Post Haste

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The Pacific Mail enterprise remained basically profitable for thirty years, but it was still too slow, and Americans wanted a direct and contiguous link between East and West. At mid-century the land between the Missouri River and the Western coastal ranges was still generally thought to be a “great American desert,” acting as both a formidable obstacle to passage and a persistent reminder that California might slip away from the Union unless it was firmly and directly tied to the cities of the East. But as the decade of the fifties wore on, the vacuum was being pierced at several points, most notably by the Mormon settlement of Utah and the mining developments in the Rocky Mountains, both of which stimulated a considerable trade over Northern trails. Meanwhile, to the east, steamboats had pushed up the Missouri to Nebraska City, where an important wagon-based commerce moved up the Platte River valley and on to Denver.

By 1860 the leading participant, the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, was employing more than five hundred wagons and six hundred men to ship west more than three million pounds of freight. Yet the company would be remembered not as a bulk carrier but as the most daring representative of the express industry that had sprung up all over the country in the forties and fifties to ensure the rapid and safe overland delivery of money, valuables, and important papers. As the nation spread westward, this industry naturally set its sights on establishing a fast parcel service to the Pacific.

This was no pipe dream. By 1860 the railroads had reached the Missouri and were running at approximately five times the speed of wagon transport, making it possible to move a package or document from New York to St. Joseph, Missouri, in under four days. Fifteen hundred miles of largely uninhabited land still loomed ahead. But with this kind of head start the temptation to plunge on was strong indeed.

Once again the national government played a key role, either directly, through lucrative mail contracts, or simply by providing the hope. After several earlier tentative efforts, the U.S. Post Office Department moved decisively in 1857 to sign a six-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year contract with John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company, establishing semiweekly mail and passenger coach service from St. Louis to San Francisco. Butterfield’s operation, chosen over six competing express companies, was a credible one, but it was compromised by politics and a fragmentation of purpose. First, Southern sensitivities forced the stipulated route to be drawn in a great twenty-eight-hundred-mile semicircle, dipping toward and even crossing over into Mexico. This was compounded by a requirement that the line also carry passengers, which meant the use of overland stagecoaches, the ponderous Concords of Western-movie fame as well as somewhat lower and lighter “celerity wagons”—both frequently drawn by mules. The result was a twenty-five-day schedule to which Butterfield stuck, but with some difficulty.

The schedule from New York for the physical delivery of a document now matched that of the much chancier Isthmian route. This was not good enough for William Russell, of Russell, Majors, and Waddell; he conceived of a horse-and-rider courier system running as directly as possible from the railhead at St. Joseph to San Francisco. It would be a “veritable telegraph line of flesh and blood,” as the historian Arthur Chapman described it. After persuading his somewhat reluctant partners, Russell moved with amazing energy to set up the pony express in a matter of weeks, spending nearly a hundred thousand dollars in the process.

Its sheer size and complexity were impressive, involving more than 500 blooded horses, 190 stock stations, and 80 young riders handpicked for their horsemanship and knowledge of local conditions. Beginning on April 3, 1860, all were synchronized into a precise equine and human relay that raced back and forth across the continent for more than eighteen months. Because the service lacked subsidies or a mail contract (though these were always a hope), prices had to be steep—five dollars per half-ounce. But the results were spectacular: three and one-half days’ railroad time from New York, then ten days from St. Joe to San Francisco. This cut twelve days, or almost 50 percent, off the most rapid coast-to-coast mail service that had existed before and was nearly six times as fast as the best clippers of a decade earlier.