Post Haste


The essence of the pony express was grit and organization, not technology, and in this it was unique among major American transportation innovations. The moment a letter was taken off the train at St. Joe it was locked with others in tiny containers at each corner of the company’s specially constructed lightweight saddles. Then it was pushed forward by relentless muscle power. In the prairie, riders followed the Oregon Trail, racing against a schedule that demanded that parcels be moved at least 220 miles a day. Relay stations were initially spaced 25 miles apart, but this was found to be too far for a horse to run at full speed, so intermediate depots were established, permitting a rider to change mounts every 10 to 15 miles. Each rider’s stint took him 75 to 100 miles between two “home stations,” where he might rest before riding back with the return mail. It was a lonely, monotonous, back-and-forth existence, which seldom put him in contact with other riders and forced him to change horses so fast on the trail that he barely got to talk to even the stockkeepers. “The only other rider I ever really knew was George Town, who took the mail from me at Seneca,” remembered Charley Cliff, one of the stalwarts of the prairie run.

For the rider the pony express was a giant treadmill designed to grind the life out of both horse and horseman. But the mail moved steadily forward, night and day, over rutted ground that might break a man with the slightest misstep, through mud flats so slick that horses actually skated across, and into Indian country, where a rider’s only protection was the fleetness of his mounts—some thoroughbred, others just wild. “A good many of the horses we had,” noted the rider Gus Cliff, “were half-broke—some of the best of them, in fact.”

But this was tame in comparison with the mountainous portion of the almost 2,000-mile run. Here the required distance dropped to 165 miles a day, but the riders faced blizzards, rock slides, and sheer cliffs. The worst part of the entire course came virtually last, the notorious run through the High Sierras, a route where a single turn up the wrong canyon might leave a man as hopelessly lost as the tragic Donner party had been just fourteen years before. Here freakish weather conditions could pile snowdrifts twenty feet high or turn quiet streams into raging torrents in a matter of hours. Yet unfailingly the riders of the pony express pushed through on mustangs chosen for their agility and climbing ability, racing past Placerville and down the western slope to Sacramento. This was as far as the horses went. The final run down the river and across the bay to San Francisco was made by steamship.

The overland-express industry sprang up all over the country in the 1840s and ’50s.

Just under two weeks would have passed from the time the parcel left New York, and if romance, excitement, and sheer human effort are considered, the service was a bargain. It was also of some significance to our political history. Special pony-express runs raced both the news of Lincoln’s election and the text of his inaugural address to the West in record time, helping cement California’s place within the Union. But profits mattered more, and after losing approximately two hundred thousand dollars the pony express was suspended, on October 26, 1861—just two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph.

Not a dollar in federal subsidies or mail contracts was ever provided. The pony express was essentially a technological anachronism that Darius the Great, king of Persia, or the Roman emperor Tiberius could have approximated, had they so desired. The future of America now lay with electric impulses and steam power, and it was through these channels that the U.S. government henceforth directed its largess.

The telegraph’s capacity for instantaneous communication may have pushed the pony express over the edge, but an important market remained for the rapid transport of documentation. And it was the railroads that filled this need.

The completion of the transcontinental railway, in 1869, was a dramatic and important event and, ironically, one facilitated by the fame of the pony express. Coast-to-coast traffic was now reduced to seven days and was soon to do even better. In the next thirty years, as tracks spread to every nook and cranny of America, they knitted together an economic mechanism that drew resources from and distributed products to every quarter of the land. This integration by rail made industrialism on a national scale possible and may be said to have created modern America.

Subsequent developments in transportation have, of course, cut travel time dramatically, but if all our cars, trucks, and aircraft were suddenly to disappear, leaving only the railroads, something approximating contemporary existence would still be possible. In a time of unparalleled technological change, this is a remarkable testimony not just to the importance of the railroads but to their durability and longterm significance. So it is not surprising that from 1870 to 1920—a full half-century—the rails remained absolutely unchallenged as the best and fastest means of transporting a document from coast to coast.