Rural Missouri Magazine

Great race against time
National museum celebrates 150th anniversary of Pony Express

by Jason Jenkins
Though not historically accurate, “The First Ride” by Charles Hargens captures the excitement as Pony Express rider Johnny Fry gallops away from the Pike’s Peak Stables on the service’s first run. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express. Courtesy of the Pony Express National Museum, St. Joseph.

Long before letter carriers vowed that “neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night” would keep them from completing their appointed rounds, another breed of postman streaked across the American West atop a galloping steed.

These young men, in the employ of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, raced against time and terrain, enduring thunderstorms and tornadoes, blizzards and bison stampedes — even hostile American Indians. Across prairies, plains, mountains and deserts, they vowed to meet these dangers for as little as $25 per month to ensure that the mail would be delivered.

These were the riders of the Pony Express.

From April 1860 to October 1861, the Pony Express provided the fastest means of communication between the East and the West. It was vital for tying California closely with the Union just before a growing secessionist movement in the South led to the Civil War.

Though it only would last about 18 months, few ventures have captured the American imagination like the Pony Express. During the first weekend in April, the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest adventures in Western lore.

“That’s probably the thing that surprises people, how brief of a time the Pony Express was around,” says Cindy Daffron, director of development for the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph. “They say, ‘I had no idea. I thought it lasted a long time.’ While is was a brief, it has carried on in history as this great adventure.”

A lack of timely communication with the East was becoming a greater issue as more and more pioneers emigrated to California and the West Coast population grew. Whether by steam ship traveling around South America or by wagon train or stagecoach, information moved too slowly. In 1856, for example, it took nearly four weeks for news of President James Buchanan’s election to reach Sacramento. The federal government was seeking solutions.

Today, visitors to the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph can stand in the exact spot where one of the greatest adventures in Western lore began. The museum is housed inside the original Pike's Peak stables where Johnny Fry began his historic ride.

“So these three entrepreneurs, William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell — we call them the risk takers — formed the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, which became known simply as the Pony Express,” explains Cindy. “Sen. William Gwin of California proposed the idea to Russell, who convinced his partners that if successful, their firm would receive a large federal mail contract.”

From late January to April 1860, the men set about constructing and equipping stations along the planned route of nearly 2,000 miles. They purchased as many as 500 horses and hired 200 men as station keepers, stock tenders and most importantly, Pony Express riders.

The Express consisted of a relay of men and horses. About 160 stations were spaced anywhere from 9 to 15 miles apart along the trail. At each station, the rider would have two minutes to transfer to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch, or “mochila,” with him. After 10 to 12 hours of continuous riding, a fresh man would take the mochila at each home station, which were 75 to 100 miles apart.

The goal was to deliver the mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 10 days in the summer and in 12 to 16 days in the winter. To ensure a speedy horse, Pony Express riders could weigh no more than 125 pounds. They could carry up to 20 pounds of mail.

“What I find interesting is that it was often children who rode,” Cindy says, adding that the youngest documented substitute Pony Express rider was 11 years old, though most were in their late teens and early 20s. “These weren’t necessarily adults who were out trying to raise a family. These were just kids out doing their thing.”

At 7:15 p.m., April 3, 1860, 19-year-old Pony Express rider Johnny Fry left the Pike’s Peak Stables in St. Joseph carrying 49 letters, 5 private telegrams and newspapers destined for Sacramento. The mochila would be safely delivered to Sacramento 10 days later on April 13. Today, the stables house the national museum.

A newspaper advertisement from 1861 boasts coast-to-coast letter delivery in only 10 days. Courtesy of the Pony Express National Museum, St. Joseph.

The Pony Express ran weekly for 10 weeks until June 1860 when twice-weekly delivery was established. Cost to send a letter was an expensive $5 per half-ounce at first, but was lowered to $1 per half-ounce in July 1861 when a new lightweight paper was developed.

Though its run was brief, the Pony Express played a pivotal role in American history. It likely helped the United States retain California as the threat of civil war loomed. In March 1861, the service delivered President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address to the West Coast in a record 7 days, 17 hours, providing Californians with the information they needed to remain loyal to the Union.

While financial woes seemingly would have caused the endeavor’s demise, the completion of a new transcontinental telegraph line on Oct. 24, 1861, made the Pony Express obsolete overnight. Two days later, the Pony Express ceased operations. An editorial titled, “Farewell Pony!,” published in the The Daily Bee in Sacramento lamented the end:

“Farewell and forever, thou staunch wilderness-overcoming, swift-footed messenger! For the good thou hast done we praise thee; and, having run thy race, and accomplished all that was hoped for and expected, we can part with thy services without regret, because, and only because, in the progress of the age, in the advance of science and by the enterprise of capital, thou has been superseded by a more subtle, active, but no more faithful, public servant.”

In total during its 18 months of operation, the Pony Express delivered almost 35,000 letters. More importantly, though, it brought a young nation closer together during a difficult time. Letter mail would not travel as fast across the country until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.

“Yes, you could say the Pony Express failed, at least the business part of it. They lost lots of money,” Cindy says. “But, if you look at what they did, if you look at the dedication and commitment, the pure adventure, that part was a resounding success.”

Sesquicentennial Events

Thursday, April 1:
• Buffalo Bill look-alike contest
• Chuck wagon dinner

Friday, April 2:
• Pony School groundbreaking
• Re-enactments
• Patron’s dinner

Saturday, April 3:
• Re-rides to and from St. Joseph
• Pony Express Bridle and Saddle Parade
• Re-enactments
• Johnny Fry ride
• Michael Martin Murphy concert

For complete details, call 816-279-5059 or go online to

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