Celebrating the Days of the Pony Express

Celebrating the Days of the Pony Express

This article was originally published in PIoneer Magazine, 2010 Vol.57 No.2

by Patrick Hearty, National Pony Express Association (NPEA), Utah

By 1860, approximately half a million people lived west of the Rocky Mountains. America was still a young country, with plenty of room for big ideas and bold enterprise. In the East, a well-organized postal system kept information flowing, but out West, the lines of communication were often stretched pretty thin. The U.S. mail traveled on the Butterfield Stage Line, following a route which made a huge arc from St. Louis, MO, south through Ft. Smith, AR; El Paso TX, and Yuma, AZ, with a branch that ran north to San Francisco. Mail for the California goldfields could take three or more weeks. In Utah, things were no more speedy or reliable, as a succession of express companies tried their hands at providing mail service. Something had to change.

It is not known for certain just how the idea for the mail service we call the Pony Express developed, but it involved William H. Russell, partner in the giant freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell. The company controlled a mammoth freight network hauling supplies for the United States Army throughout the West. Russell was the visionary and the entrepreneur, and it may have been during a stagecoach trip across the country with California Senator William M. Gwin that the idea originated.

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Russell had his eye on a lucrative mail contract, and Gwin had political aspirations. Although Russell’s business partners, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, had serious reservations about the new enterprise, Russell apparently had made a commitment to Gwin. Russell organized the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company with the intention of proving the viability of the Central Route across the American West. The Central Route as chosen for the Pony Express followed the emigrant trails from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, then on across present-day Nevada on trails laid out by Mormon pioneer Major Howard Egan and army surveyor Captain James H. Simpson. This route was almost 1000 miles shorter than Butterfield’s, which was known as the Oxbow Route because of its shape on a map.

Russell and his partners believed that riders on fleet could relay letter mail from “the States” to California in only 10 days, maybe a little longer in winter. He was certain that the Post Office Department would applaud the improved service and reward it with a healthy mail contract. In a matter of just three or four months in early 1860, the mail delivery system we know as the Pony Express was organized and put into motion.

Across present-day Kansas and Nebraska stations were located in towns and road ranches. Military outposts such as , Fort Laramie, and Fort Bridger were stops along the way. But over much of the route, and especially across the Great Basin, stations for change of horses were quickly established. A few stations built by pioneer mail carrier George Chorpenning were also included. Horses were purchased in Missouri, in Salt Lake City, and in California and distributed along the line. The horses were chosen for soundness and speed, as the plan was to outrun bandits and fractious Indians, rather than fight them. For riders, the Pony Express hired small-framed young men, tough men well acquainted with horses and the ways of the West. The offer of adventure and generous pay (about $25 to $50 a month) undoubtedly attracted the best. Men were hired to staff the stations. Saddles, bridles and other necessary equipment, provisions and supplies for the men and the livestock were obtained.

On April 3, 1860, in San Francisco, James Randall left the Alta Telegraph Company office at 4:00 p.m. for the short ride through enthusiastic crowds to the waterfront, where a steamer carried the mail to Sacramento, the actual western terminus for the Pony Express. At 2:00 o’clock the next morning, the mochila left Sacramento on horseback for the East. William Hamilton rode out in a pouring rainstorm, with no one to see him off except the station agent. The snows were heavy in the Sierras that winter, and the mountains nearly impassable when Warren Upson left Sportsman’s Hall to make the attempt. Sometimes riding, sometimes leading his horse, Upson made it through passes closed to the stagecoach and delivered his cargo in Carson City, Nevada, for the trip east across the desert.

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Knowing the difficulty presented by the mountains in winter, most thought that the riders from the East would make better time and that they would be the first to reach Salt Lake City. Hence, no rider was stationed at Meadow Creek, for the final leg into Salt Lake. Major Howard Egan, division superintendent in western Utah Territory, had more confidence in his boys. He waited himself at the station in Rush Valley, and he himself carried the first Pony Express mail into Salt Lake City, arriving at 7:45 p.m. on April 7. It was quickly dispatched for the East, and at about 5:00 p.m. on April 13, 1860, the first Pony Express mail from California was welcomed by cheering crowds in St. Joseph, MO, its final stop.

