Pony Express National Historic Trail

History

"Men Wanted” The undersigned wishes to hire ten or a dozen men, familiar with the management of horses, as hostlers, or riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City. Wages $50 per month and found.”
     - Ad in Sacramento Union, March 19, 1860.

More than 1,800 miles in 10 days! From St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California the Pony Express could deliver a letter more quickly than ever before.

In operation for only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express nevertheless has become synonymous with the Old West. In the era before electronic communication, the Pony Express was the thread that tied East to West.

As a result of the 1849 Gold Rush, the 1847 Mormon exodus to Utah and the thousands who moved west on the Oregon Trail starting in the 1840s, the need for a fast mail service beyond the Rocky Mountains became obvious. This need was partially filled by outfits such as the Butterfield Overland Mail Service starting in 1857 and private carriers in following years.

But when postmaster general Joseph Holt scaled back overland mail service to California and the central region of the country in 1858, an even greater need for mail arose. The creation of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company by William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell became the answer. It was later known as the Pony Express.

On June 16, 1860, about ten weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized the a bill instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the building of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast.

The passage of the bill resulted in the incorporation of the Overland Telegraph Company of California and the Pacific Telegraph Company of Nebraska. On July 4, 1861, Edward Creighton began building the Nebraska company's line westward from Julesburg, Colorado, toward Salt Lake City. Twelve hundred miles to the west on the same day at Fort Churchill in Nevada, James Gamble set the first pole in the Overland Telegraph Company's line.

While the lines were under construction the Pony Express operated as usual. Letters and newspapers were carried the entire length of the line from St. Joseph to Sacramento, but telegrams were carried only between the rapidly advancing wire ends.

On October 20, 1861, Creighton won the race to Salt Lake City. Four days later Gamble's crew arrived. On October 26 the wires were joined, 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.

Most of the original trail has been obliterated either by time or human activities. Along many segments, the trail's actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture. In the western states, the majority of the trail has been converted, over the years, to double track dirt roads. Short pristine segments, believed to be traces of the original trail, can be seen only in Utah and California. However, approximately 120 historic sites may eventually be available to the public, including 50 existing Pony Express stations or station ruins.

The First Ride

"Citizens paraded the streets with bands of music, fireworks were set off....the best feeling was manifested by everybody."     
     --New York times, April 14, 1860 on the success of the first Pony Express delivery.

With only two months to make the Pony Express a reality, the team of William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell had their hands full in January 1860. Over 100 stations, 400-500 horses and enough riders were needed - at an estimated cost of $70,000.

But on April 3, 1860, the first official delivery began at the eastern terminus of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, Missouri. Amid great fanfare and with many dignitaries present, a mail pouch containing 49 letters, five telegrams and miscellaneous papers was handed to a rider. At 7:15 p.m., a cannon was fired and the rider bolted off to a waiting ferry boat.

The Pony Express was set up to provide a fresh horse every 10-15 miles and a fresh rider every 75-100 miles. 75 horses were needed total to make a one-way 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.

The riders raced over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, through Placerville, California and on to Sacramento. Around midnight on April 14, 1860, the first mail pouch was delivered via the Pony Express to San Francisco.

Despite the success and approval of the public, the Pony Express was by no means a trouble-free operation after the first delivery. Costs and difficulties of maintaining the extensive network of stations, people and horses were numerous. Yet the Pony Express, with the exception of delays caused by the Pyramid Lake War, stayed in operation until the telegraph's arrival in 1861.

The Pyramid Lake War

Of the many potential problems facing the Pony Express - weather, supply difficulties, rider fatigue, etc. - the biggest one was unforeseen.

The Pyramid Lake War crippled the operation of the Pony Express starting in May 1860, and continued to do so for many months following. A case of white mineral-seekers encroaching on traditional Indian lands led to the war.

Following the discovery of silver in the Washoe Hills of Nevada in July 1859, white settlers poured into the region from both east and west. The abrupt arrival of so many whites naturally brought them into conflict with the Paiute Indians who lived in the area. Prospectors claimed water, feed and land for themselves without regard for the Paiutes' rights.

The Pony Express was also guilty of taking Indian resources. In the desert of western Nevada, for example, relay stations were built at critical water sources that the Indians depended on. Conflicts between whites and Indians became inevitable.

On May 7, 1860, an incident at the Williams Station in Carson Valley, Nevada set off the Pyramid Lake War. An old Paiute man and a younger Pauite woman went to a house owned by J.O. Williams, a white. Four white men in the house tied up the man and attacked the woman. The Paiutes were later set free but the Pauite man returned later with friends who forced the four white men into the house. The house was burned with the men in it.

The Pyramid Lake War had begun. The Paiutes claimed a big victory when they defeated U.S. Major William Ormsby's force in Nevada, but the Indians eventually were defeated.

Following the outbreak of the war, Indian raids became more common at the remote Pony Express stations in western Nevada. On May 21, 1860, a station keeper was killed and the station burned at Simpson Park Station. Major disruptions of the Pony Express ensued.

In June of 1860 the Pony Express canceled operations between Carson City and Salt Lake City because of the depredations. Service continued between St. Joseph and Salt Lake City, but little revenue came in from this stretch.

By July 1860, with the help of federal troops and stepped-up security measures, the Pony Express again began delivering mail to California. Delays had cost the company around $75,000. But the delays were not yet over. In August, trouble erupted again at remote stations in Nevada.

More delays ensued, further crippling the already struggling Pony Express. By the following year, delays in deliveries and lack of federal assistance would help shut down the Pony Express.