#Lookback: Pony Express

    A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community, brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

    Why has every student of history heard about the Pony Express? Though it only lasted for 16 months, the Pony Express traveled nearly 2,000 miles each direction on horseback, braving the dangers of the west, traversing through unforgiving deserts and mountains.

    In the mid 1800s, the most common way of sending mail from one American coast to the other was by steam ship. Ships went from New York to Panama where they were unloaded and then reloaded onto another ship which would complete the journey to San Francisco. The second most common line of traffic for mail sent from coast to coast was the southern “Butterfield” line which went south from St. Louis and entered California from the extreme southeast. The third and least common route was known as the Central route which followed the Platte River into Wyoming and traveled through Salt Lake City until it reached Sacramento, though this was the least used due to the mountains that needed to be navigated, making it dangerous to travel in the winter.

    In the autumn of 1854, Senator William Gwin of California was making an overland journey from San Francisco to Washington D.C. on horseback. During a portion of his journey, he traveled with B. F. Ficklin, the general superintendent of the largest freighting and stage firm: Russell, Majors, and Waddell. Ficklin gave the idea of an efficient transit service between the Missouri River and the West coast, an idea that excited Senator Gwin as it would bring his state of California closer in communication with the east. In January of the following year, Gwin introduced a bill that would create a weekly letter express that traveled from St. Louis to San Francisco on a 10 day schedule. With telegram lines already across the east coast, it meant that sending a message from New York to California would only take 10 days as messages could be sent by telegram to St. Louis, and then delivered on horseback to the west coast. Gwins bill was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs where it was quickly tabled and killed in committee, putting an end to what would have been a government run Pony Express.

    In the winter of 1959-60, William Russell, senior partner to the very same Russell, Majors, and Waddell that B. F. Ficklin worked for, traveled to D.C. for business. There, he met Senator Gwin where they discussed the plan mentioned five years earlier by Russell’s subordinate. With the threat of a civil war growing more possible every day, the northern states were worried that, if the southern states succeeded, they could easily take control of the southern Butterfield mail line, and take control of the route by sea through Panama, effectively cutting off all forms of communication that the northern states could have with the west coast. Though California was entered as a free state, northern states were afraid that without communication, the south would be able to undercut them and gain the support of California. Gwin believed that establishing an effective communication line across the central mail route would, if a civil war were to occur, help them maintain control of the western states. Russell readily understood this and believed that if they proved to the government that they could maintain a line across the central route, they would be given a government contract, and agreed to Gwin’s proposal. Russell’s partners were far less convinced, though upon hearing that they were already committed and could not honorably back out, they agreed to establish the Pony Express.

    Though Russell, Majors, and Waddell already owned a prominent stage business and had numerous stations along the route, they needed to construct more. They purchased the best horses they could find at an average price of $200 each, much more than a normal horse for that time. They also hired the best men in the west for the job, experienced riders who could handle the dangers of the wild. They completed their preparations with 190 stations along the line, 420 horses purchased, 400 station men and assistants, and 80 riders. 

    The route began in St. Joseph, Missouri where the telegram lines ended in the east. There, the route crossed 1,966 miles across 8 states.

    Missouri: 3 stations, 2 miles of trail

    Kansas: 13 stations, 151 miles of trail

    Nebraska: 38 stations, 565 miles of trail

    Colorado: 2 stations, 27 miles of trail

    Wyoming: 43 stations, 489 miles of trail

    Utah: 27 stations, 263 miles of trail

    Nevada: 47 stations, 417 miles of trail

    California: 24 stations, 87 miles of trail

    April 3, 1860 the first rider left St. Joseph and headed westward. The average rider traveled 75 miles, riding between 3 and 7 miles. Reaching Nevada, Utah, and then Wyoming, where the riders would make 43 stops in the state, delivering local mail to each of the different stations. At every stop, the station workers had a key which could unlock the mail holders attached to the side of the horses and collect the local mail while the rest of the mail would be sent onwards.

    The first westbound trip from St. Joseph to Sacramento was completed in 9 days and 23 hours. The first eastbound trip took 11 days and 12 hours, half the time that the southern Butterfield route took. Not only was this considered a victory for the northern states, but it was met with great appreciation from those on the west coast. Towns gathered to watch the first mail delivery as riders delivered their messages at every stop with diligence. Upon reaching the end of the Pony Express route in Sacramento, the local mail was quickly distributed and the pouch of mail was then shipped downstream to San Francisco on a steamship. Though the ship did not reach its destination into the dead of night, there was still quite some celebration. Whistles were blown, bells were jangled, and the California Band played through the night. Hearing the uproar, the city fire department arrived, expecting to find a fire raging throughout the city, but quickly recalled the situation and joined in on the celebration.

    A telegraph line was soon built from San Francisco through Sacramento where it reached Carson City, Nevada. This cut out the final section of the Pony Express route as it meant that important business on the east coast was wired to St. Joseph, Missouri, taken on horseback to Carson City, where the final 12-15 hours of the trip could be sent across the telegraph lines.

    During the 16 months of the Pony Express, only one rider was killed while on duty. Several were mortally wounded and on occasion their horses were disabled, but the riders always managed to reach the next station by staying in their saddle despite injury, or walking to the next station without their horse. A spiritual devotion was formed among the riders to deliver the mail in a timely manner. In the one instance that a rider was slain in an ambush to take his horse, the horse still managed to escape with its mail still attached to it where it reached the next station and the next rider took over the duty.

    On October 24, 1861, the pacific telegram line was completed, ensuring instant delivery of messages from the east to west coast. Two days later, the pony express formally ended operations. Financially, the Pony Express failed somewhat magnificently. The government contract that Russell hoped for never came, nor the monopoly of overland delivery that he anticipated. The construction of additional stations along the line and the purchasing of necessary equipment and horses put the company down $100,000 before they even delivered their first parcel. Even when deliveries began, the cost of wages for the riders and stationmen, supplies for maintaining the various stations and taking care of the horses, or their replacements in instances of death, cost the company around $30,000 per month. Postal charges were initially $5 for each half ounce letter, but this was eventually reduced to $1 per half ounce letter. Their total expenses accumulated during the operating months of the Pony Express was $700,000, and they only brought in $500,000 of revenue during that same period. 

    Author: Kevin Scannell

    Next up for the Fremont County Museum

    June 8, 9am at the Riverton Museum, “Castle Gardens Adventure Trek: with Craig Bromely” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    June 12, 6pm at the Riverton Museum, “Allan Maybee and Roger Melton: 2001 Jet Ski Trek” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    June 15, 10am at the Pioneer Museum, “Pacific Springs/Oregon Trail Adventure Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek Series

    June 19, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Eagle Spirit Dancers”

    June 19, 11am at the Riverton Museum, “Buffalo Bill Center of the West: Draper Museum Raptor Program Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    June 20, 7pm at the Pioneer Museum, “Janet Earle: The Geology of Wyoming” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series

    June 22, 9am at the Dubois Museum, “Kids Corner: Badlands Trek” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

    Call the Dubois Museum 1-307-455-2284, the Pioneer Museum 1-307-332-3339 or the Riverton Museum 1-307-856-2665 for detail regarding their programs.

    The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

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