On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began delivering mail across the overland route to California. Young men riding horses at breakneck speed carried the mail utilizing rest stations along the way where fresh riders and horses could relieve tired ones. The Pony Express enabled mail to travel faster than ever before – nearly 2,000 miles in 10 days.
A series of events in the mid-1800s including the Mormon pioneers westward trek to Utah, the California Gold Rush of 1849, and thousands of travelers heading west on the Oregon Trail created a need for faster communication between east and west.
In 1859, California Senator William Gwin persuaded the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddle to develop a service to quickly deliver mail to the Pacific Coast. They agreed and selected the city of St. Joseph, Missouri as the eastern terminus for the route. St. Joseph connected to eastern cities with railroad lines and telegraphs allowing messages and mail to quickly transfer to the Pony Express where they were loaded into special leather saddlebags called mochilas, and carried in one of the twice-weekly Pony Express runs to Sacramento, California.
The evening of April 3, 1860, a crowd gathered at the Pony Express station in St. Joseph. They were anxiously awaiting a delayed train that was bringing mail for the Pony Express. As soon as it arrived, the mail was quickly transferred to the Pony Express station. A cannon sounded and the crowd cheered as 20-year-old Johnny Fry spurred his horse to a gallop. This high-speed mail service did not come cheap! Initially, it cost $5 per half-ounce to send a letter (the equivalent of roughly $150 today). Later the price was later lowered to $1 per half-ounce.
In order to minimize the weight, riders were often small and lean. They took a loyalty oath requiring them to refrain from profanity, drinking and fighting as they rode at top speed in between relay stations built about 15 miles apart, where they mounted a fresh horse; and home stations, 75-100 miles apart, where fresh riders would take over. During the journey, riders were vulnerable to extreme weather, bandits, and hostilities with Native Americans. The risks did not go unrewarded. Riders’ made around $100/month – about triple the average monthly salary for the time.
Newspapers relied on the Pony Express to deliver the latest headlines like when Abraham Lincoln was elected president or when the City of San Francisco opened its first railway that ferried passengers around the city on horse-drawn streetcars. The Pony Express also helped deliver international news. Headlines that traveled over the ocean by ship could reach the opposite coast in just 18 days!
‘Bronco Charlie’ Miller was only 11-years-old when he filled in one day for a missing rider. He was later hired and became the youngest regular rider. He also lived longer than other riders, dying at age 105 in 1955.
In October 1861, the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made the Pony Express obsolete after just 18 months. If you would like to learn more about the Pony Express and see fun clippings from this historic time, search Newspapers.com today!
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