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The Pony Express

Drawing of a Pony Express rider passing a telegraph construction crew.

The west hosted half a million Americans by the end of the 1850s. However, receiving news or correspondence from the east took a month or more due to poor mail services on the Central route. The government believed that no effective mail service could function year round on the route due to the severe winters and rough terrain. Senator William Gwin of California believed it critical to unite the country across the "Great American Desert." He encouraged William Russell, of the famous freighting firm Russell, Majors, and Waddell, to found a pony express from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, in order to show the efficiency of the Central route. Majors and Waddell hesitated entering into such a risky and expensive ordeal, but wanted to uphold their partner's commitment to Gwin (Olson and Naugle 109). A hundred thousand dollars was invested from the inception of the Pony Express in order to purchase 500 sturdy horses, hire 80 young riders, and supplies for all of the stations (Comspark.com). Having extensively invested in the new venture, Russell, Majors, and Waddell carefully and quickly organized the route and had it running within a few weeks (Olson and Naugle 109). They took the risk with hopes of obtaining a government contract to permanently deliver mail along the Central route (Olson and Naugle 109). Russell, Majors, and Waddell advertised the Pony Express's speedy service to attract clients. The company charged five dollars for every ½ ounce of mail carried and promised its passage from St. Joseph Missouri to Sacramento, CA within 10 days. To accomplish the task, riders had to average 10 mph to make the near 2,000 mile journey in time. As the Express ran all year long, delays were inevitable. However, some deliveries were completed with incredible speed, in as little as seven days (Mattes and Henderson 86). The Pony Express was in operation from April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861 (Mattes and Henderson 83).

The Pony Express intrigued many people with its young, lanky riders and quick footed mustangs. While on a stage coach headed for the "Far West", Mark Twain wrote:

Presently the driver exclaims, 'Here he comes!' Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, . . .In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider, rising and falling, rising and falling-sweeping toward us nearer and nearer-growing more and more distinct. . .the flutter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear-another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave to the rider's hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go swinging away like a belated fragment of a storm! So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of an unreal fantasy(Twain 53).

The Pony Express Route basically followed the Oregon Trail west to California. The Pony Express line included approximately 190 relay stations located approximately 15 miles apart starting from St. Joseph, Missouri crossing Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and ending in Sacramento, California. Around fifty percent of the stations had already been in use as stage lines prior to the inception of the Express. The remaining stations were nothing more than barns or small shacks that were hurriedly thrown together (Comspark.com). The Pony Express route departed from St. Joseph, crossed the Missouri River, made way across northern Kansas, meeting up with the Oregon Trail near Marysville, KS, then continued on the trail northward into Nebraska. The Pony Express route entered Nebraska at the southwest corner of present Gage County, immediately going northwest into Jefferson County to reach Rock House station. From this first terminal, the route continued on to Rock Creek, Virginia City, Liberty Farm, 32 Mile Creek, Fort Kearney, Midway, Cottonwood Springs, Gill's, Diamond Springs, Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Scott's Bluff, and Horse Creek, to name a few Nebraska stations (Mattes and Henderson 97–111).

The pony express was short lived for several reasons. The company was bankrupt having spent $200,000 and earned only $94,000 to keep the Express operational (Crews 1993). Despite the extreme over expenditure of the company and the incredible efforts of its' riders, the Pony Express abruptly ended with the connection of the telegraph line in Salt Lake City, Utah in October 24, 1861 (Olson and Naugle 110). It was still an important time in history in that it showed all that mail could be carried across mid-America in record time. The Express helped maintain connections between California and the eastern United States during intense political turmoil. News of President Lincoln's inaugural address and the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter reached Sacramento in record time in 1861 thanks to the Pony Express. Lincoln's inaugural address delivery being the fastest time recorded of 7 days and 17 hours (Root 1901). In addition, the Pony Express proved that mail could be carried across the central route year round and delivered in record time. To the frustration of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, the government ultimately contracted the central mail route to Butterfields Overland Mail Company (Comspark.com). While a brief moment in American history, the Pony Express became a distinct symbol of westward expansion and the frontier.

Root, Frank A.
1901 The Overland Stage to California. Electronic document, http://www.rootsweb.com/~neresour/OLLibrary/OLStage/, accessed March 1, 2006.

2005 Gold Rush Chronicles. Electronic Document, http://comspark.com/chronicles/ponyexpress.shtml#Anchor--The%20Moch-62708, accessed March 1, 2006.

Olson, James and Ronald C. Naugle
1997 History of Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Mattes, Merrill and Paul Henderson
1960 The Pony Express Across Nebraska from St. Joseph to Fort Laramie, Nebraska History 41(2):83–122.

Crews, Tom
1993 Pony Express Home Station. Electronic document, http://www.xphomestation.com/frm-history.html, accessed March 1, 2006.

Twain, Mark
1913 Roughing It, vol. I. Harper & Brothers, New York.