And Now You Know More: The Pony Express


by Thomas Best

Legend, myth, falsehoods—take your pick.  There are few topics that are more plagued by misinformation or aggrandizement than the story of the 19th century relay mail system known as the “Pony Express.” 

During the start of our recent vacation, we had the chance to stop at an actual remaining Pony Express station cabin in Gothenburg in central Nebraska.  Here a small log cabin’s exhibits and their docents clarified the story of this American western legend.

Not the very first horse-relay mail system, this private company was created to send business and personal mail across the West from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California starting in April 1860.  Officially named “The Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company” by the existing freight firm of “Russell, Majors, & Waddell,” the company, this famed overland mail route ceased working just 19 months. Why?  Their replacement by the anticipated opening of the much faster transcontinental telegraph system and the increasingly impossible higher costs—often from rebuilding stations after attacks by Native Americans.  This was a rushed business operation.  In just 67 days, the operators hired riders and station keepers, built stations, and bought horses known for their speed and endurance.  The trail they chose followed the existing freight lines and overland trail routes such as the California Trail, where possible.  There were two types of stations—“Home Stations” positioned every 75 to 100 miles to house resting riders—and “Relay Stations”—positioned just 15 miles apart where riders could quickly mount a fresh horse and be off at the gallop. 

The riders, preferably orphans, could be no older than 18 years-old, weigh no more than 120 pounds, and had to promise to not swear, drink, gamble, or abuse their horse.  About 200 young men were eventually hired starting at salaries ranging from $50 to $150 a month; but considering the rigors of this job, most riders did not last more than a few months.  Riding from 10 to 25 miles an hour in all types of weather conditions, they transported a light weight pouch—called a “mochila” (MO-chee-lah)—with four locked pockets loaded with dispatches, letters, and special light weight newspapers.  The cost of shipping such mail?  At first it cost $5; but that fee was later cut to $1 for a half-an-ounce of correspondence (today the equivalent of sending a postcard today for about $36!). 

Contrary to myth, neither Wild Bill Hickock or Buffalo Bill Cody were among the boyish riders.  The most heroic rider may have been “Pony” Bob Haslam, who once was required to ride 380 miles in 36 hours over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.   

The fastest delivery ever over the roughly 1,900 mile trek was in just seven days and seventeen hours—and that was to deliver the news of Abraham Lincoln’s “Inaugural Address” of March 4, 1861.  

Finally, after less than two years, the trek passing east and west from the gold fields of California to the shore of the Missouri River shut down.  That said, the legend of the Pony Express lives on today.      

Thanks for your interest.

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