The End of the Pony Express
The Pony Express was created to bridge the gap between the eastern and western ends of the transcontinental telegraph lines. While the line between Missouri and California was under construction, riders carried letters across the entire route. They also carried telegraphed messages across the gap between telegraph lines.
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When the telegraph line was completed, there was no further need for the Pony Express. The first telegraph message from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., was transmitted October 24, 1861. Two days later, the Pony Express came to an end.
The Pony Express was founded by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, who ran a transportation company taking freight, mail, and passengers by stagecoach across the American West before they launched the Pony Express. Their Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, parent company to the Pony Express, would take such hard losses from operating the extra-fast route that it would be nicknamed “Clean Out of Cash and Poor Pay.
With precision and expertise which would be envied by any military tactician, Alexander Majors arranged for the purchase of over 400 ponies; the building of 200 stations in desolate, uninhabited areas; the hiring of station masters to staff them; the stocking of provisions; and, of course, the hiring of the riders themselves. Majors’ task, difficult under the best circumstances, had to be completed in two months.
Relay stations were placed 10 miles apart. Every third station was a home station, where extra ponies, firearms, men, and provisions were kept. Here, the mail would be handed over to a new rider.
The route form St. Joseph to San Francisco stretched over 1,966 miles, through the plains of Kansas and into Nebraska, along the valley of the Platte River, across the Great Plateau, through the Rockies, into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, through the alkali deserts of Nevada, then over the snow-covered Sierra Mountains and finally into the Sacramento Valley. The mail was carried between Sacramento and San Francisco by steamboat.
About 80 young men rode for the Pony Express. When he hired the riders, Alexander Majors gave each of them a Bible and required them to sign a pledge promising not to swear, drink alcohol, or fight with other employees. The riders carried the mail in the four pockets of a mochila which fit snugly over the saddle and was quickly switched from one horse to another. Letters were wrapped in oil silk to protect them from moisture. The price of a letter was $5 at first, and reduced to $1 per half-ounce by July 1, 1861. Weight was an important factor. Riders, horses, letters, and gear were all chosen with this in mind. The horses averaged about 14 1/2 hands high and weighed less than 900 pounds.
From the dime novels of the late 19th century to movies and television today, the Pony Express has supplied drama, excitement, and a good deal of make-believe.
The riders’ constant struggles along the route did not need to be exaggerated. They rode through ghastly weather and over rough territory in a constant race against time.