It took another business with a better solution to put them out of business—Western Union Telegraph.
The world’s first pre-paid postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in England in 1840. Seven years later, on July 1, 1847, the US issued its first postage stamps.
In 1850, California joined the Union and a faster means of communication was needed between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Three businessmen—William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell—came up with a plan to reduce the delivery time by more than half. Russell said by switching from stagecoaches to horseback, they could deliver mail between the two cities in ten days. They were told it couldn’t be done, but they did it anyway.
They organized the company in two months and the first rider left St. Joseph for Sacramento on April 3, 1860. A second rider left Sacramento the same day for St. Joseph. They both arrived at their intended destinations on April 14.
In November 1860, Russell used the presidential election to promote the Pony Express. On November 7, Russell had a rider at Ft. Kearny, Nebraska Territory (which was the end of the eastern telegraph line) waiting to pick up the election results and take them to Ft. Churchill, Nevada Territory (which was the end of the western telegraph line). California knew Abraham Lincoln had been elected President of the United States in seven days and 17 hours.
Like all businesses, the Pony Express had problems along the way, but they never gave up. It took another business with a better solution to put them out of business—Western Union Telegraph. The telegraph lines were completed on October 24, 1861, and the Pony Express ceased operations two days later. For 18 months they had bridged the gap between Missouri and California.
Despite its financial failure, the Pony Express is a valued part of our western American heritage, and the US Post Office used it to make world history in 1869. For 22 years, only the faces of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson appeared on US postage stamps. In 1869, the Pony Express was one of eleven of the first pictorial postage stamps in the world to introduce designs other than heads of presidents or statesmen. These stamps were printed by the National Bank Note Company and were the first to ever be printed in two colors. Its earliest known use was March 20, 1869.
Twice more the US Post Office has honored the Pony Express. A 3-cents postage stamp was issued on April 3, 1940, to commemorate the Pony Express’s 80th Anniversary. Printed by the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, its first day of issue was in St. Joseph, Mo. and Sacramento, Ca. On July 19, 1960, a 4-cents stamp was issued to commemorate the Pony Express’s 100th Anniversary. Also printed by the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, its first day of issue was in Sacramento, Ca.
Note: The US Post Office didn’t become the US Postal Service until July 1, 1971.
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.