrounding the Pony Express made
it a part of the legend of the American West.