Jon de Vos For want of a mail, the horse was lost
April 2, 2009
Suppose it’s 1859. You live in Boston and you want to mail a letter to Aunt Elgatha in San Francisco. At the time, there were three stagecoach postal routes that criss-crossed America, the Butterfield Route, the Central Route, and the Chorpenning Route, all servicing different parts of the country.A fourth option was by steamship from New York, crossing the Isthmus of Panama by canoe and mule, and connecting with another steamship headed to San Francisco, and vice-versa.Whichever you chose, it took about 20 days for Elgatha to get your message, assuming the worst hadn’t happened. Think back to how many stagecoaches you’ve ever seen on television alone, tumbling end over end to a splintery doom. There was a reason they called it riding shotgun.Bill Russell, Bill Waddell and Al Majors saw their future and fortune in cutting the 20-day mail time in half, thinking they’d corner all the transactions between the East and the booming prosperity of the West Coast, produced by the California Gold Rush of 1849. They formed the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, better known as the Pony Express. Today, on April 3, 1860, the first rider galloped out of Saint Joseph, Mo., bound nonstop for Sacramento, Calif. Along the way, the mail paused no more than two minutes at a time, the time it took for a rider to change his horse, every 10 miles along the 1,840 miles of the Oregon Trail.The man behind the Pony Express was Bill Russell, who oversaw the building of more than 190 relay stations at 10-mile intervals on the route. The relay stations were staged with more than 400 of the finest horses, ones that could go 10 miles at a full gallop, near the limit of any horse. More than 300 employees were hired to administer and manage the 80 riders. Riders were tough, wiry and no more than 120 pounds soaking wet, and they were always soaking wet with sweat because they rode 60 and 80 miles daily, pausing only to change to a fresh horse every 10 miles. Every seventh or eighth relay station provided food and beds where the men would rest for a shift before starting out again to face the heat and the cold, the Indians and mail-robbers. An 1860 poster described the perfect rider as “young, skinny, wiry fellows not more than eighteen . . . willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” The job attracted tough men like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock who went on to establish legends of their own.Even though they were tough, they weren’t dumb enough to tell Russell about the two work crews they passed on every trip across America. The first crew was the one stringing telegraph wire and the second one was laying the rails for the Union Pacific Railway. Horseback postal service was killed by advancing technology and the Pony Express folded when the East and the West were connected by telegraph. Curiously enough, the Pony Express might have survived for several more years had it received a government subsidy that was instead given to the Butterfield Stage Line. Russell’s shady past included the theft of nearly a million dollars of Indian bonds. He made restitution and got off on a technicality but the subsidy he felt he’d earned went to a competitor, ending his dream and leaving him bankrupt. The Pony Express ran for a mere 16 months, but that brief, shining notion still lights up the imagination almost 150 years later.