As I write this, a cold December rain is pelting the windows of my 1930’s farmhouse, escorted by vociferous wind gusts and soon to be followed by plummeting temperatures. It is the type of day best spent sequestered indoors, unless necessity or duty forces one out into the elements. And it is the sort of weather that recalls to mind the oft-repeated (though unofficial) creed of the US Postal Service: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Though the modern-day USPS certainly does (and should) delay deliveries in bad weather, between April 1860 and October 1861, the riders and horses of the Pony Express faced these hardships and more, with just a handful of routes left uncompleted. Mail was tucked into one of four locked cantinas on an ultra-lightweight, Spanish-style mochila slung over a simple wooden saddle, and riders faced weather, terrain, rough footing, and during the Paiute War, hostilities from Native Americans. Operated by the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, a freight company based in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Pony Express was, during its run, the most efficient mechanism of bringing news from coast to coast.
The first west-bound rider, generally believed to be a young man named Johnny Frye, departed from the company’s offices in St. Joseph, Missouri on the evening of April 3, 1860; just a few hours later, an east-bound rider left the Alta Telegraph Company in San Francisco, California, boarded a ferry to Sacramento, and continued from there toward St. Joseph. Over the next weeks and months, this ritual continued; in an average of just 10 days, the mail was carried some 1,950 miles from one terminus to the other. Individual riders completed segments of as many as 100 miles, changing out mounts at relay stations along the way, each change occurring in just under two minutes flat.
Pony Express mail included business and personal correspondence, newspapers, and even a transcript of President Lincoln’s inaugural address, all printed on special super thin, lightweight paper. By bringing important news from coast to coast faster than any other method available at the time, the Pony Express played a critical role in preserving unity when the country was on the precipice of the Civil War.
Though a success in the sense that the Central Overland route taken by Pony Express riders had previously been considered impassable in winter, the Pony Express failed to ever recoup its expenses. Due to the need for speed, ponies were not allowed to carry more than twenty pounds of mail, and the cost of sending correspondence– as much as $5 an item (the equivalent of about $150 today)—meant that only the most important of messages were sent via pony. The Pony Express effectively bankrupted its founders—William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, the principals of the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company —who ultimately had to use their personal fortunes to pay off creditors.
The final Pony Express run was on October 28, 1861, two days after the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed.
Despite running for just a year and a half, today the Pony Express carries a somewhat romantic legacy, perhaps because it embodies the rugged spirit associated with the Caucasian male of the American West. It has been the subject of television and film, as well as several historical novels; there have been commemorative stamps, parades, and dedicated statues erected as tribute at both ends. But despite the modern fascination with the Pony Express, many specific details—including the actual route travelled and the exact names of all the riders and locations of stations—have been lost to history. Those who study the Express and its legacy have had to sort truth from fiction, and even they don’t always agree.
I will admit that I am no US history buff, and my knowledge of the Pony Express was marginal back in 2020 when I signed up for the 1900 Mile Pony Express Challenge, sponsored by Warhorse Endurance as a benefit for the Pony Express National Museum. Conceptualized by endurance rider/photographer/podcaster Christina Hyke of Wisconsin, the Pony Express Challenge is an honor-system based “virtual” ride, with participants logging the miles they spend hiking, bicycling, walking, or, in my case, horseback riding. When participants log their miles into the database, they can chart their progress along the Pony Express route; upon completion, they earn a patch, sticker, belt buckle and, I suppose, bragging rights. As an avid distance rider, the challenge appealed to me on many levels, and I saw it as the perfect “pandemic project” to start on while most other activities were shut down.
On Warhorse Endurance Podcast Episode 53, Hyke states that her inspiration in launching the virtual challenge was because “we believe the Pony Express Museum is a unique part of equine history, and one that is deserving of preservation.” When the pandemic hit, the Pony Express National Museum, located in the building that originally housed the Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, was forced to close for 75 days, losing its main source of revenue (ticket sales) during that time. Warhorse Endurance contributed $5 from every entry fee for the virtual challenge to the Museum, and in 2021, a commemorative plaque listing the first 500 participants was hung in the museum’s front entrance.
For me, it has been fun to track my virtual journey, superimposed on a modern-day map; as of the end of 2022, I am just outside Eureka, Nevada, with 370.22 miles left to go. I have been working on the ride for three seasons, compared to the 10 days of the original Express– but back then, no single rider completed the entire Express route. Instead, each rider specialized in covering a particular segment, and when he reached his end point, he waited at that station a few days for the mail coming from the opposite direction before returning home. I am using four horses to log my miles, though the majority have been covered on my two veteran mares, Anna and Lee, and mostly at the walk; an actual Pony Express rider would change his mount every seven to fifteen miles, and travelled mostly at the gallop.
Despite the fact that many of the exact locations of the nearly 200 Pony Express stations have been lost to history, an approximation of the route was commemorated by Congress in August 1992, when it established the Pony Express National Historic Trail. This route travels through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California, and tourists can visit the known locations of 50 stations along the way. Some sections of the trail are also still ride-able, if you are so inclined.
Above: Quite by accident, we came upon a memorial on the site of the Big Sandy Pony Express Relay Station, in Wyoming. Big Sandy was about the 18th stop on the route after departing St. Joseph, Missouri.
Earlier this year, I was returning east after an overland journey of my own, one that traversed many of the states included on the original Express. My partner and I decided to detour to St. Joseph to visit the Pony Express National Museum ourselves; on a sunny spring morning, we parked our camper in the lot behind the historic building. The construction of its brick exterior, with small, grilled windows and arched doorways, reminded me of the design of city mews stables, leaving little doubt as to the building’s original function.
Inside, the uninitiated can learn more about the people and times of the Pony Express than perhaps they ever cared to know. Mannequins depict critical moments in Express history; murals and other artwork of the era or inspired by the Express add color to the interpretation. A Conestoga wagon dominates the middle of one room; in another, visitors can review a short film re-enacting the first Express ride. I especially appreciated an exhibit that shared the stories of several known Express riders and station-keepers, the latter of whose existence was arguably even more difficult and dangerous than that of the riders themselves. And in the lobby, I found a certain plaque that bears the name of 500 people who felt that the story of the Pony Express was one worth remembering.
In the podcast episode, Cindy Daffron, director of the Museum, states that what she finds most important about the story of the Pony Express is honoring the “ingenuity, hard work and dedication” of a “wonderful collection of people” who decided in January of 1860 that they would launch this ambitious project in April, just a few months later.
“It was a daring ride,” Daffron says with a laugh. She is talking about the trail itself, but she may as well also have been referring to the Pony Express as a whole.
And perhaps this is the enduring legacy of the Pony Express, and why its achievement still matters today. It is yet another reminder that even the most impossible-sounding of goals can sometimes be accomplished through a combination of grit, money, networking and good luck. Even in the challenges historians have found in establishing truth versus fiction in telling the Pony Express story, we can learn lessons about the importance of perseverance as well as accepting that we will not always know the entire truth about a situation. Most of all, the Pony Express is yet another stunning example of how when partnered with a horse, humans are capable of far more than they ever imagined.