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When Edward Creighton completed the Pacific telegraph, and, on October 24, 1861, began sending messages; by wire from coast to coast, the California Pony Express formally went out of existence. For over three months since July 1, it had been paralleled by the daily overland stage; yet the great efficiency of the semi-weekly pony line in offering quick letter service won and retained its popularity to the very end of its career.

And this was in spite of the fact that for several weeks before its discontinuance the pony men had ridden only between the ends of the fast building telegraph which was constructed in two divisions--from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Missouri River--at the same time, the lines meeting near the Great Salt Lake.

Historical Marker
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The people of the far West strongly protested against the elimination of the pony line service. Early in the winter of 1862 it became rumored--perhaps wildly--that the Committee on Finance in the House of Representatives had, for reasons of economy, stricken out the appropriation for the continuance of the daily stage. Whereupon the California legislature[41] addressed a set of joint resolutions to the state's delegation in Congress, imploring not only that the Daily Stage be retained, but that the Pony Express be reestablished. The stage was continued but the pony line was never restored.

As a financial venture, the Pony Express failed completely. To be sure, its receipts were sometimes heavy, often aggregating one thousand dollars in a single day. But the expenses, on the other hand, were enormous. Although the line was so great a factor in the California crisis, and in assisting the Federal Government to retain the Pacific Coast, it was the irony of fate that Congress should never give any direct relief or financial assistance to the pony service. So completely was this organization neglected by the government, in so far as extending financial aid was concerned, that its financial failure, as foreseen by Messrs. Waddell and Majors, was certain from the beginning. The War Department did issue army revolvers and cartridges to the riders; and the Federal troops when available could always be relied upon to protect the line. Yet it was generally left to the initiative and resourcefulness of the company to defend itself as best it could when most seriously menaced by Indians. The apparent apathy regarding this valuable branch of the postal service can, of course, be partially excused from the fact that the Civil War was in 1861 absorbing all the energies which the Government could summon to its command. And the war, furthermore, was playing havoc with our national finances and piling up a tremendous national debt, which made the extension of pecuniary relief to quasi-private operations of this kind, no matter how useful they were, a remote possibility.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

That the stage lines received the assistance they did, under such circumstances, is to be wondered at. Yet it must be borne in mind that at the outset much of the political support necessary to secure appropriations for overland mail routes was derived from southern congressmen who were anxious for routes of communication with the West coast, especially if such routes ran through the Southwest and linked the cotton-growing states with California.

At the very beginning, it cost about one hundred thousand dollars to equip the Pony Express line in those days a very considerable outlay of capital for a private corporation. Besides the purchase of more than four hundred high grade horses, it cost large sums of money to build and equip stations at intervals of every ten or twelve miles throughout the long route. The wages of eighty riders and about four hundred station men, not to mention a score of Division Superintendents was a large item.

Most of the grain used along the line between St. Joseph and Salt Lake City was purchased in Iowa and Missouri and shipped in wagons at a freight rate of from ten cents to twenty cents a pound. Grain and foodstuffs for use between Salt Lake City and the Sierras were usually bought in Utah and hauled from two hundred to seven hundred miles to the respective stations. Hay, gathered wherever wild grasses could be found and cured, often had to be freighted hundreds of miles.

The operating expenses of the line aggregated about thirty thousand dollars a month, which would alone have insured a deficit as the monthly income never equaled that amount.

A conspicuous bill of expense which helped to bankrupt the enterprise was for protection against the savages. While this should have been furnished by the Government or the local state or territorial militia, it was the fate of the Company to bear the brunt of one of the worst Indian outbreaks of that decade.

Early in 1860, shortly after the Pony Express was started, the Pah-Utes, mention of whom has already been made, began hostilities under their renowned chieftain Old Winnemucca. The uprising spread; soon the Bannocks and Shoshones espoused the cause of the Utes, and the entire territory of Nevada, Eastern California and Oregon was aflame with Indian revolt. Besides devastating many white settlements wherever they found them, the Indians destroyed nearly every pony station between California and Salt Lake, murdered numbers of employes, and ran off scores of horses. For several weeks the service was paralyzed, and had it been in the hands of faint-hearted men it would have been ended then and there.

The climax came with the defeat and massacre of Major Ormsby's force of about fifty men by the Utes at the battle of Pyramid Lake in western Nevada. Help was finally sent in from a distance, and before the first of June, eight hundred men, including three hundred regulars and a large number of California and Nevada volunteers, had taken the field. This formidable campaign finally served the double purpose of protecting the Pony Express and stage line and in subduing the Indians in a primitive and effective manner. Order was restored and the express service resumed on June 19. Desultory outbreaks, of course, continued to menace the line and all forms of transportation for months afterwards.

During this campaign, the local officers and employees of the express gave valiant service. It was remarkable that they could restore the line so quickly as they did. The total expense of this war to the Company was $75,000, caused by ruined and stolen property and outlays for military supplies incidental to the equipment of volunteers.

This onslaught, coming so soon after the enterprise had begun, and when there was already so little encouragement that the line would ever pay out financially, must have disheartened less courageous men than Russell, Majors and Waddell and their associates. It is to their everlasting credit that this group of men possessed the perseverance and patriotic determination to continue the enterprise, even at a certain loss, and in spite of Federal neglect, until the telegraph made it possible to dispense with the fleet pony rider. Not only did they stick bravely to their task of supplying a wonderful mail service to the country, but they even improved their service, increasing it from a weekly to a semi-weekly route, immediately after the disastrous raids of June, 1860. Nor did they hesitate at the instigation of the Government a little later to reduce their postal rates from five dollars to one dollar a half-ounce.

This condensed statement shows the approximate deficit which the
business incurred:

  To equip the line .....................................$100,000

  Maintenance at $30,000 per month (for sixteen months)..$480,000

  War with the Utes and allied tribes ................... $75,000

  Sundry items .......................................... $45,000

                                                         --------

  Total .................................................$700,000

The receipts are said to have been about $500,000 leaving a debit balance of $200,000. That the Company changed hands in 1861 is not surprising.

While the Pony Express failed in a financial way; it had served the country faithfully and well. It had aided an imperiled Government, helped to tranquilize and retain to the Union a giant commonwealth, and it had shown the practicability of building a transcontinental railroad and keeping it open for traffic regardless of winter snows. All this Pony Express did and more. It marked the supreme triumph of American spirit, of God-fearing, man-defying American pluck and determination--qualities which have always characterized the winning of the West.


[41] Senate Documents.