Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on October 26, 2013
Pony Express

Pony Express

October 26, 1861: The legendary Pony Express officially ends. The Pony Express was devised to quickly get mail across the vast spaces of the American West. People moved ever westward and ended up far away from the bustling and crowded East Coast. In 1842 the Oregon Trail beckoned to frontier families in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Kentucky. By 1848 some type of regular mail service was called for. The Mexican-American War added the California territory to the new country and word of gold in the hills sent even more people west. San Francisco was established in 1848 and Salt Lake City in 1849.

What was the best way to get communications from the east to west and back? The ocean route was tried when Congress passed legislation authorizing the Navy to transport mail in 1847. Mail was sent via ship from the Atlantic coastal cities to the isthmus of Panama. Then it was taken across land and once again taken by sea to the Pacific coast. The trip was long and relatively costly. Mail was the only link to the past for many who came west in search of a better life. The Gold Rush brought more people – and higher costs to the mail.

There was overland service in competition with the ocean service. It also ran into problems. Service was irregular and erratic at best. Delivery could be slowed or stopped by snows. Mail was expected to arrive in a month, but could take twice as long. Service to Missouri was better established. The Pony Express was to carry mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California and manage the trip is mere days. Their premise was based on a relay race with riders handing off the mail across nearly 2,000 miles.

There were approximately 190 Pony Express stations set up at 10 mile intervals, on average. Letters were able to get from New York City to San Francisco in only ten days. The mail pouch was passed from rider to rider, who sat on the precious cargo to keep from losing it. The pouch was moved short distances quickly. It was the most important item with man and horse coming in a distant second. The mail was quickly delivered until … a new type of information system replaced it. The Transcontinental Telegraph was finished on October 24, 1861 and able to send vital information coast to coast. Two days later, the Pony Express, 18 months old, closed.

“Excitement was plentiful during my two years’ service as a Pony Express rider.”

“The first trip of the Pony Express was made in ten days – an average of two hundred miles a day. But we soon began stretching our riders and making better time.”

“You who live your lives in cities or among peaceful ways cannot always tell whether your friends are the kind who would go through fire for you. But on the Plains one’s friends have an opportunity to prove their mettle.”

“I was persuaded now that I was destined to lead a life on the Plains.” – all from William “Buffalo Bill” Cody

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: When California joined the Union as a free state in 1860 there were already 380,000 people out there. They were demanding better mail service. As the US Civil War was looming on the horizon, the need became ever greater. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell were already in the shipping business by the late 1850s. These founders of the Pony Express had more than 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons, and about 40,000 oxen at their disposal. During the 1850s the three businessmen merged their companies together and held government contracts for moving army supplies out west. Since they already had an idea of how to move goods, they knew how to move the mail. The routes were established and moving from coaches to horses alone made the trip quicker. The relay race method also sped the mail swiftly across the growing nation.

Also on this day: Tombstone, Arizona – In 1881, the gunfight at the OK Corral took place.
Cloud of Death – In 1948, Donora, Pennsylvania was shrouded in a toxic fog.
Outnumbered – In 1597, the battle of Myeongnyang was fought.

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Speedy Snail Mail

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 3, 2011

Poster for the Pony Express

April 3, 1860: The Pony Express officially opens for business. The company was founded by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors. The plan was spurred on by the threat of the impending Civil War. If war should break out, it was imperative that a faster method of communication with the West should be in place. The idea was for relays of riders to span the area covered by the plan. The route covered St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California.

The Pony Express itself was a subsystem of the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company of 1849. They became known as the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company in 1850. This company was founded by Russell, Waddell, and Majors, too. The three men decided to add the plains coverage in the winter of 1860 and took just two months to plan out the new business. They needed 120 riders, 184 stations [157 in 1860], 400 horses, and hundreds of other personnel to cover the approximately 1,900-mile route.

Riders covered 75-100 miles per shift with stations located about 10 miles apart along the route. Horses were only able to carry so much weight. Riders could not weigh more than 125 pounds. They carried a pouch called a mochila which was stored under the rider, making it necessary to kill both the horse and rider before one could get to the pouch of mail. The pouch could hold 20 pounds of mail and 20 pounds of supplies, including a water sack and a gun. Thus a horse could not be carrying more than 165 pounds on its back. Riders moved on day and night regardless of weather. They were paid $25 per week at a time when unskilled laborers were earning about $1 per week.

Riders left Missouri, crossed Kansas, Nebraska, part of Colorado, up into Wyoming, down into Utah, crossed the Rockies near Lake Tahoe, and arrived in California. Or, they followed the opposite route when leaving from California. On this day, riders left both St. Joseph and Sacramento. The westbound trip was completed in 9 days and 23 hours while the eastbound trip took 11 days and 12 hours to finish. The service remained active until October 1861.

“While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.” –  Oath sworn by Pony Express Riders

“There were about eighty pony riders in the saddle all the time, night and day, stretching in a long, scattering procession from Missouri to California, forty flying eastward, and forty toward the west, and among them making four hundred gallant horses earn a stirring livelihood and see a deal of scenery every single day of the year.” – Mark Twain

“One of the hardest rides I ever had made was when I carried President Lincoln’s inaugural address from the telegraph station at Fort Kearney.  Another was when the news came that Fort Sumter had been fired on.  Such things broke the routine, and made every Pony Express rider feel that he was helping to make history.” – William Campbell

“The mail must go.  Hurled by flesh and blood across 2,000 miles of desolate space — Fort Kearney, Laramie, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City.  Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, mountains and Indians, burning sands or snow must stop the precious bags.  The mail must go.” – M. Jeff Thompson

Also on this day:
A new boxing record set – In 1936, a new record for shortest fight.
Cunard Line – In 1929, the shipping company announced a new ship to be built.

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