Just 10 days before, St. Joseph had put on a major celebration for the departure of the westbound Pony. A late mail train delayed the anticipated 5:00 p.m. start. But about two hours later, following speeches by St. Joe Mayor M. Jeff Thompson and by Alexander Majors and of a brass band, the boom of a cannon at Patee House signaled the departure of rider Johnny Frye. After crossing the Missouri, the Pony began its westward relay sprint. Salt Lake City was reached at 6:25 p.m. on April 9, and Richard Erastus Egan, son of Major Howard Egan, was ready to make up time on his westbound run.

When Billy Hamilton rode back into Sacramento from the East on April 13, he was met with pandemonium—wildly cheering crowds, a mounted escort of up to 100 horsemen, ringing of anvils, and 40 rounds fired from a cannon. California had never been so close to the rest of the United States. In San Francisco, the arrival of the mail by steamer drew a similar response, with ecstatic throngs, bonfires, clanging bells, and fiery rockets. William H. Russell’s vision was now reality, and for the next year and a half, the Pony Express would provide unmatched speed of communication between California, the Mountain West, and the rest of the United States.

Mail delivery on horseback was certainly nothing unique. Even in our nation, young at that time, horses were used extensively to carry messages for private citizens, businesses, and the military. But no regular effort on the scale of the Pony Express had been undertaken. The riders traveled day and night, changing horses at 10 to 20 mile intervals. A rider’s assignment was from one home station to another, changing mounts at relay or swing stations in between. Home stations were larger establishments, often in towns or at bigger ranches, where the riders lived between runs. Swing stations were usually smaller, often staffed by only one or two station men whose job it was to have a fresh horse ready when the mail arrived. A rider would travel from one home station to another, turn over the mochila (a leather square with holes cut for the saddle horn and cantle, which fit over the saddle) to his relief rider, then wait for the arrival of the mail in the opposite direction, which he transported back to his starting place. Home stations were typically 75 to 100 miles apart. Riders started out making weekly runs. Toward the end of the Pony Express’s existence, the mail ran twice weekly.

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The Pony Express carried mostly letter mail. Newspapers, parcels, magazines, etc., were carried by stagecoach or by boat. The Pony Express saddle was designed to be as light as possible. As the mochila formed the seat of the saddle, it could not be dropped or shaken loose while traveling over rough country. It could be stripped from one horse and placed on another in a matter of seconds. Letters were placed in cantinas or pockets sewn at each corner of the square. The cantinas were wrapped in oiled silk for protection from moisture. The cantinas were locked with a flap at the top. Some accounts say that three cantinas remained locked for the duration of the journey, while the left front pocket, the “way pocket,” could be opened at stations along the way to add or remove letters.

The cost of sending a letter by Pony Express in 1860 was $5 per half ounce. At that rate, there was probably no “junk mail!” Before the Pony mail service was terminated, the price was reduced to $1.

The uniform of the riders, if such there was, consisted of a red shirt, blue jeans, and high-top boots. It seems logical, however, that, especially in the more remote parts of the West, they wore buckskins, homespun, or whatever was at hand and appropriate for the season and weather. Fancier attire may have been reserved for the towns and situations where the young riders might have liked to show off a little. At the outset of the mail service, riders were apparently outfitted with a pair of revolvers, a light rifle, and a horn to announce their arrival at the stations. It soon became apparent that this heavy armament was cumbersome and unnecessary and that the station keepers were well aware of their coming without the blowing of a horn. After discarding the extra trappings, they rode armed with a single revolver, most often an 1851 model 36 caliber navy Colt. Some historians have written that they also carried an extra loaded cylinder for the pistol, but changing cylinders on the back of a galloping horse would have been quite a trick.

