April 3, 2010

150th Anniversary of the Pony Express

On this day in 1860, the Pony Express began. This was a new, quicker method
of getting mail from California to Missouri—and thus the eastern United States—and vice versa.

Before the Pony Express, mail took about 22 days to go by steamship from New York to Panama to San Francisco (the mail was carried by mule across the isthmus of Panama), or 21 to 25 days to travel across the continent by wagon or stagecoach. The Pony Express cut this time in half!

Using a relay of horseback riders to carry mail across 2,000 miles of wilderness, across plains and deserts, over mountains and rivers—the Pony Express could get the mail across the country in just 10 days. It was not just faster, but also more reliable year-round.

A Pony Express rider starting his route would travel perhaps 15 miles by small horse or pony to the next station, where he would take a two-minute break and then mount a new horse and go on. After riding from 75 to 100 miles, the rider would hand off his mailbag to the next rider in the relay.

The Pony Express involved about 80 riders and between 400 and 500 horses. Eventually the
re were more than 100 stations and of course other employees to run the stations and care for the horses.

Keep it light!

In order to achieve speed of delivery, the Pony Express used small riders—usually young men or teenagers who were no more than 125 pounds. Orphans were preferred! The riders carried in their mail pouches (called mochilas) 20 pounds of mail and 20 more pounds of necessary items, including a water sack, a Bible, a horn to alert the station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a rifle.

As time went on, this list got trimmed down until each rider ONLY carried a water sack and a revolver.

Through rain and snow...

In the General Post Office in New York City is the following inscription:
"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
This is a translation from the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, and it describes mounted mail carriers used by the ancient Persians. But it is also a pretty good description of the Pony Express. Remember, the Pony Express worked year-round, and riders carried mail day and night. When they were hired, the riders were told that the mail bags and their contents were all-important. According to Wikipedia, “the horse and rider should perish before the mochila [mail bag] did.”

The route of the Pony Express was filled with dangers, including harsh weather, fierce wildlife, and the most dangerous animals of all—people—but in the entire time of its operation, only one bag of mail was ever lost.

A Short-lived Success

With its reputation for speed and reliability, the Pony Express was definitely viewed as a success, but it closed down just 18 months after it began. Why?

By November of 1861, the transcontinental telegraph was completed, and messages could suddenly travel across the country in a matter of minutes rather than days! So the Pony Express, outmoded and unneeded, closed up shop.

Still, historians say that the more rapid communications helped keep the Union (including California) together during the Civil War. At least one former Pony Express rider, Buffalo Bill Cody, went on to be famous, and the whole enterprise added to the almost mythic story of courage and drama that was the Old West.

Pony Express Fun
“Wanted, young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week. Apply Central Overland Express."

Yikes! Risk death daily? Orphans preferred?

Even though the ad makes the job sound way scary (and it was!), lots of young men applied, eager to show their courage.

Read some more actual newspaper articles and ads from the time.

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