[BackStory] Pony Express Trail Riders – Orphans Preferred!

Pony Express Route

We visited St. Joseph, Missouri for only one reason. We wanted to visit the Pony Express Museum at the place where it all began. This is where the Pony Express Trail Riders started their westward journey.

Pony Express Museum in St. Joe
Pony Express Museum in St. Joe

I love the stories of the people who built America. Some were rich, making their millions while building big things like the railroads. Some were adventurers, exploring trails that would later become major highways. All of them were people who stepped out of their comfort zone and tried something new. The Pony Express was definitely something new!

Why St. Joe?

From 1850 to 1860, St. Joseph, Missouri was the edge of the frontier and a very popular place to begin the long journey to the new lands in California, Oregon, Utah and points along the way. All of the major roads, including the California Trail, the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail, went through St. Joseph. The locals were turning a nice profit while outfitting the wagons and travelers.

Pony Express Museum, St. Joseph, MO
Exhibit of Settlers on the California Trail. Pony Express Museum, St. Joe

Russell, Majors & Waddell held a major transportation company that was headquartered in St. Joseph. Their primary client was the US Military, who required supplies to be carried to the various forts scattered along the routes.  The Pony Express was their new enterprise. They were hoping for the mail carrying contract from the US Government and wanted to prove that mail could be reliably carried across the mountains and deserts, even in the winter.

We Need Mail!

The year is 1860. A civil war is looming. California has just been added as a territory and there are almost 400,000 people in California, Nevada and Utah. News from east is taking weeks to arrive. One very real concern was the status of California in the upcoming war. If they do not feel they are part of the US, they might align with the South!

A Short-lived Solution

And so the Pony Express was born.  The promise was 9 days from St. Louis to California.  In April of 1860 the first rider left St. Joseph, Missouri on a fast horse heading east.  Another rider left Sacramento, California, heading west.  The short life of the Pony Express had begun.

Pony Express Rider waving to Telegraph Line installer. Newspaper article, 1867
Pony Express Rider waving to Telegraph Line installer. Newspaper article, 1867

The trail was nearly 2000 miles long. About 160 stations were spaced nine to fifteen miles apart. The rider got a fresh horse at each station. At every home station, roughly every 60 miles, a new rider picked up the mail bag and the first rider got some sleep until the mail from the opposite direction arrived.

The letters were $5.00 an ounce, in 1860 dollars! Only the rich could afford to send mail at that price! The owners lost an estimated $500,000. It was a total bust financially.

The Pony Express service was never destined to last long. It lasted 18 months.  By October of 1861, the transcontinental telegraph was completed. This of course made communication quicker and a bit cheaper than even the Pony Express. The Pony ran its last run and sent the boys home.

But the Pony Express lives on in our imagination because of the young, fast riders of the Pony Express.

Pony Express Trail Riders

A help wanted ad in California read:

Wanted. Young, Skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Mochilla style mailbag used by the Pony Express
Mochilla style mailbag used by the Pony Express

Riders were hired and based at home stations every 60-80 miles along the length of the trail. Each rider went back and forth over his assigned route once a week, passing the mail in a relay to the next rider at the next station. Depending on your assignment, you might have mountains covered in snow, or the plains of Nebraska, or the deserts of Nevada.

Meet Pony Bob Haslam

Just a couple of weeks after the first run of the Pony Express, the Paiutes in what is now Nevada went to war. It is unclear what started the war, but the Ponies were running right through the middle of it. The most famous ride of the Pony Express was made by Pony Bob Haslam. His family had immigrated from England and joined the Mormon settlement in Utah. At the time he rode for the Pony Express, Pony Bob was 20 years old. His run was from Friday’s Station (Lake Tahoe) to Buckland’s Station.

Reconstructed Home Station Used by Pony Express Trail Riders

As Pony Bob was riding east, the war with the Indians was flaring up. Once he got to Buckland’s station, his replacement rider was shaking in his boots and refused to ride. So Mr. Haslam switched horses and kept riding. By the time he arrived at Smith’s Creek, he had ridden 190 miles in one run. This was three times longer than a normal run.  I get tired driving 190 miles in a car! Can you imagine it on a horse?

The Significance of the Pony Express

For an enterprise that lasted only 18 months, the Pony Express lives on in our American mythology. Starting with Buffalo Bill Cody, the great marketers of the time kept the story alive. Buffalo Bill’s Wild Wild West show, which ran for 30 years across the US and Europe, always kept a place for the Pony Express. From silent movies to the 1950’s westerns, the Pony Express stayed on the silver screen.

Why do we love them? Because they inspire us to adventure, commitment, and courage. Three cheers to the Pony Express!

 

 

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