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On March 26, 1860, there appeared simultaneously in the St. Louis Republic and the New York Herald the following notice:

To San Francisco in 8 days by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company. The first courier of the Pony Express will leave the Missouri River on Tuesday, April 3rd at 5 o'clock P. M. and will run regularly weekly hereafter, carrying a letter mail only. The point of departure on the Missouri River will be in telegraphic connection with the East and will be announced in due time.

Telegraphic messages from all parts of the United States and Canada in connection with the point of departure will be received up to 5 o'clock P. M. of the day of leaving and transmitted over the Placerville and St. Joseph telegraph wire to San Francisco and intermediate points by the connecting express, in 8 days.

The letter mail will be delivered in San Francisco in ten days from the departure of the Express. The Express passes through Forts Kearney, Laramie, Bridger, Great Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd, Carson City, The Washoe Silver Mines, Placerville, and Sacramento.

Letters for Oregon, Washington Territory, British Columbia, the Pacific Mexican ports, Russian Possessions, Sandwich Islands, China, Japan, and India will be mailed in San Francisco.

Special messengers, bearers of letters to connect with the express the 3rd of April, will receive communications for the courier of that day at No. 481 Tenth St., Washington City, up to 2:45 P. M. on Friday, March 30, and in New York at the office of J. B. Simpson, Room No. 8, Continental Bank Building, Nassau Street, up to 6:30 A. M. of March 31.

Full particulars can be obtained on application at the above places and from the agents of the Company.

This sudden announcement of the long-desired fast mail route aroused great enthusiasm in the West and especially in St. Joseph, Missouri, Salt Lake City, and the cities of California, where preparations to celebrate the opening of the line were at once begun. Slowly the time passed, until the afternoon of the eventful day, April 3rd, that was to mark the first step in annihilating distance between the East and West. A great crowd had assembled on the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri. Flags were flying and a brass band added to the jubilation. The Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad had arranged to run a special train into the city, bringing the through mail from connecting points in the East. Everybody was anxious and excited. At last the shrill whistle of a locomotive was heard, and the train rumbled in--on time. The pouches were rushed to the post office where the express mail was made ready.

Image Source: Pony Express stables in St. Joseph, Missouri, courtesy of Wikimedia

The people now surge about the old "Pike's Peak Livery Stables," just South of Pattee Park. All are hushed with subdued expectancy. As the moment of departure approaches, the doors swing open and a spirited horse is led out. Nearby, closely inspecting the animal's equipment is a wiry little man scarcely twenty years old.

Time to go! Everybody back! A pause of seconds, and a cannon booms in the distance--the starting signal. The rider leaps to his saddle and starts. In less than a minute he is at the post office where the letter pouch, square in shape with four padlocked pockets, is awaiting him. Dismounting only long enough for this pouch to be thrown over his saddle, he again springs to his place and is gone. A short sprint and he has reached the Missouri River wharf. A ferry boat under a full head of steam is waiting. With scarcely checked speed, the horse thunders onto the deck of the craft. A rumbling of machinery, the jangle of a bell, the sharp toot of a whistle and the boat has swung clear and is headed straight for the opposite shore. The crowd behind breaks into tumultuous applause. Some scream themselves hoarse; others are strangely silent; and some--strong men--are moved to tears.

The noise of the cheering multitude grows faint as the Kansas shore draws near. The engines are reversed; a swish of water, and the craft grates against the dock. Scarcely has the gangplank been lowered than horse and rider dash over it and are off at a furious gallop. Away on the jet black steed goes Johnnie Frey, the first rider, with the mail that must be hurled by flesh and blood over 1,966 miles of desolate space--across the plains, through North-eastern Kansas and into Nebraska, up the valley of the Platte, across the Great Plateau, into the foothills and over the summit of the Rockies, into the arid Great Basin, over the Wahsatch range, into the valley of Great Salt Lake, through the terrible alkali deserts of Nevada, through the parched Sink of the Carson River, over the snowy Sierras, and into the Sacramento Valley--the mail must go without delay. Neither storms, fatigue, darkness, rugged mountains, burning deserts, nor savage Indians were to hinder this pouch of letters. The mail must go; and its schedule, incredible as it seemed, must be made. It was a sublime undertaking, than which few have ever put the fiber of Americans to a severer test.

