PONY EXPRESS. The Pony Express officially lasted from 3 April 1860 to 26 October 1861, although a few scattered runs were made through November. At first, mail was carried once a week; after June 1860 it was carried twice a week. It operated as a private enterprise, but beginning on 1 July 1860, it was a subcontracted mail route of the U.S. Post Office Department. Prior to the Pony Express, mail could take weeks, even months to arrive from the eastern to the Pacific states. Most was carried by water. Those who wanted their mail in less than two months had only one option, John Butterfield's Overland Mail stagecoach service. Butterfield's stages used the Southern Route between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco, California. At its swiftest, mail traveled this route in twenty-four days. Westerners demanded faster mail service. The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company (COC&PP) freighting firm stepped up to the challenge. The owners, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, proposed a relay system of
horses to carry the mail across the then less accessible 1,966-mile-long Central Route between St.Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. They boasted of cutting mail delivery time down to ten days. Russell anticipated that the resulting publicity from a successful, showy service would help him secure a lucrative mail contract over that route.
The Pony Express used an intricate relay system of riders and horses to carry the mail over a route that passed through the present states of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Riders carried the mail across the Plains, along the valley of the Platte River, across the Great Plateau, through the Rockies, into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, through the alkali deserts of Nevada, then over the Sierra Nevada and into the Sacramento Valley. Russell and his partners bought four hundred horses and hired riders and stationmasters. Stations were placed approximately ten miles apart. Where they did not previously exist, the company built and stocked them.
Riders were assigned seventy-five-mile-long portions of the trail and kept a speedy pace by switching horses at each station. Riders carried letters and telegrams as well as newspapers printed on special lightweight paper. Mail was wrapped in oiled silk for protection and placed in the pockets of a specially designed saddle cover called a mochila. When horse or rider switches were made, the mochila was whipped off of one saddle and tossed onto the next one.
The price of a letter was $5 per half-ounce at first, and reduced to $1 per half-ounce on 1 July 1861.The fastest delivery time recorded for the Pony Express was seven days and seventeen hours, conveying Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address. Russell, Majors, and Waddell lost $30 on every letter they carried. By the time they sold their assets for debts, employees joked that the company's initials stood for "Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay." In March 1861, the Pony Express became the property of the Butterfield Overland Express and Wells, Fargo. On 1 July 1861, Butterfield's Overland Mail line was moved from the Southern to the Central Route.
Although a financial failure, the Pony Express successfully filled the communication gap before the completion
of the telegraph, provided westerners with speedier access to family and friends in the East, improved contact between western military outposts, proved the Central Route was passable year round, and paved the way for permanent transportation systems along its route.
Bloss, Roy S. Pony Express, the Great Gamble. Berkeley: Howell-North, 1959.
Bradley, Glenn Danford. The Story of the Pony Express. 2d ed. San Francisco: Hesperian House, 1960.
Chapman, Arthur. The Pony Express: the Record of a Romantic Adventure in Business. New York: Cooper Square, 1971.
Settle, Raymond W. The Pony Express: Heroic Effort, Tragic End. San Rafael, Calif.: Pony Express History and Art Gallery, 1959.
Mochila is the Spanish term for knapsack, although the mochilas used by pony express riders did not resemble knapsacks. Made of leather, with four pockets, or cantinas, the mochilas carried the mail. Three of the cantinas were locked. The keys were held by stationmasters at each end of the route and at the home stations where riders handed off the mail. The mochila was easy to slip on or off a saddle, and when riders changed horses, they just grabbed the mochila and swung it over the saddle of the new horse. Riders sat on the mochila-covered saddle. Openings cut into the leather allowed it to fit over the saddle horn and cantle.
Pony Express was a short-lived but emblematic mail and small package carrier service that operated during the mid-1800s. It still remains a symbol of American westward expansion. The service began in 1860 as a means to move messages and parcels from St. Joseph, Missouri (then the western terminus of the nation's rail system), to Sacramento, California, and all points between. The Pony Express trail was 2,000 miles (just over 3,200 kilometers) long and could be traveled in eight to 10 days by a series of riders.
The service was backed by businessman William Hepburn Russell (1812–72), who hired 80 riders and kept 400 horses and ponies to make the relay journey around the clock. Each rider traveled about 75 miles (120 kilometers) per day. Riders followed a trail that ran along Nebraska's Platte River to present day Wyoming, then turned south toward Great Salt Lake (in present day Utah), and south of there turned west to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert to the Sierra Nevada Mountains (in present-day western Nevada), which were crossed into California. Along the route, there were nearly 200 Pony Express stations where riders would change horses or end their day's journey, handing off the specially designed leather mailbag to the next rider. These changes usually took less than two minutes.
Pony Express service was the fastest way to get messages across the frontier at the time; the only alternatives were transport by stagecoach or boat. But when the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed on October 24, 1861, the Pony Express folded only two days later. Its fastest run had been made in March of that year when a transcript of President Abraham Lincoln's (1809–65) first address to Congress arrived in Sacramento in seven days and 17 hours.
See also: California, Missouri, Telegraph, Utah, Wyoming
On April 3, 1860, a new cross-country mail carrier called the Pony Express began operation. William H. Russell (1812–1872) backed the service, hoping to earn a lucrative government contract to carry mail from the Missouri River to California . Before the Pony Express began, all mail to California traveled an indirect route through the South and generally took twenty-two days. Russell hoped to prove that a central route was both feasible and faster.
The Pony Express began in Saint Joseph, Missouri , the western end of the nation's rail system, and ended in Sacramento, California. The route was nearly 2,000 miles long and operated much like a long relay. Just over 150 stations were built at distances of 10 to 15 miles from each other. Stables of ponies were kept at each station, and carriers rode quickly from one station to the next. Upon reaching a station, a carrier transferred his saddlebags to a fresh pony in two minutes. After riding 75 to 100 miles, a carrier finished for the day and a new carrier continued the trip. Each horse and rider made only one journey each day.
The Pony Express could carry mail from Missouri to California in just ten days. The record of seven days was set when news of President Abraham Lincoln 's inaugural address was carried in March 1861. The success of the Pony Express, however, was short-lived. Telegraph lines soon spanned the nation, with the last connection being made on October 24, 1861. The telegraph eliminated the need for the Pony Express, and Russell failed to win the mail contract for which he had worked. The Pony Express stopped two days later, on October 26, 1861.
Pony Express ★★★ 1953
Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok join forces to extend the Pony Express mail route west to California through rain and sleet, snow and hail. Far from a factual account but good for extending the myth of the Old West. 101m/C VHS . Charlton Heston, Rhonda Fleming, Jan Sterling, Forrest Tucker; D: Jerry Hopper; C: Ray Rennahan.