By Don Ford
Saddle your horses for a short ride back into the history of the West. We will reminisce and relive the famous days of the Pony Express, circa 1860. This overland mail, carried by horse and rider, began on May 3rd, 1860. It was sponsored by Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company.
Some of the riders chosen for this commission were teenagers, with a few as young as 11. But they especially employed men who were lightweight due to the distance to be traveled and the rough terrain. This also gave the horses the speed they needed to cover the 75 miles a day each rider was expected to travel.
The men chosen for this daunting task were dedicated in their determination to get the mail through to its intended destination. Among the most famous of the Express riders was none other than Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody). Even in those early days the motto was ‘the mail must get through.’ And these valiant riders made all their runs except for one. That particular fateful trip was an attempted crossing of the Platte River. The horse and rider as well as the mail were all swept away in the waters.
Once a horse stumbled at night and broke its neck, while the rider continued to carry the mail on foot. Even after all of the Indian burnings of Express stations, which added to the financial woes of this mail run, the final straw to break its back was the accusation that William Russell was stealing bonds from the Interior Dept. to try and keep the business alive.
The Pony Express eventually had 100 stations, 80 riders, and 400 to 500 horses. The saddlebag carrying the mail was specially made to handle quick maneuvering from horse to horse. The hazards encountered back then along the many miles of territory to be traversed were extreme and numerous, not to mention snakes and Indians along the trail.
The efforts by this express mail service can undoubtedly be credited with keeping California in the Union, since communication between East and West was quickly achieved. The news of Abraham Lincoln becoming President in 1860, and the more sobering news of the start of the Civil War a year later, spread quickly to the coast via the Pony Express.
Now as progress usually does, the old is replaced with the new and faster, or as we say today: ‘new and improved.’ So in October 1861 the Pony Express regular service was discontinued and replaced by the telegraph line of the Pacific Telegraph Company. I did a quick survey to see how much the general population around my parts knew their history. Most had no clue. Some said two years, while others threw out five, ten, fifteen, and even 50 as a time frame for the Express mail service. Hopefully this ride down memory lane will set the record straight.
The whole Pony Express commission, though a blessing at its inception, was short-lived and a failure financially as it sunk into bankruptcy. This could explain why the U.S. Postal service today raises the cost of a postage stamp from time to time to continue to meet current expenses.
The founders; William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, would all have a good knee slap today over the great changes that have taken place in the mail service. They wouldn’t be able to fathom one single piece of mail costing nearly four bits to transport.
Remembering the speed, resourcefulness, determination, and dedication of those early young riders, let’s look at our current mail service. The same motto of the postal service today was employed then too: Neither rain, nor hail, nor sleet, nor snow, nor heat of day nor dark of night shall keep this carrier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds." Herodotus, 500 B.C.
A letter was recently delivered out West, after taking eight days to arrive. The sender then contacted the Postmaster General of the United States complaining how that during the days of Pony Express that same piece of mail might arrive in half the time. The head of the U.S. Postal Service calmly, but deliberately responded: “Ma’am, you have to understand, the horses are much older now.”
Pony Express came to the West and to the aid of our country when it was vitally needed; and left when the job was done, and its service was no longer necessary. It will always remain a part of the legend of the early American West. As short lived as it was, it will live forever in the hearts and minds of the American people, as long as the history of the Old West and of pioneer days is taught in our schools. As I am sharing this tale of long ago with you, a group of fourth graders is about to embark on a re-enactment of those early pioneer days. They will be visiting a one room school house, dressed in similar looking cotton clothing. The subject of early mail service may come up in there discussion and that will lead to a talk about the Pony Express.