Pony Express

The Pony Express was a fast mail service crossing the North American continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast, operating from April 1860 to October 1861. Messages were carried on horseback relay across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. It briefly reduced the time for mail to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to around ten days.

( See Below for An Early Kansas History of The Pony Express )


By traveling a slightly shorter route and using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches, the founders of the Pony Express hoped to establish their service as a faster and more reliable conduit for the mail and win away the exclusive government mail contract.

The Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system could be built and operated continuously the year around — something that had previously been regarded as impossible. Since its replacement by the First Transcontinental Telegraph and Railroad, the Pony Express has entered the romance of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of the individual riders and horses over technological innovation is part of "American rugged individualism".

In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service trademarked the name "Pony Express".

Founded By William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, it officially opened on April 3, 1860. The first trip, westbound, was made in 9 days and 23 hours. The eastbound trip was made in 11 days and 12 hours. Every 24 hours they covered 250 mi. The Pony Express, established a year before the beginning of the American Civil War, reflected the need to provide fast and reliable communication with the West.

In 1845, it took President James K. Polk six months to deliver a message to the Far West. Messages in those days had to travel around the tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego) or across the isthmus of Panama.

By 1860, the fastest route was the Butterfield Stage line from St. Louis, Missouri, through El Paso, Texas, which took 25 days. It was almost 600 miles (950 km) shorter to deliver the mail over a central or northern route. There were concerns, however, whether these alternatives were viable during the winter snows.

In 1854, Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, an employee of the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, is said to have first proposed a faster northern route to California Senator William M. Gwin. Russell, Majors and Waddell was one of the biggest outfitters for travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, operating out of a vast complex in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Missouri. The firm also outfitted the army from its main western base at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

In October 1857, Russell, Majors and Waddell faced financial ruin when Lot Smith and his Nauvoo Legion destroyed 54 of their wagons during the Utah War. The Army did not reimburse the firm, and the company began looking for other avenues for funds. In 1859, they bought from Ben Holladay the contract to deliver mail between Leavenworth and Salt Lake City, Utah.

On January 27, 1860, William Hepburn Russell wired the firm from Leavenworth that Gwin was supporting a contract for California service on the central route provided that it be delivered in 10 days and be ready to debut by April. They renamed their Leavenworth & Pikes Peak Express to the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to attempt the feat.

The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had just opened in 1859 and was the first railroad to cross Missouri. It was 30 miles (48 km) up the Missouri River from Leavenworth in St. Joseph. It was determined that this would be the starting point for a rapid central mail route to California.

Alexander Majors and Ficklin assembled 190 relay stations over 1,966 miles (3,106 km) from St. Joseph to Sacramento, along with 50 riders and 500 horses. They completed the task in time for the April 3, 1860, opening. Ficklin later clashed with Russell and quit the business in July 1860. He became one of the incorporators of the Pacific Telegraph Company.

Pony Express stations were placed at intervals of about 10 miles (16 km) along the route, roughly the maximum distance a horse can travel at full gallop. The rider changed to a fresh horse at each station, taking only the mail pouch (called a mochila, Spanish (from Basque) for "pouch") with him. The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety.

The mochila could hold 20 pounds (10 kg) of mail along with the 20 pounds of material carried on the horse, allowing for a total of 165 pounds (75 kg) on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, were changed about every 75–100 miles (120-160 km). Included in that 20 pounds were: a water sac, a Bible, a knife, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver. Eventually, they took away everything except one revolver and a water sac to cut down on the weight. The riders received $100 per month as pay.

Major had acquired over 400 horses for the project, and these averaged about 14½ hands (1.47 m) high and weighed under 900 pounds (410 kg), thus the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct for all the horses.

The route roughly followed the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail and California Trail. After crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph to Kansas, it followed what is modern day US 36—the Pony Express Highway—to Marysville, Kansas, where it turned northwest following Little Blue River to Fort Kearney in Nebraska. Through Nebraska it followed the Platte River, cutting through Gothenburg, Nebraska and passing Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, clipping the edge of Colorado at Julesburg, Colorado, before arriving Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From there it followed the Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock, Devil's Gate, and Split Rock, to Fort Caspar, through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then down to Salt Lake City. It crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, and the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe before arriving in Sacramento. Mail was then sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. On a few instances when the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland, California.

The First Ride
The rides were scheduled to leave San Francisco and St. Joseph simultaneously on April 3, 1860 although the westbound route has gotten more publicity. No photographs of riders beginning in either direction are known and none are believed to exist.

The messenger delivering the mochila from New York and Washington missed a connection in Detroit and arrived in Hannibal, Missouri, two hours late. The railroad cleared the track and dispatched a special locomotive called the "Missouri" with a one-car train to make the 206-mile (332 km) trek across the state in a record 4 hours, 51 minutes — an average of 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). It arrived at Olive and 8th Street — a few blocks from the company's new headquarters in a hotel at Patee House at 12th Street and Pennsylvania and the company's nearby stables on Pennsylvania. The first pouch contained 49 letters, five private telegrams, and some papers for San Francisco and intermediate points.

St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson, William Russell and Alexander Majors gave speeches before the mochila was handed off. There is debate over who actually was the first rider. The ride began at about 7:15 p.m.

The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about a half mile (800 m) from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Johnny Fry is credited as the first "real" westbound rider. He carried the pouch across the Missouri River ferry to Elwood, Kansas. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river; however, subsequently, the courier crossed the river without a horse, getting the mount at a stable on the other side. Fry then rode to Seneca, Kansas.