The managers of the Central Overland, California and Pike's Peak Express Company had laid their plans well. Horses and riders for fresh relays, together with station agents and helpers, were ready and waiting at the appointed places, ten or fifteen miles apart over the entire course. There was no guess-work or delay.

After crossing the Missouri River, out of St. Joseph, the official route[2] of the west-bound Pony Express ran at first west and south through Kansas to Kennekuk; then northwest, across the Kickapoo Indian reservation, to Granada, Log Chain, Seneca, Ash Point, Guittards, Marysville, and Hollenberg. Here the valley of the Little Blue River was followed, still in a northwest direction. The trail crossed into Nebraska near Rock Creek and pushed on through Big Sandy and Liberty Farm, to Thirty-two-mile Creek. From thence it passed over the prairie divide to the Platte River, the valley of which was followed to Fort Kearney. This route had already been made famous by the Mormons when they journeyed to Utah in 1847. It had also been followed by many of the California gold-seekers in 1848-49 and by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and his army when they marched west from Fort Leavenworth to suppress the "Mormon War" of 1857-58.

Image Source: Photograph of a drawing showing a Pony Express station and riders.  Kansas Image courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society.

For about three hundred miles out of Fort Kearney, the trail followed the prairies; for two-thirds of this distance, it clung to the south bank of the Platte, passing through Plum Creek and Midway[3]. At Cottonwood Springs the junction of the North and South branches of the Platte was reached. From here the course moved steadily westward, through Fremont's Springs, O'Fallon's Bluffs, Alkali, Beauvais Ranch, and Diamond Springs to Julesburg, on the South fork of the Platte. Here the stream was forded and the rider then followed the course of Lodge Pole Creek in a northwesterly direction to Thirty Mile Ridge. Thence he journeyed to Mud Springs, Court-House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott's Bluffs to Fort Laramie. From this point he passed through the foot-hills to the base of the Rockies, then over the mountains through South Pass and to Fort Bridger. Then to Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd, Ruby Valley, Mountain Wells, across the Humboldt River in Nevada to Bisbys', Carson City, and to Placerville, California; thence to Folsom and Sacramento. Here the mail was taken by a fast steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco.

A large part of this route traversed the wildest regions of the Continent. Along the entire course, there were but four military posts and they were strung along at intervals of from two hundred and fifty to three hundred and fifty miles from each other. Over most of the journey, there were only small way stations to break the awful monotony. Topographically, the trail covered nearly six hundred miles of rolling prairie, intersected here and there by streams fringed with timber. The nature of the mountainous regions, the deserts, and alkali plains as avenues of horseback travel is well understood. Throughout these areas, the men and horses had to endure such risks as rocky chasms, snow slides, and treacherous streams, as well as storms of sand and snow. The worst part of the journey lay between Salt Lake City and Sacramento, where for several hundred miles the route ran through a desert, much of it a bed of alkali dust where no living creature could long survive. It was not merely these dangers of dire exposure and privation that threatened, for wherever the country permitted of human life, Indians abounded. From the Platte River valley westward, the old route sped over by the Pony Express is today substantially that of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.

In California, the region most benefited by the express, the opening of the line was likewise awaited with the keenest anticipation. Of course, there had been at the outset a few dissenting opinions, the gist of the opposing sentiment being that the Indians would make the operation of the route impossible. One newspaper went so far as to say that it was "Simply inviting slaughter upon all the foolhardy young men who had been engaged as riders". But the California spirit would not down. A vast majority of the people favored the enterprise and clamored for it; and before the express had been long in operation, all classes were united in the conviction that they could not do without it.

Image Source: The B.F. Hastings building in Sacramento, California, the western terminus of the Pony Express Wikimedia