Alexander Majors, one of the founders, was a deeply religious man. He required each of his employees, Pony Express riders included, to take an oath not to drink intoxicating liquor, swear, abuse their livestock, or fight with other employees of the firm. Violators of the oath were threatened with termination. Majors also issued each of his employees a small Bible and instructed them to read it.

The Pony Express, for all its modern-day fame and the legend it has engendered, lasted only about 18 months. October of 1861 saw the completion of the transcontinental telegraph, which could relay messages across the country in a matter of minutes. The telegraph wires were joined in Salt Lake City, the transcontinental telegraph following largely the same road traveled by the ponies. The Pony Express faded into obsolescence. The thunder of hoofbeats bowed to the lightning of the telegraph. Less than 8 years after that, the joining of the rails at Promontory Summit opened an era of unprecedented opportunity for travel and commerce across the American continent.

The Pony Express was a financial failure. The Express was not heavily utilized by eastern interests, and the cost of equipping the line and keeping it open was enormous. Southern sympathizers in Congress protected John Butterfield’s interests, and the big and eagerly anticipated mail contract never materialized. These factors, coupled with losses incurred by the umbrella company, Russell, Majors and Waddell, during the , drove that firm into bankruptcy. By summer of 1861, the company had broken up, with the mail service in other hands, but the ponies ran as long as the need existed.

Overlooking the financial aspect, the Pony accomplished all that its backers had hoped, and more. The argument by many in the East and the South that the direct route across the American continent, the Central Route, was not practical for year round travel was put to rest.

The was a period of greatest national turmoil. The Pony Express provided a vital link between California and the rest of the States in the months leading up to the war and through the early months of the conflict. Some historians have credited the Pony Expess with helping to preserve California’s loyalty to the Union. Surely all citizens of the West awaited with baited breath the latest news of events which would determine the future of the nation.

These accomplishments could be looked on with pride by the men who made the Pony Express happen. Could they have imagined that, 150 years later, its legend would have grown to the present proportions? Children in grade school hear the story of the Pony Express. People around the world love the image of the young man on his fast horse, speeding his precious cargo in spite of all obstacles. In 2010, we celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of what seems to us one of the most thrilling and romantic episodes in the opening of the American West.

“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. . . .”

Utah and her people played a key role in the success of the Pony Express. Salt Lake City was the largest population center in almost 2000 miles of wilderness and was important in every aspect of the Pony Express operation. Utah Pony riders were prominent among the mail carriers across the Intermountain West. Thomas Owen King’s portrait hangs in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum in Salt Lake City. has a town in Wyoming named for him, and has one in Utah. Keetley and the Gilson brothers, Sam and James, made their fortunes in mining after their Pony Express days. Brothers John and William Frederick Fisher became leaders in the LDS Church. James Bromley, whose home was at Echo, was division superintendent for a section of the line east of Salt Lake City. Major Howard Egan was the man in charge from Salt Lake City west to Roberts Creek, now central Nevada. Bolivar Roberts had responsibility on the western end. Although Roberts lived in California, he also had strong Utah ties. Many other examples could be listed.

The trail crossed Utah Territory all the way from western Wyoming to the Sierras. It followed the Mormon Pioneer Trail, entering present-day Utah at the Needles on Yellow Creek. Down Echo Canyon, stops included Castle Rock and Halfway near the railroad siding at Emory. A fair little town existed at Echo, where the Express station was run by James Bromley, one of the division superintendents on the line. After crossing Hogback Summit, the rider made stops at Dixie Hollow and at Bauchmann’s Station on East Canyon Creek, a location now on the Clayton–McFarlane Ranch. On the south side of Big Mountain, now near the head of Little Dell Reservoir, Ephraim Hanks had an establishment for travelers which served the Pony Express also. Crossing Little Mountains and entering the Salt Lake Valley via , the rider got a well-earned rest at the Salt Lake House, a hotel and home station at 143 South Main.

