The three founders organized and had the Pony Express up and running in two months.
In the 1840s, Missouri was at the western edge of civilization and the beginning of the wild west. California was “on the other side of the continent.”
There was a whole world between Missouri and California with little to no communication between the two, and yet, people were flocking to that far away place. So many people, in fact, that California, on September 9, 1850, became the 31st state to join the Union. Communications was no longer a luxury. It had become a necessity.
In today’s world of live news from our phones, it’s hard to imagine a time when it took ten days for a letter to get from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. (I know, “what’s a letter?”) But in 1860, William Russell proposed just such an idea by using riders instead of stagecoaches. He and his partners, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, were already in the freighting and drayage business with government contracts for delivering army supplies to the western frontier. They desired to do the same with fast mail delivery.
The three founders organized and had the Pony Express up and running in two months. They purchased 400 horses, set up 184 stations about ten miles apart along the 1,900-mile route, hired 120 riders, and several hundred other employees. Horses were changed every ten to fifteen miles at “swing” stations, and riders changed every 75 to 100 miles at “home” stations. Home stations had room and board for the riders to rest between their runs.
There were an estimated 80 riders on the move at any one time.
The first rider left St. Joseph on April 3, 1860. After speeches were given by Mayor M. Jeff Thompson, William Russell, and Alexander Majors, the first rider left St. Joseph about 7:15 p.m. The name of this first rider is under dispute. One source says it was Johnson William (Billy) Richardson. Another says it was Johnny Fry. Regardless, the rider arrived in Sacramento about 1 p.m. on April 14 carrying 47 letters, five private telegrams, some papers, and only one newspaper—The St. Joseph Gazette.
Pony Express riders risked their lives to connect California with the rest of the US while cutting communication times in half. They were paid well for their services, $100 to $150 a month, but not everyone could qualify for the job. First, a rider had to weigh no more than 125 pounds, which was why so many of the riders were between the ages of 14 and 18.
Another requirement was a company loyalty oath.
Special consideration was given to the horses used. Because they were ridden fast for long distances, every effort was made to lighten their load. Local saddle-harness maker Israel Landis was hired to design and craft special lightweight saddles for them. Even the mochila (the mail pouch) was specially designed with that in mind and to speed up horse and rider changes.
The Pony Express only lasted 18 months and ceased operations on October 26, 1861, just two days after Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City. Although its mission for faster mail service was successful, the Pony Express itself was a financial failure.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News for over ten years. She has covered the Civil War, US history, and Cooper County history.