Johnson William Richardson, who was 9 at the time, was believed to have been the actual first rider when he took the pouch the few blocks to the ferry. His brother who managed the stables is said to have thrown the mailbags on his mount. Richardson did not ride after this first instance.

Fry delivered the first mail from San Francisco/Sacramento to St. Joseph on April 13.

James Randall is credited as the first rider from the San Francisco Alta telegraph office since he was on the steamship Antelope to go to Sacramento. At 2:45 a.m., William (Sam) Hamilton was the first rider to begin the journey from Sacramento.

Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern route was viable, Russell, Majors and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Ben Holladay in March 1861, who had taken over the Butterfield Stage. Holladay took over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches. From March 1861, the Pony Express only ran mail between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the Transcontinental Telegraph reached Salt Lake City.

The Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866, after the American Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.

Trademarks and logos
Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo for its guard and armored car service. The logo continued to be used when other companies took over the security business into the 1990s. Effective 2001, the Pony Express logo was no longer used for security businesses since the business has been sold.
In June 2006, the United States Postal Service announced it had trademarked "Pony Express" along with Air Mail.

Pony Express statues are in Sacramento; Stateline, Nevada; Reno, Nevada; Salt Lake City; Casper, Wyoming; Julesburg, Colorado; North Kansas City, Missouri; and St. Joseph. The original and most famous is the one dedicated on April 20, 1940, in St. Joseph. It was sculpted by Hermon Atkins MacNeil. It is at City Hall Park. The city has rejected proposals to move it to the park opposite the stables.

An Early Kansas History of The Pony Express
by Frank W. Blackmar (1912)
William H. Russell, of the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, freighters, of Leavenworth, was the individual who instituted the "pony express" from the Missouri river to the Pacific coast. St. Joseph, Mo., was the starting point, and on April 3, 1860, a little after sunset Johnnie Frey, mounted on a black pony, made his departure on the first trip. Anticipating the occasion St. Joseph was decorated in holiday attire, with bands discoursing enlivening music, while a large crowd had gathered on the levee to speed the departing messenger. At Sacramento the occasion was observed in a more ostentatious manner. A substantial fund had been contributed by the citizens for celebrating the inauguration of the enterprise; the city had been gaily decorated with flags and bunting; business was suspended; cannons boomed; brass bands played, while state officials and local orators made the occasion one long to he remembered.

A pure white pony ridden by Harry Roff left this city the same day the black pony left the other end of the line, and covered the first 20 miles—two stages—in 59 minutes. He changed horses in 10 seconds, changing again at Folsom and reaching Placerville, 5 miles from Sacramento, in 2 hours and 49 minutes. The first "pony" rider to reach Salt Lake was the east bound one, who arrived on the 7th, and reaching St. Joseph in 11 days and 12 hours from the Pacific coast. The rider from the eastern starting point reached the Utah capital on the 9th, entered Sacramento in 9 days and 23 hours from the time he started.

The quickest trip ever made over the route was in March, 1861, when President Lincoln's first inaugural address was carried from St. Joseph to Sacramento, 1,980 miles, in 7 days and 17 hours. On one occasion despatches were carried from St. Joseph to Denver, 675 miles, in 69 hours. The regular schedule for delivering mail to the Pacific coast, however, was 8 days for despatches and 10 days for letters. This schedule was about two weeks ahead of the best time by the Southern Overland Mail company.

The route from St. Joseph, after crossing the Missouri river, lay a little south of west until it reached the old military road from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Kearney, near the village of Kennekuk, in Atchison county, 44 miles out. Thence it diverged northwesterly across the Kickapoo Indian reservation via Granada, Log Chain, Seneca, Ash Point, Guittard's, Marysville and Hollenberg, which was the last station in Kansas; thence up the Little Blue Valley to Rock Creek, Big Sandy, Liberty Farm, thence over the plains to the Platte river and up that stream to Fort Kearney; thence west via Julesburg, Col., Fort Laramie, Wyo., through the Rocky mountains via South Pass to Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City, Carson City and Sacramento, where the pony was changed for steamer for San Francisco.

Pony charges were first fixed at $5.00 for each half ounce, but the postoffice department later ordered this price reduced to $1.50, which price prevailed until the Pacific telegraph put the "pony express" out of business. Thousands of letters were plastered over with "pony stamps" and during the British troubles with China one document for the English government had $135 in stamps on it. In addition to the "pony" charges the United States required a ten-cent stamp on all correspondence going by this route.

The line was operated semi-weekly. It was stocked with several hundred fleet-footed ponies, which were distributed at intervals of from 10 to 15 miles, at stations technically called "stages." Some 80 riders were employed, those selected usually having been chosen for lightness as well as being able to cope with the dangers attending the work. Their pay ranged from $50 to $150 a month, those portions of the route through the sections infested with treacherous Indians being most highly paid. The average weight of riders was about 135 pounds, and in addition to the rider the pony had to carry an average of 15 pounds of mail matter besides the weight of the bridle, saddle and mail bags, an extra 13 pounds. All mail matter was wrapped in oiled silk as a precaution against dampness.

To all but promoters the enterprise proved a blessing. Russell lost about $100,000, and his partners also lost fortunes. Their expenses were heavy, nearly 500 good saddle horses were required, 190 stations were kept up, and in addition about 200 men were employed as station keepers. All grain for the horses had to be freighted from the east at a cost of from 10 to 25 cents a pound. The "pony express" lasted less than two years, the daily overland stage coach following in July, 1861, two months before it ceased operations, and four month later the Pacific telegraph was working.

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