Faint Hoofbeats from the Past
Its official name was The Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, but that was too unwieldy, so everyone just called it the Pony Express. It launched on April 3, 1860, to great fanfare . . . and it lasted less than 19 months. Beset with financial difficulties from inception, the celebrated Pony Express was at last rendered obsolete by the completion of the first transcontinental telegraph.
California already had a localized pony express service, run by a few daring young entrepreneurs who roamed the mining districts on horses or mules, dispensing mail from the nearest post office to the outback gold camps. However, just getting mail into California took weeks, at best. No railroad connected the Missouri frontier, where eastern American civilization ended, with the Pacific Coast. Most mail was shipped around Cape Horn, or through the Isthmus of Panama, with attendant delays. Gold miners clamored for a better mail service, sending petitions to Washington DC. Congressional representatives, while not unsympathetic, were grappling with another troubling issue: No telegraph system existed west of the Missouri River, either, to transmit vital government information should the dreaded possibility of war between the northern and southern states become a reality.
Well, this bold new Pony Express might be the answer to both problems! Owned by the venerable freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell, it promised to deliver mail across 2,000 miles on a central route between Sacramento, California, and St. Joseph, Missouri, by a lone rider on a fast horse, over mostly barren terrain and through all weathers, in ten days, less than half the time it took to move mail 2,700 miles from St. Louis, Missouri on a southern route across Texas and on to San Francisco, via the relatively new Butterfield Overland Mail Service. Impossible, critics said.
But run it did, delivering in its promised time frame. Californians were passionate about the Pony: San Francisco and Sacramento newspapers verily outdid each other with exuberant accolades. The cost to send letters, telegrams and newspapers via the Pony—printed on the thinnest of tissue paper—was high, five dollars per half-ounce; but the costs to operate it were positively staggering. The Pony Express was a relay service involving dozens of way stations to construct and supply, and hundreds of men and animals. Before it even ended, the great experiment had bankrupted the men who owned it.
Meanwhile, Congress had realized the growing political need for near-instantaneous coast to coast communication. In June 1860, just two months after the Pony commenced, it passed the Pacific Telegraph Act, authorizing the acceptance of bids to construct a telegraph line across the continent that would connect with the existing telegraph network in the eastern U.S. and a smaller system already in place in California. Starting in July, 1861, crews heading in opposite directions built the line from Fort Kearny (Omaha) in Nebraska Territory, and from Fort Churchill (Carson City, Nevada) where California’s telegraph lines already extended. The system connected at Salt Lake City on October 24, 1861. Congratulatory telegrams buzzed over the wires that very night.
Two days later, The Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company quietly went out of business—but with riders still out there, somewhere, in the wastelands of the Pony’s route. Mail delivered by Pony was still being received as late as November.
The Pony Express was always more celebrated in California, so its demise was more keenly felt there. The telegraph could not, of course, send letters; its word rates limited the amount of details transmitted, and the lines were often down. In December 1861, San Francisco’s Daily Alta, lamenting that “the suspension of the Pony has been a great loss to California,” reported that a concentrated effort would be made by the state’s representatives in Congress to re-establish the Pony Express. Federal lawmakers, however, had other, more pressing concerns.
The Pony Express was a fantastic feat, involving real people undertaking great risks, yet when it ended—amidst the horror and drama of an erupting Civil War—no one thought to record the whole story until decades later. By then, the company’s records no longer existed and the “facts” were largely the fading memories of those riders and station managers still alive.
Then again, half-remembered experiences are so often more exciting than fully documented truths; and so the glorious Pony Express, embellished in fanciful dime novels and 20th century western films, lives on in legend as a beloved chapter of American history, its hoofbeats fainter now . . . but still heard.