The citizens of St. Joseph, Missouri, turned out on April 3 to cheer the first Pony Express rider when he galloped out of town carrying forty-nine letters, five telegrams, and several Eastern newspapers bound for Sacramento, California, the Western terminus of the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express route. Pausing at way stations only long enough to change horses, that first rider completed his seventy-five- to onehundred-mile leg of the nearly twothousand-mile relay and then passed on the mail to the next waiting horseman. Ten days later, to the delight of prospecting Californians who longed for closer contact with home, the mail arrived in Sacramento. The Pony Express had more than cut in half the time previously required to carry news east and west across the frontier.
America’s imagination was fired. Pony Express riders became heroes overnight, and their strength, daring, and perseverance were recorded in such panegyrics as this one from the St. Joseph Free Democrat : “Through the valleys, along the grassy slopes, into the snow, into sand, faster than Thor’s Thialfi, away they go, rider and horse—did you see them? … The courser has unrolled to us the great American panorama, allowed us to glance at the homes of one million people, and has put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes. Verily the riding is like the riding of Jehu, the son of Nimshi for he rideth furiously.”
From the beginning, the Pony Express was venerated, it was not, however, a lucrative investment. Launched by the freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell in the hope of winning a government contract, the Pony Express cost $70,000 outright, and monthly expenses reached $4,000. The company was often unable to pay its heroic employees. And Shoshone Indians, angered by the murder of tribesmen and the loss of their land in the Utah Territory, repeatedly drove off company stock and killed station men. After losing half a million dollars on the enterprise, Russell, Majors & Waddell were unable to bid for their contract. Another company took over the Pony Express, allowing its founders to continue managing a portion of the route.
They didn’t do so for long. The Pony Express survived Indians and bankruptcy only to be done in by Samuel Morse’s invention. On October 26, 1861, telegraph lines strung from east and west were connected in Salt Lake City, Utah. Unable to compete with the singing wires, the Pony Express was halted just eighteen months after it began.