At San Francisco and Sacramento, then the two most important towns in the far West, great preparations were made to celebrate the first outgoing and incoming mails. On April 3rd, at the same hour the express started from St. Joseph[4], the eastbound mail was placed on board a steamer at San Francisco and sent up the river, accompanied by an enthusiastic delegation of business men. On the arrival of the pouch and its escort at Sacramento, the capital city, they were greeted with the blare of bands, the firing of guns, and the clanging of gongs. Flags were unfurled and floral decorations lined the streets. That night the first rider for the East, Harry Roff, left the city on a white broncho. He rode the first twenty miles in fifty-nine minutes, changing mounts once. He next took a fresh horse at Folsom and pushed on fifty-five miles farther to Placerville. Here he was relieved by "Boston," who carried the mail to Friday Station, crossing the Sierras en route. Next came Sam Hamilton who rode through Geneva, Carson City, Dayton, and Reed's Station to Fort Churchill, seventy-five miles in all. This point, one hundred and eighty-five miles out of Sacramento had been reached in fifteen hours and twenty minutes, in spite of the Sierra Divide where the snow drifts were thirty feet deep and where the Company had to keep a drove of pack mules moving in order to keep the passageway clear. From Fort Churchill into Ruby Valley went H. J. Faust; from Ruby Valley to Shell Creek the courier was "Josh" Perkins; then came Jim Gentry who carried the mail to Deep Creek, and he was followed by "Let" Huntington who pushed on to Simpson's Springs. From Simpson's to Camp Floyd rode John Fisher, and from the latter place Major Egan carried the mail into Salt Lake City, arriving April 7, at 11:45 P. M.[5] The obstacles to fast travel had been numerous because of snow in the mountains, and stormy spring weather with its attendant discomfort and bad going. Yet the schedule had been maintained, and the last seventy-five miles into Salt Lake City had been ridden in five hours and fifteen minutes.

At that time Placerville and Carson City were the terminals of a local telegraph line. News had been flashed back from Carson on April 4 that the rider had passed that point safely. After that came an anxious wait until April 12 when the arrival of the west-bound express announced that all was well.

The first trip of the Pony Express westbound from St. Joseph to Sacramento was made in nine days and twenty-three hours. East-bound, the run was covered in eleven days and twelve hours. The average time of these two performances was barely half that required by the Butterfield stage over the Southern route. The pony had clipped ten full days from the schedule of its predecessor, and shown that it could keep its schedule--which was as follows:

  From St. Joseph to Salt Lake City--124 hours.

  From Salt Lake City to Carson City--218 hours, from starting point.

  From Carson City to Sacramento--232 hours, from starting point.

  From Sacramento to San Francisco--240 hours, from starting point.

From the very first trip, expressions of genuine appreciation of the new service were shown all along the line. The first express which reached Salt Lake City eastbound on the night of April 7, led the Deseret News, the leading paper of that town to say that: "Although a telegraph is very desirable, we feel well-satisfied with this achievement for, the present." Two days later, the first west-bound express bound from St. Joseph reached the Mormon capital. Oddly enough this rider carried news of an act to amend a bill just proposed in the United States Senate, providing that Utah be organized into Nevada Territory under the name and leadership of the latter[6]. Many of the Mormons, like numerous persons in California, had at first believed the Pony Express an impossibility, but now that it had been demonstrated wholly feasible, they were delighted with its success, whether it brought them good news or bad; for it had brought Utah within six days of the Missouri River and within seven days of Washington City. Prior to this, under the old stage coach régime, the people of that territory had been accustomed to receive their news of the world from six weeks to three months old.

Probably no greater demonstrations were ever held in California cities than when the first incoming express arrived. Its schedule having been announced in the daily papers a week ahead, the people were ready with their welcome. At Sacramento, as when the pony mail had first come up from San Francisco, practically the whole town turned out. Stores were closed and business everywhere suspended. State officials and other citizens of prominence addressed great crowds in commemoration of the wonderful achievement. Patriotic airs were played and sung and no attempt was made to check the merry-making of the populace. After a hurried stop to deliver local mail, the pouch was rushed aboard the fast sailing steamer Antelope, and the trip down the stream begun. Although San Francisco was not reached until the dead of night, the arrival of the express mail was the signal for a hilarious reception. Whistles were blown, bells jangled, and the California Band turned out. The city fire department, suddenly aroused by the uproar, rushed into the street, expecting to find a conflagration, but on recalling the true state of affairs, the firemen joined in with spirit. The express courier was then formally escorted by a huge procession from the steamship dock to the office of the Alta Telegraph, the official Western terminal, and the momentous trip had ended.

The first Pony Express from St. Joseph brought a message of congratulation from President Buchanan to Governor Downey of California, which was first telegraphed to the Missouri River town. It also brought one or two official government communications, some New York, Chicago, and St. Louis newspapers, a few bank drafts, and some business letters addressed to banks and commercial houses in San Francisco--about eighty-five pieces of mail in all[7]. And it had brought news from the East only nine days on the road.

