End of the Pony Express
“If only I had been born a hundred years earlier” I thought to myself as I read about the Pony Express when I was a young teenager. The romanticized version of riding a horse through rough, untamed, and hostile territory was enticing to a young boy. Alas, the Pony Express had ceased operations long before I had that opportunity.
By 1860 the population of California had soared to 380,000 and there was demand for faster communication.
Sometimes opportunity knocks just once. If a person can recognize the opportunity as a knock instead of a branch falling on your roof, there may be money to be made. With the approach of the Civil War, the demand for faster communication increased. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell formed a partnership to begin the Pony Express.
The Pony Express began in April of 1860 as a new method of mail delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. The business used relay teams of riders and horses to speed the mail along the 2,000 mile route. The system cut the delivery time by more than half in what was then a unique and innovative system to speed the delivery of mail. The Pony Express on average took 10 days to deliver mail when a stagecoach had taken 25 days on average covering the same distance. In March of 1861, the record was set by delivering President Lincoln’s inaugural address in just seven days and 17 hours!
There were a total of 184 stations that were spaced between 5 to 25 miles apart. The standard was 10 miles apart but sometimes the terrain and other conditions dictated diff erent spacing. Riders could not weigh more than 125 pounds, making them similar to present day jockeys. Each rider was expected to carry the mail pouch about 75 miles before it was transferred to another rider.
The riders would swap horses at each station so as not to exhaust a horse. The average age of a rider was 20, but some were as young as 14 years old. The riders carried just a revolver, water, and the mail pouch. The speed of the Pony Express wasn’t economical. In its early days the service cost $5 for every half-ounce of mail. This was later reduced to $1 for each half-ounce, but was way beyond the ability of ordinary people to pay.
The owners attempted to obtain a mail contract with the United States government, but this never materialized.
The service was used primarily to deliver newspaper reports, government dispatches and business documents. These were mostly printed on tissue-thin paper to keep the weight as low as possible.
Pony Express riders had to deal with punishing weather conditions, unforgiving terrain, and the danger of attacks by bandits and Indians; however life may have been even more dangerous for the employees who manned the relief stations. Those outposts were usually crude, dirt floor shacks equipped with little more than sleeping quarters and corrals for the horses. Many of the relay stations were located in remote sections of the frontier, making them extremely susceptible to attacks. Indians reportedly attacked or burned several relay stations during the Pyramid Lake War in the summer of 1860, killing as many as 16 employees. Only a half dozen riders died in the line of duty during the nineteen month history of the Pony Express…
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