This year marks the 150th anniversary of the famous Pony Express. Although it existed for only a short period of time – from April 3, 1860 to late October, 1861; it captured the attention and heart of the world. Many historians credit it as the first ‘high-speed Information delivery service’ in the United States. Some have gone so far has to say it’s the grandfather of the internet! Why? Because it fueled the unending demand in our country for faster and faster means of communication.
The service was started to provide the fastest mail delivery service possible (for the 1860’s) between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, CA., a distance of 1,966 miles. Mail delivery took 10 days during the summer and, 12 – 16 days in the winter. Riders were expected to ride 24/7 year round, regardless of weather conditions or hostile Indians. For their service, riders were paid $100.00/month which for the time period was very good pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor was $1.00 per week. Only 183 men were Pony Express riders. A California ad for riders read:
“Wanted young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Despite such dire language, many young men signed on drawn by both the pay and romantic image of the job. Most riders weighed about 125 pounds and were around 20 years old; the oldest in his mid 40’s and, the youngest was only 11 years old! Each rider rode between 75 and 100 miles before being relieved. They got fresh horses every 10 – 15 miles, a distance that a horse could travel at full gallop. Approximately 165 relay stations existed to service the riders. Mail was carried in a mochila (Spanish for pouch or backpack). A mochila carried 20 pounds of mail. Each rider also carried another 20 pounds of provisions. In addition, they were issued a revolver and a rifle and a horn that was used to alert the relay station to ready the next horse. Each rider was instructed that he and his horse should perish before any harm should come to his mochila.
The Pony Express was a huge success despite its short life. It dramatically improved communications between the East and West coasts during a critical time period in US history. Many historians credit the Pony Express with keeping the vital state of California within the union at the outbreak of our Civil War. Its success also gave support to the ‘central route’ for the transcontinental railroad by proving that the route could be traveled during the winter. The telegraph officially ended the Pony Express on October 24, 1861.
Ranked as one of the most remarkable feats to come out of the 1860 American West, it will be honored this year with numerous celebrations along its storied route. Two such celebrations are planned for Colorado: one in Ovid on June 19, 2010 and the other in Julesburg on the same date. Also, the US Post Office will provide delivery service via the Pony Express route for a limited number of letters purchased for the event.