The Pony Express, or the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, was a system of mail delivery in the United States that utilized continuous horse and rider relays from Missouri to California. Whilst it may have been a financial black hole, the Pony Express captured the heart of national imagination and is seen as one of the more colorful episodes of American West history.
It was prompted by expanding western settlements and the need for reliable means of mail delivery. However, the 24-day standard delivery system by stagecoach was deemed inefficient and thus needed to be rethought. Hence the Pony Express. But where did the idea come from, and how did it work?
A Need to Stay In Touch
The route chosen to be completed by the Pony Express stretched overland across the United States for 2,000 miles (3,219 km) and was made up of around 190 stations. Amazingly, the relay system meant that it required only 10 days for mail to cover the distance.
A rider would set out and ride for approximately 100 miles (161 km), changing horse after every 10 to 15 miles (16 to 24 km). This revolutionized communication across the great continent, allowing newspapers and businesses to get news from one side of the country to the other quickly.
Surprisingly, this method was both fast and efficient, with only a single case of mail being lost. Whilst effective, it was also costly and was eventually replaced when the telegraphy system was introduced, allowing near-instantaneous communication via telegram.
Before this system, mail tended to be sent across the country in a stagecoach, which could take around 24-days to a month to complete. the only other alternative was a long trip by boat. The boat journey, though, was risky as it involved sailing around South America or risking Panama which was full of malaria.
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The overland option by stagecoach was not much safer. It was often plagued by bad weather, attacks, and long stretches without access to resources. The main threat to this service and its followers was the Native American attacks that they found themselves vulnerable to. This was also coupled with the beginning of the civil war in 1861, which further disrupted communications and left much of the west isolated.
A Great Idea
The Pony Express was not the first time that someone had thought to use horse relays to get messages across large distances of land. The Mongols of the 13th century used a similar system, put in place by Genghis Khan.
One of the main sources of the period, Marco Polo, claims that the riders would go to stations around 25 miles (40 km) apart across the Asian empire which allowed a rider to travel up to 200 miles (322 km) a day. American newspapers also used horse relays throughout the 19th century to gather news and spread it, though over much shorter distances and without the troubles of the vast wilderness covered by the Pony Express.
For such an iconic system, strangely the origin of the Pony Express is somewhat shrouded in mystery. There are a number of varying accounts that detail the story. In 1849, Henry O’Reilly proposed a visionary plan to create a telegraph line between St. Louis in Missouri and California. In 1852, Stephen Douglas, senator of Illinois presented to the US Senate a bill that used O’Reilly’s plan, but it was rejected.
One version of the story credits B.F Ficklin as the creator of the Pony Express. He was the general superintendent of Russell, Majors, and Waddell freight and stage company. Apparently, he shared his idea for a horse relay mail system with the Californian senator William M. Gwin.
Meanwhile, others credit William H. Russell of the aforementioned company as the genius behind the idea. He is said to have discussed it with John B. Floyd, the secretary of war in 1858.
It is unclear who came up with the idea but by 1860, Russell was utilizing it and was supported by senator Gwin. In early 1860 Russell had received a contract from the government that called for a mail service to begin in April, which left him little time to prepare.
The Pony Express
By the end of 1860 there were approximately 186 Pony Express stations set up along the route. When a rider arrived at each station, they would change to a fresh horse and take only the mail pouch with him. This was called a mochila which had been taken from the Spanish word for a pouch.
This pouch was seen as incredibly important by the riders and the service. Some even said that a rider would let himself and his horse die before giving up the pouch. It was worn over the saddle and held into place by the weight of the rider.
It could hold around 20 pounds (9 kg) of mail as well as 20 pounds (9 kg) of additional material. The horses carried, all in, around 165 (75 kg) pounds of weight. The riders accounted for around 125 pounds (57 kg) with the rest made up of supplies and a gun.
Riders themselves would receive $125 of pay per month. This was significantly more than the average wage for a semi-skilled laborer at the time, which was around $2 a day or around $60 a month.
But for all its fame the Pony Express only lasted about 18 months before being shut down. During this time, it delivered around 35,000 letters between St. Joseph in Missouri and Sacramento in California, proving that the central mail route was the best option. However, Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not get the contract as it was given to Jeremy Dehut who had taken over the southern route.
The first problems began when the American Civil War broke out, causing the operation to be curtailed. From March 1861, the Pony Express operated between Salt Lake City in Utah and Sacramento. It was finally closed in October 1861 after the arrival of the telegraph in Salt Lake City.
It was not long until the telegraph connected many points and cities on both the east and west coasts. Information could now be passed instantly from the eastern states to the west, without endangering lives.
And, when all is said and done, the Pony Express was found to be a financial disaster. It only earned $90,000 but it had cost $200,000. When the civil war ended, the Pony Express did not remerge. Instead, the Pony Express was sold along with other remnants of stagecoach operations for $1.5 million, consigned to the past.
Top Image: Centennial 1960 postage stamp with the iconic image of the Pony Express rider. Source: Bureau of Engraving and Printing / Public Domain.
By Kurt Readman