Kenneth Kieser: Pony Express had an exciting but short-lived history
The severity of this winter has given many of us cabin fever. Spring will soon return and so will road trips. St. Joseph, Missouri, has a lot of history to offer, especially the Pony Express Museum and the Patee House where the riders stayed.
Here is some of that history:
Black Snake Hills started as a trading post on the Missouri River in 1826 by Joseph Robidoux, a fur trader. The town prospered and was renamed St. Joseph in 1843.
Westward Expansion travelers used St. Joseph as a starting point, especially after gold was discovered in 1848. Wagons, livestock and supplies were available for the three-month, 2,000-mile trip to California.
Communications were a big problem in the middle 1800s. Telegraphs from back east stopped at St. Joseph, Missouri. Travelers who moved to the western United States had no quick way of contacting their families and friends back east.
William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors owned a successful freighting business and proposed a faster mail service between St. Joseph and Sacramento, California, with letters delivered in 10 days. Many claimed it to be an impossible task, noting that most mail traveling that distance in a stagecoach or boat took 25 days to a month for delivery.
The company started by finding 400 excellent horses, and hundreds of employees in the winter of 1860. Surveying teams were hired to determine the quickest routes. Many received unwanted attention from the local Native American tribes.
The Pony Express had to build or purchase almost 160 relay stations about 10 miles apart, Station masters in the relay stations faced a dangerous, lonely job. Several lost their lives to Native American attacks.
Advertisements circulated across the country for young men weighing between 100 and 125 pounds with an average age around 20. Good horsemanship and toughness were required for running each route. Riders ran between 10 and 12 miles full speed before changing horses eight to 10 times on their 80- to 100-mile runs. Many applied and 183 were accepted, the youngest, 11 years old.
The horses were picked for each part of the ride according to the terrain, including half-bred California mustangs, thoroughbreds and Morgens. Each horse was treated to the best grain available and could outrun most Native American ponies. These quicker mounts saved the lives of riders being chased by war parties or stampeding herds of bison.
The day of the first ride finally arrived. Inside the Pike’s Peak Stable that is now called the Pony Express Stable, an anxious young man named Johnny Fry sat on a spirited horse named Sylph. The rider sat on a special lightweight saddle without a rifle scabbard or saddlebags to eliminate added weight. The doors were opened, a distant cannon exploded and Fry turned left out of the stable in a fast gallop down a dirt road toward the Missouri River, his mail sealed in a “mochila,” the Spanish word for knapsack.
Fry reached the Missouri River quickly and boarded a ferry for the ride across to Elwood, Kansas. Many stood on the river banks cheering the brave young man on his fast horse. The ferry reached shore and Fry left the river at a gallop on Kansas soil. His first relay stop was in Troy, Kansas, where some historians claim he was handed a treat by adoring girls, which may have been the first doughnut or fried dough. He completed his ride that day in Seneca, Kansas, about 80 miles away while traveling an estimated 12 mph.
The first half of the route followed the Oregon Trail and passed through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming to Utah. West of Salt Lake City riders turned off the famous trail then turned south through Nevada to San Francisco.
Imagine riding on a horse through rain, snow and cold or hot weather. Riders had to dress light. In fact, it was reported that two riders actually froze to death. Heat exhaustion was another problem in the summer. Some reports claim a couple of riders changed directions to miss tornadoes ripping through the plains.
The Paiutes went on the warpath against white settlers in the spring and summer of 1860 around the Nevada and Utah region. Several employees died, mainly station masters and one rider.
Pony Express riders were not encouraged to carry anything extra besides a Bible issued by the company and a pistol or two. Rifles were bulky and said to weigh too much.
As Mark Twain wrote in his book “Roughing It”:
“In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and watching for the "pony-rider" – the fleet messenger who sped across the continent from St. Joe to Sacramento, carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight days! Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh!”
The Pony Express riders carried word of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president from Fort Kearney, Nebraska, to Placerville, California, in a record five days on Nov. 7, 1860, and his inaugural address was later delivered by the Pony Express to Placerville, California.
Bob Haslam carried the inaugural address on his run and was attacked by Native Americans on March 4, 1861. Wounded, he completed the 120-mile run in a record 8 hours, 20 minutes.
The Pony Express ceased operations on Oct. 1, 1861 after high-speed telegraph systems were established from New York to San Francisco and a message could travel across the country in minutes. The company lost approximately $75,000, the equivalent of about $2.35 million today.
Today you can visit the original Pony Express Stable in St. Joseph for the true story. For more information, call them at 816-279-5059.
While in St. Joe, please visit the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion, where the top floor has an exhibit based on my book, “Missouri’s Great Flood of “93”–Revisiting an Epic Natural Disaster.” You can call them at 800-530-8866. I occasionally speak to classes about the flood at this venue.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.