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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

The Mail Must go Through
The Story of the Pony Express

by Bob Brooke


"WANTED—young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week . . . ."

Half a million Americans lived west of the Rocky Mountains when this notice appeared in a San Francisco paper in 1860. Two thousand miles of mountains, plains, and deserts, broken only by Indian trails, separated them from the rest of the United States. To link California to the Missouri frontier, an adventurous businessman named William Russell created the Pony Express.

A Need Arises

San Francisco had become the center of numerous mining camps after the California gold strike in 1849. Pack mules brought in supplies, as well as delivered three-month-old newspapers. These camps sprang up so rapidly that the Post Office Department couldn’t keep up with them. Tons of "dead-letter" mail piled up at the post office in San Francisco. Eventually, enterprising men began to deliver this unclaimed mail to such outlying places as Hog’s Glory, Murderer's Bar, and Dead Man's Gulch by what became known as “Jackass Express.”

But delivering the mail nearly 2,000 miles between Missouri and California was hazardous at best. The only way to cross the plains, mountains and deserts to California was by horseback, covered wagon or stagecoach. There were trails, but they couldn’t be used throughout, and only an expert could avoid losing his way. The rugged mountain ranges presented fatal barriers to those who didn’t know the passes. And then there were the Indians. Even when peace prevailed with one tribe, another one might be on the warpath. White men who had become outlaws presented another hazard.

Californians wanted to receive books, magazines and newspapers, but such mail was too heavy and bulky to be carried by pack mules. In view of these difficulties, it’s understandable that the Post Office sent the bulk of the mail between California and the eastern seaboard by sea. Even though this method was slower, it was safer. However, the company which handled the ocean-going mail had a monopoly and charged excessive fees.

B. F. Ficklin, general superintendent of Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company (C.O.C. & P.P.), owned jointly by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors and the largest freighting firm on the frontier, forged a plan to create faster mail delivery between Missouri and California–the Pony Express. Russell, who was in favor of Ficklin’s idea, decided to begin operations before receiving government support, a move that his partners warned him against. Earlier attempts had failed miserably. The Indian menace was more serious than ever. The winter snows would make the trails impassable. And the Postmaster General had said that mail delivery via the Central Overland Route was virtually impossible.

In their favor, the company already had an ample number of way stations which could be used by the Pony Express. But west of Salt Lake City, it would have to construct new stations. Each consisted of a cabin, stable and corral, with at least two men to operate them and guard against horse thieves.

Even though failure and sizeable losses seemed overwhelming, Russell eventually convinced his partners to support the venture. As soon as they announced their plans, hundreds of young applicants filled the company’s offices despite the rigorous requirements for becoming a Pony Express rider. Skilled horsemen and hunters, these youngsters were no strangers to the hard life of the frontier, accustomed to dealing with Indians, self-reliant and resourceful. Above all, the spirit of adventure called to them.

To outfit the Pony Express required 500 of the best American horses–preferably California mustangs–including 190 stock stallions for changing the riding stock, 200 station tenders to care for and saddle the horses for the incoming rider, and 80 of the keenest, toughest and bravest of western youths to be the riders. Stations all had to be supplied with hay, grain and other needed materials. It took $100,000 in gold coin to establish and equip the line. In addition, the stations required about 400 men to ward off Indian attacks and maintain provisions and shelter for the riders and their mounts.

Originally, Russell proposed that the government pay him $500 per round trip for two trips a week in both directions. But he greatly underestimated the costs involved, which actually turned out to be about 15 times what he had calculated. At first, mail cost $5 a half ounce, but that was later reduced to $1.

Since the Pony Express messengers would have to depend on fast riding to escape from Indian attack, Russell limited each animal's load to165 pounds. This allowed 20 pounds for the mail, 25 pounds for the equipment and 120 pounds for the rider.

Operations Begin
On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began operations when riders left simultaneously from St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. On this first trip westward from St. Joseph, on the edge of the frontier, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad delivered mail from the East which the Pony Express would carry to California. Up to this time, the mail had been going to St. Joseph by boat. The westbound rider made the trip in 9 days and 23 hours while the eastbound one made it in 11days and 12 hours. Both covered about 250 miles every 24 hours.

Each Pony Express rider carried a lightweight rifle and a Colt revolver to be used strictly for defense. Russell forbid his riders to take the offensive against Indians or other enemies. Each rider wore a distinctive costume–a gaudy red shirt and blue pants–and carried a horn, which he blew upon approaching a station. On hearing the horn, the relay-station keeper and his stableman would get the rider’s next mount ready. Every second counted, as a change of horses wasn’t to take longer than two minutes. Riders, themselves, changed every 75-100 miles and rode an average of 10 miles per hour, completing the entire 1966-mile route through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California in about 10 days. Only one mail delivery was ever lost.

The Stations
Russell based the locations of the stations–150 to190 of them–on the distance a rider and horse could normally cover without exhaustion, an average of 10 miles. Because of this requirement, stations weren’t always built in safe or convenient locations. Sometimes, for example, grass and water weren’t available nearby, so it was necessary to bring in water in barrels and drive the horses some distance away to feed them.

As a rule, the home stations had already been set up earlier as stagecoach stations. Home stations–where a rider finished his run needed to be more elaborate. They had to provide facilities for the riders, as well as offer the services of a blacksmith. The men who did this work had to be top-notch in their field, for many of the horses were half wild and needed to be held down while the blacksmith did his work. Even so, shoeing a horse might take half a day.

The worst stations had dirt floors and no glass windows. Furniture consisted of boxes and benches, with bunks built into the walls in place of beds. Each required a large variety of supplies–hams, bacon, flour, syrup, dried fruits, corn meal, tea and coffee, but no alcohol. Each also had an assortment of housekeeping materials, including hammers, saws, axes, stoves, brooms, tin dishes, tin and wooden buckets, twine, screws, hinges, putty, candles, blankets, matches, scissors, needles and thread, even buffalo robes and antelope skins.

Plus each station had a well-equipped stable, filled with bridles, rope, blacksmith's supplies, brushes, currycombs, manure forks, and wagon grease. Borax, castor oil, cream of tartar, and turpentine served as medicines.

Riders used their horns to announce their arrival in the beginning, but soon discarded them to lighten their loads. Stationkeepers usually listened for the sounds of the horse's hoofbeats or in daylight watched for a large cloud of dust as a sign of a rider’s impending arrival. As he approached, the rider would loosen his mochila, a leather cover that fit snugly over his saddle and could be removed easily, so that he could toss it to the keeper at the earliest possible moment.

Newspapers published accounts of memorable rides, hair-raising escapes, of quick thinking and incredible endurance, and, most of all, loyalty and devotion of riders to their work.

Though the Pony Express lasted for only 19 months to October 24, 1861 when the Pacific Telegraph Line ended its need for existence, there’s no equal in American history for its heroic endurance. It’s founders had invested $700,000 and ended up bankrupt with a $200,000 deficit. They never did get the government mail contract and eventually lost their company at auction to Ben Holladay, who sold it to Wells Fargo for $2 million. To this day, the Pony Express remains a symbol of swift service, the spirit of adventure and faithful execution of an exacting and dangerous task.

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