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Young and daring horseback riders once carried U.S. mail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California -- a distance of 1,966 miles -- in less than 10 days.
The Pony Express began service on April 3, 1860. Its promoters hoped to prove that the central route followed by the Pony Express was better than the longer southern route used by the stagecoaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail. Senator William M. Gwin of California was the chief promoter of the Pony Express, while the freight firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell backed the project financially.
The Pony Express route followed the Oregon-California Trail, along the Platte River in Nebraska, through South Pass in Wyoming. At Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the riders left the trail, swung to the south of the Great Salt Lake, and then headed due west across the salt desert to the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Carson City, Nevada, and then across the Sierra Nevada into California and on to Sacramento. Relay stations stood 10 to 15 miles apart along the route.
Pony Express riders rode at top speed from one station to the next. As the rider approached the station, the keeper brought out a fresh horse, which was already saddled and ready to travel. The rider jumped from his horse, grabbed the mail bags, and was on his way again in two minutes or less. The first Pony Express trip took 10 days to cover the distance of 1,966 miles. Later trips were made in 8 or 9 days, or 12 to 14 days shorter than the time required by the Overland Mail. Once the mail was carried from Fort Kearny, Nebraska, to Fort Churchill, Nevada, in 6 days, a record. The rider on this trip carried the news of Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860. The average distance covered in any given day was about 250 miles, with each individual rider covering about 75 miles.
Riders usually carried only two revolvers and a knife as defense against attacks by Indians and bandits. They rode day and night in all kinds of weather. Despite the risks, the mail was lost only once in the 650,000 miles ridden by the Pony Express during its period of service.
Completion of a transcontinental telegraph line ended the need for the Pony Express, and the service ended on October 24, 1861. Although the Pony Express did indeed prove that the northern route was shorter and faster than the Butterfield route, the company was a financial failure. The owners invested $700,000 to get the service started, and ended up owing $200,000. The company was sold at auction to Ben Holladay in March 1862, who later sold it to Wells Fargo for $2,000,000.
Some Questions and Answers
What were the qualifications for being a rider? The only official requirement was that a rider could weigh no more than 125 pounds. Riders ranged in age from 11 to the mid-40's, with the majority of them being under the age of 20.
How many riders were there? Approximately 80 to 100 young men worked for the Pony Express during its period of service.
How much did a rider make? Pony Express riders earned $100 to $150 a month.
Were any of the riders famous? Although none of the riders were famous before being hired by the Pony Express, several of them achieved fame later in their lives, including "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who was only 14 years old when hired.
How many horses were used, and what kind were they? Approximately 400 horses were employed by the Pony Express. Mustangs were used on the western portion of the route; Kentuckys on the east.
How many stations were there? There were between 150 and 190 stations along the route. They were spaced from 5 to 20 miles apart, depending on the severity of the route.
How much did it cost to send a letter via the Pony Express? The original postage rate was $5 per half ounce, but that rate was later reduced to $1. The total weight of a mail bag never exceeded 20 pounds.
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This page was last updated on September 24, 2017.