From downtown Salt Lake City, the mail traveled south along the route of State Street to the area of the Utah State Prison. Porter Rockwell’s Hot Springs Brewery and Hotel provided a change of horses. The riders crossed the Jordan River at Indian Ford, just south of the Narrows, then headed southwest toward by way of Joe Dorton’s Dugout. Although hospitality was not lacking at the Carson Inn, now Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd State Park, the riders stopped only to change horses and drop off mail for the soldiers at the army post. They rode from there mostly westward to the next home station at Rush Valley or Meadow Creek. Henry Jacob “Doc” Faust was the popular host there.

Crossing Lookout Pass, with a stop at the swing station, they began the crossing of the desert, pausing briefly at Simpson Springs, Riverbed, and Dugway Station, which traveler Horace Greeley described as “about the forlornest spot I ever saw.” After a steep climb over the Dugway Mountains, the rider made for Blackrock Station and then went on to Fish Springs, which is now a National Wildlife Refuge. Fish Springs may have served as a home station at least for a part of the Pony’s run. Around the point of the Fish Springs Mountains, past Wilson Hot Springs, they found Boyd’s Station run by station keeper George Washington Boyd, who must have loved his solitude. The ruins of the old stone station can be seen there today.

After a hundred or so miles of desert travel, the lovely old cottonwoods, willow trees, and green fields of Callao must have provided a welcome rest for the eyes. Willow Springs Station was located here, with Peter Neece as station keeper. The old station building still stands on Willow Springs Ranch. Climbing out of Snake Valley over the northern end of the Deep Creek Mountains, the rider paused at one of the Canyon Stations. The first incarnation of Canyon Station, built in the mouth of Blood Canyon, proved too vulnerable to Indian attack and was soon moved west onto Clifton Flat at the head of Overland Canyon. This station, now called Burnt Station, was also attacked and destroyed in 1863, post–Pony Express, by Indians looking to avenge an attack on an Indian village by Col. Patrick Connor’s troops from Fort Douglas. A third Canyon Station was then built to the east at the mouth of Overland Canyon, in the foothills overlooking Snake Valley. This site, now popularly called Round Station, did not serve the Pony Express but deserves mention because of the ruins of a round fortification which can be found there.

After a fairly level ride across Clifton Flat, the rider traversed Pony Express Canyon and entered Deep Creek Valley, the location of the present-day village of Ibapah. Deep Creek was the home of Howard Egan, whose extensive resume includes frontier scout, bodyguard to , and division superintendent on the Pony Express line. Egan had a comfortable ranch at Deep Creek, which provided supplies for smaller and more remote stations. Major Egan and his sons, Richard Erastus and Howard Ransom, all took their turn carrying the mail for the Pony Express. Harrison Sevier took care of the express station duties.

“The Pony Express.” Just to say the words out loud gives you a little tingle. The pony, the horse, is historically an icon of speed and power, and an object of fascination for most of us, although fascination tinged with intimidation for some. The word “express” carries a connotation of speed and, perhaps, of urgency. The image of a young and fearless rider on a good horse, racing across plain and mountain in defiance of weather, hostile Indians, and difficult terrain, conquering time and distance to help bind together a fragile nation has captured and held the imagination of all lovers of our western history. We can’t help but revere the ideals of youth, courage, and indomitable spirit that this image suggests. The story of the Pony Express is so compelling because it was the last medium of communication based upon flesh and blood, and hence the last to which we can personally relate. From the time of the telegraph up until this day, an increasingly rapid cascade of technological advances has ensued. For these reasons and surely many more, we continue to love the Pony Express. In the year 2010 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that historic endeavor. It is easy to believe that in 50 and 100 more years, the enduring love of the romance and excitement of our western history will inspire people to pause and look back and to honor the riders, the station keepers, the horses, and all who lent a hand to the success of the historic Pony Express.

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