Before the Civil War, the United States was cut into three pieces: the east, far west California, and the middle piece. The middle was a problem. The “Great American Desert” west of the Mississippi was an enormous sea of grass with only a few rivers in the north, and the brutal Mojave (mo HAH vee) Desert in the south. West-bound wagon trains formed up in Missouri and rumbled for months across the dry prairie and wicked mountains. Folks in a hurry took Clipper ships from the East Coast, south around Cape Horn, and up to San Francisco—a miserable 3- to 5-month sea journey, and expensive ($100 to $300 then, $3000 to $9000 today).
A letter from Boston could take a year to arrive at San Francisco. Until the Pony Express! Businessmen in St. Joseph, Missouri, created fast east-west postal service to California. They invented a kind of relay race, positioning about 400 tough little horses (ponies) at 186 “swing stations” along the route.
Pony Express riders were special. An Express recruiting ad is apocryphal (never proven) but describes them well: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Each rider was given the precious mochilla, a kind of sit-on saddlebag with four pockets holding the letters. He would ride hard for 10 to 25 miles between stations, where he would jump off one horse, throw the mochilla across a fresh horse’s saddle, and gallop away. Each rider covered 80 to 100 miles before he was replaced by the next rider. The exhausted pony-boy would eat and sleep at the station, then take the next day’s ride going the opposite direction. They faced enormous dangers with nothing but a water bag and a pistol.
Pony Express charged $5 for a half-ounce letter (more than $130 today), but it arrived in 10 or 11 days! The Express was celebrated as a first step toward uniting far west California with the eastern states.
The pony boys rode for only 19 months. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line reached Salt Lake City, Utah, where existing lines ran to Sacramento and San Francisco. The Pony Express closed for business two days later. It had carried 35,000 letters but it was a financial disaster, losing $110,000 (about $3 million today) . Yet the heroic image of those young, wiry pony boys still seems fresh.
This illustrated map of the Pony Express mail route in 1860 was drawn by William Henry Jackson.
by William Henry Jackson
~ Courtesy the Library of Congress ~
The Pony Express mail route, April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861; Reproduction of Jackson illustration issued to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Pony Express founding on April 3, 1960. Reproduction of Jackson's map issued by the Union Pacific Railroad Company.
Adkins new book is about the first drive in an automobile. The wife of the inventor took her kids to see their grandparents. Learn more about it here.
He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "A Brief Flicker of Glory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 13
June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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