The Pony Rides Again (and Again)

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Shortly before last Christmas, a prominent New York auction house put up for bid a collection of 63 postmarked envelopes and stamps that the daring riders of the Pony Express had carried 150 years ago. Experts estimated that the rare collection, owned by Thurston Twigg-Smith, an 88-year-old philanthropist and former publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser, might net $2.5 million. It drew $4 million.That the Pony Express generated such income would have gladdened the hearts of the venture’s original founders—William Hepburn Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Bradford Waddell—who never made a dime from the business. The heroic, nearly 2,000-mile delivery of mail across the country hemorrhaged money, from the first day a rider saddled up until the click of the transcontinental telegraph shut it down 78 weeks later. The Pony Express was one of the most colossal and celebrated failures in American business history, but its legacy, as the sale at Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries suggests, remains an enduring and revered piece of the Old West myth. Even today, old-timers in the remotest parts of the American West still speak of “the days of the Pony.” Few figures in that region’s history loom larger than those true riders of the purple sage, whom Mark Twain called “the swift phantoms of the desert.”

In its own day, the Express caused quite a stir. By beginning where the train and the telegraph line stopped at St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1860, the service closed an information gap that had long frustrated both coasts. The Pacific slope was a far country in those days: mail from the East took not days or weeks but many months to cross the nation by stagecoach or to be shipped around the stormy Cape Horn or through the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama. The Pony cut the time of moving information overland to 10 days or less, and on this count at least it proved a spectacular success. It initially cost customers $5 to send one letter, although rates would crumble as the firm desperately tried to generate business. Still, that was a lot of money in 1860, when a laborer in Kansas might make only that in a week. Patrons of the fast service thus tended to be banks, newspapers, and officials, including diplomats. “[The riders] got but little frivolous correspondence to carry,” noted Mark Twain.

“No enterprise of the kind in its day was ever celebrated on the Pacific coast with more enthusiasm than the arrival of the first pony express,” wrote historians Frank A. Root and William E. Connelley in The Overland Stage to California (1901). “News of the arrival of the first mail across the continent by the fleet pony was published with flaming head-lines in a number of the coast evening papers.” Huge crowds assembled in San Francisco to welcome the brave rider who had brought news so quickly from so far. Only a few observers made negative comments, claiming that the entire venture was a mere publicity stunt designed to drum up more lucrative mail contracts.

The privately financed Pony Express was hastily thrown together in late 1859 and began operations on the evening of April 3, 1860. After the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad train arrived late that day with the mail, a rider and his horse were ferried across the Missouri, heading west into history. That cargo’s goal was Sacramento, capital of the state of California, which had been rocketed into the Union on the heels of the gold rush just 10 years before. At the same time, another rider had set out eastward from California.

Piggybacking on existing posts along the Oregon Trail and other established overland routes, the Pony Express set up operations with approximately 190 way stations about 10 to 12 miles apart. Someone had been hired to feed and care for the horses at each stop. The average station, wrote the celebrated British explorer Richard Burton, who followed the route while the Pony was running, “is about as civilized as the Galway shanty [Burton loathed the Irish], or the normal dwelling-place in Central Equatorial Africa.” The floor of the “Robber’s Roost” station in present-day eastern Nevada was “a mass of soppy black soil strewed with ashes, gobs of meat offals, and other delicacies,” and the roof leaked, too. There were no real windows but what he described as “portholes.” “Beneath the framework were heaps of rubbish, saddles, cloths, harness, and straps, sacks of wheat, oats, meal, and potatoes, defended from the ground by underlying logs, and dogs nestled where they found room.” The station had running water, he noted—an actual spring leaked continually inside, maintaining “a state of eternal mud.”

Riders frequently changed horses at most stations, usually riding no more than 100 miles before being relieved. Though speed was required, they rarely galloped, an activity particularly hazardous when traversing deserts pocked with prairie-dog holes that could easily break a horse’s leg. On the plains the riders often had to navigate around the still enormous herds of buffalo. Keep moving, the riders were instructed, but take no unnecessary risks.

The 2,000-mile route touched eight present states. Starting in Missouri, it crossed the rolling prairies of Kansas and Nebraska, clipped a corner of Colorado before trailing back into the lonely grasslands of western Nebraska near Scotts Bluff, and then crossed Wyoming (to avoid the then impenetrable Rocky Mountains in Colorado) before dipping down into Utah at Salt Lake City “of the Latter-Day Saints,” as Burton called it. From here the riders faced one of the bleakest stretches of the continent, the near-lunar landscape of Utah and Nevada, where water was scarce and hostile Paiute raiders were plentiful. Then the trail headed up and over the snow-covered Sierra Nevada at Lake Tahoe and into California, before snaking down to Sacramento and on to San Francisco. It took a brave, resourceful man to ride through such rugged country.