On April 3, 1860, a mail pouch containing 49 letters, five telegrams and miscellaneous papers was handed to a young rider in St. Joseph, Missouri. Amid great fanfare, a cannon was fired, and that first unnamed Pony Express rider raced to a waiting ferry.
In just 3 months before that moment, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell had put together over 100 stations, 400-500 horses and over 2,500 riders, at an estimated cost of $70,000, to deliver the mail from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California, over 1,900 miles west.
There was a fresh horse needed every 10-15 miles and a fresh rider every 75-100 miles. 75 horses were needed for each way of the trip. Average speed was 10 miles per hour.
On April 9 at 6:45 p.m., the first rider from the east reached Salt Lake City, Utah. Then, on April 12, the mail pouch reached Carson City, Nevada at 2:30 p.m.
More riders thundered over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through Placerville, California and on to Sacramento. Then around midnight on April 14, 1860, the first mail pouch was relayed via Pony Express to San Francisco.
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That resounding success was short-lived. On October 26, 1861, the connection between the eastern and western telegraph lines was completed, and San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. On that day the Pony Express was officially terminated, but it was not until November that the last letters completed their journey over the route.
The Pony Express operated just 18 months, but its fame has far outlasted its time.
The Pony Express
The eddies swirl in the treacherous ford,
And the clouds gather dark ahead;
And over the plain, where the sunlight poured,
Scarce a gleam does the pale moon shed.
The pony drinks, but with gasp and sob,
And wan is the man at its side;
The way has been long, past butte and knob,
And still he must ride and ride.
Now the cinch is drawn and the plunge is made,
And the bank of the stream is gained;
Eyes study the darkness, unafraid,
And ne’er is the good horse reined.
And the hoof-beats die on the prairie vast,
To the lone wolf’s answering wail—
Thus the ghost of the Pony Express goes past
…..On the grass-grown Overland Trail.
— from Out where the West Begins, by Arthur Chapman 1917
History from the National Park Service:
- Want Ad for Pony Express Riders
- Pony Express Rider painting by Carl Rakeman