The Pony Express delivered from April 1860 to October 1861. I have no idea why the service was named Pony Express as it only used horses. Well, maybe a couple of mules too.
William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell owned Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company. They were the pioneers of the stagecoach operators who came up with the idea of the Pony Express to shorten mail delivery times.
Typical delivery by stagecoach to California took 25 days. The average delivery time for the Pony Express was 10 days. This is better than some of the emails I’ve received recently.
To achieve this speed, the owners set up a series of nearly 200 aid stations in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.
A lone driver drove from one station to the next switch assembly at full incline every 10 to 15 miles and handed over his cargo to a new driver after about 75 to 100 miles. The company’s personal event came in March 1861 when drivers took Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address from Nebraska to California for 7 days and 17 hours.
There are no financial records out of the business, but just putting pen to paper doesn’t take a big brainpower to find out there was no profit. Shipments stopped just months after the shipments began when the Pyramid Lake War broke out between the United States and the Paiute Indians.
It is estimated that the war cost the company approximately $ 75,000, and each run was a loss due to the high cost of ownership. There was also no government postal contract signed. According to estimates by some, the operation lost about $ 200,000 after about 18 months.
Since speed was essential, the Pony Express had a weight limit on its drivers, which means they were mostly very young men. The average age was 20 years. They were looking for small, wiry individuals weighing between 100 and 125 pounds.
Buffalo Bill Cody claimed he was a Pony Express driver when he was 14 years old. He grew up in Kansas along the route.
This advertisement appeared in the Sacramento Union on March 19, 1860
“The undersigned wishes to hire ten or a dozen men who are familiar with horse management to host or riders on the Overland Express route through Salt Lake City. Loans $ 50 a month and finds.”
There were advertisements that also advertised monthly salaries of $ 100 to $ 150, which was a significant amount of money at the time.
The Pony Express used a special leather mailbag known as “mochila” which is the Spanish word for backpack. It had a leather cover that was hung over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider. It had four pockets with padlocks, three for mail and one for the driver’s pass. It was able to hold up to 20 pounds of cargo. At each relief station, the driver would cut the mochila from one mount and toss it over the next for quick swap and save time.
It wasn’t cheap. When it started, the cost was $ 5 for every half ounce of mail (about $ 130 today). Prices eventually dropped to a US dollar but were still too expensive for the average person to use the service. It was mainly used to deliver government mail, business documents, and newspaper reports.
Imagine the cost of keeping the horses fresh and paying for all the riders and the people who looked after the horses at the various stations along the way (184 total). No wonder it lost money.
The service began with:
- 80 drivers
- 184 stations
- 400 horses
- Stockhands were at every station
At the height of the service there were 180 drivers.
Reports vary, but Indians reportedly attacked or burned multiple relay stations during the Pyramid Lake War in the summer of 1860, killing up to 16 stock hands in the process. The National Park Service says six drivers died on duty during the Pony Express’s brief history.
The Pony Express ended on October 24, 1861, when the Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line in Salt Lake City. The Pony Express went out of business two days later.
These are very cool to check out.