The Pony Express
By Steve Goldman, NCSA Member #9
On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express was launched as a daring private carrier to improve the terrible U.S. Postal Service to California. For most of the first half of the 19th century, mail carried by the federal government from New York to California went by ocean -- south from New York, overland across the Isthmus of Panama and north to California. It took from 26 to 30 days.
In 1855 Congress, with the blessing of the post office, appropriated $30,000 for the purchase of camels to take the mail from Texas to California. That experiment failed when the camels arrived and Americans soon discovered that there is a big difference between the Sahara Desert and the southwestern part of the U.S.
The post office next turned to businessman John Butterfield to carry the mail westward under federal contract. But Butterfield's Overland Mail Company took the much longer southern route from Fort Smith, Arkansas, through Missouri, El Paso, Los Angeles, and San Francisco -- 2,800 miles in 22 to 25 days.
Enter the three entrepreneurs behind the "Pony Express" -- William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. They put up $200,000 for a more direct carrier system that would permit half-ounce letters to get from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California in only 10 days and for only $5.
This trio bought 500 first class horses, set up 190 relay stations along the 2,000 mile journey and recruited light-weight men to operate the nation's first mail shuttle system. Among the Pony Express' 200 riders were "Wild Bill" Hickock and "Buffalo Bill" Cody.
The first journey by Pony Express was on April 3, 1860. It left St. Joseph, Missouri reaching Salt Lake City six days later and arriving in Sacramento on April 13, right on schedule. The first newspaper carried by Pony Express was a special light-weight edition of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette. This special edition was subtitled Pony Express Edition and was dated April 3, 1860 (6 O'clock P.M.). The St. Joseph Gazette of the next day, April 4, had a more detailed account of this great beginning of the Pony Express. Californians were amazed at the swiftness of the new system and the Pony was eagerly awaited on its once or twice weekly missions. The fastest time recorded was in November, 1860, when Pony riders carried westward the news of Lincoln's election as president on the outside of a letter to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado.
Many Midwest and western newspapers carried column heads heralding "News by Pony Express." This heralded the fastest and most up to date news available at the time. The Pony Express prided itself on getting the dispatches through no matter what the tribulations or hardships.
Alas, this romantic and exciting method of mail delivery only lasted twenty months. It was killed by new technology. As telegraph lines were constructed, the demand for the Pony Express began to decline. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph was completed and assured the early obsolescence of the Pony Express.