At the outset, the Express reduced the time for letters from New York to the Coast from twenty-three days to about ten days. Before the line had been placed in operation, a telegraph wire, allusion to which has been made, had been strung two hundred and fifty miles Eastward from San Francisco through Sacramento to Carson City, Nevada. Important official business from Washington was therefore wired to St. Joseph, then forwarded by pony rider to Carson City where it was again telegraphed to Sacramento or San Francisco as the case required, thus saving twelve or fifteen hours in transmission on the last lap of the journey. The usual schedule for getting dispatches from the Missouri River to the Coast was eight days, and for letters, ten days.

After the triumphant first trip, when it was fully evident that the Pony Express[8] was a really established enterprise, the St. Joseph Free Democrat broke into the following panegyric:

Take down your map and trace the footprints of our quadrupedantic animal: From St. Joseph on the Missouri to San Francisco, on the Golden Horn--two thousand miles--more than half the distance across our boundless continent; through Kansas, through Nebraska, by Fort Kearney, along the Platte, by Fort Laramie, past the Buttes, over the Rocky Mountains, through the narrow passes and along the steep defiles, Utah, Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City, he witches Brigham with his swift ponyship--through the valleys, along the grassy slopes, into the snow, into sand, faster than Thor's Thialfi, away they go, rider and horse--did you see them? They are in California, leaping over its golden sands, treading its busy streets. The courser has unrolled to us the great American panorama, allowed us to glance at the homes of one million people, and has put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes. Verily the riding is like the riding of Jehu, the son of Nimshi for he rideth furiously. Take out your watch. We are eight days from New York, eighteen from London. The race is to the swift.

The Pony Express had been tried at the tribunal of popular opinion and given a hearty endorsement. It had yet to win the approval of shrewd statesmanship.

[2] Root and Connelley's Overland Stage to California.

[3] So called because it was about half way between the Missouri River and Denver.

[4] Reports as to the precise hour of starting do not all agree. It was probably late in the afternoon or early in the evening, no later than 6:30.

[5] Authorities differ somewhat as to the personnel of the first trip; also as to the number of letters carried.

[6] On account of the Mormon outbreak and the troubles of 1857-58, there was at this time much ill-feeling in Congress against Utah. Matters were finally smoothed out and the bill in question was of course dropped. Utah was loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War.

[7] Eastbound the first rider carried about seventy letters.

[8] The idea of a Pony Express was not a new one in 1859. Marco Polo relates that Genghis Khan, ruler of Chinese Tartary had such a courier service about one thousand years ago. This ambitious monarch, it is said, had relay stations twenty-five miles apart, and his riders sometimes covered three hundred miles in twenty-four hours.

About a hundred years back, such a system was in vogue in various countries of Europe.

Early in the nineteenth century before the telegraph was invented, a New York newspaper man named David Hale used a Pony Express system to collect state news. A little later, in 1830, a rival publisher, Richard Haughton, political editor of the New York Journal of Commerce borrowed the same idea. He afterward founded the Boston Atlas, and by making relays of fast horses and taking advantage of the services offered by a few short lines of railroad then operating in Massachusetts, he was enabled to print election returns by nine o'clock on the morning after election.

This idea was improved by James W. Webb, Editor of the New York Courier and Enquirer, a big daily of that time. In 1832, Webb organized an express rider line between New York and Washington. This undertaking gave his paper much valuable prestige.

In 1833, Hale and Hallock of the Journal of Commerce started a rival line that enabled them to publish Washington news within forty-eight hours, thus giving their paper a big "scoop" over all competitors. Papers in Norfolk, Va., two hundred and twenty-nine miles south-east of Washington actually got the news from the capitol out of the New York Journal of Commerce received by the ocean route, sooner than news printed in Washington could be sent to Norfolk by boat directly down the Potomac River.

The California Pony Express of historic fame was imitated on a small scale in 1861 by the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, then, as now, one of the great newspapers of the West. At that time, this enterprising daily owned and published a paper called the Miner's Record at Tarryall, a mining community some distance out of Denver. The News also had a branch office at Central City, forty-five miles up in the mountains. As soon as information from the War arrived over the California Pony Express and by stage out of old Julesburg from the Missouri River--Denver was not on the Pony Express route--it was hurried to these outlying points by fast horsemen. Thanks to this enterprise, the miners in the heart of the Rockies could get their War news only four days late.--Root and Connelley.