The Allure of a Challenge
The allure of a challenge has spawned some of the best stories and legends in history books. One of those great stories comes from the Old West – the Pony Express. The name might ring a bell to some but it’s important to know the story of the business that bridged the gap between the East and the West before the telegraph.
The story of lightweight cowboys riding across thousands of miles to deliver the mail. Riding as fast as they could while outrunning Indians, bandits, and Mother Nature.
The Pony Express Mail
There are roughly 2,000 miles between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. In 1860, the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company was founded by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors. The company’s objective was to be the fastest means of mail-delivery in the nation. At the time a stagecoach could deliver mail in 25 days, but the Pony Express had an average delivery time of just 10 days.
In order to achieve such speeds the trail was littered with 184 relief stations across the territory now known as: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Riders would take 75-100 miles runs and switch horses every 10-15 miles at relief stations. This created a network of express mail to be delivered from the East to the West faster than any other means at the time.
It was expensive, ambitious, and extremely dangerous.
The Pony Riders
In order to work for the Pony Express riders had to weight under 130 pounds and be 25 years of age or younger. The combination of danger, thrills, prestige, and good pay attracted many young cowboys that were up for the challenge. Teenaged riders were common with some being as young as 14 years old. One man named “Bronco” Charlie Miller claimed he was only 11 years old when he first joined the Pony Express.
A Pony Express rider earned $100 dollars a month in salary. By comparison, a U.S. solider in 1880 earned $13 a month. Each rider had to take an oath before joining:
“I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”
Lightness was key; the mail was written on extra thin paper in order to save weight. The saddle bags were replaced with a Mochilla (Spainsh for backpack) that was lighter, able to carry 20 pounds, and easier to switch from one horse to another. A rider could stop at a relief station and be out on a fresh horse in under 2 minutes.
Sending a piece of mail through the Pony Express wasn’t cheap. At the start of the venture, a letter would cost you $5 to mail which is roughly the equivalent of $130 today. The high cost meant that most of the mail sent through the Pony Express was newspaper reports, government dispatches and business documents.
One of the most important pieces of mail the Pony Express delivered was President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address. In March 1861, riders transports the inaugural address from Nebraska to California in just 7 days, 17 hours! The best time for Pony Express.
Riding the Wind
The Pony Express began its run in April 1860 and immediately ran into trouble. After only a few weeks deliveries stopped on a dime when war erupted between the United States and the Paiute Indians in what became the Pyramid Lake War.
Even though riders had taken an oath to not drink on the job each relief station was stocked with whiskey. Richard Burton, and eye witness, reported that he “scarcely ever saw a sober rider.” One can sympathize with these young riders considering they were outrunning certain death on each run. Not the mention how physically exhausting it is to ride 75-100 miles flat-out.
People working at relief stations had an even more dangerous work conditions. Placed in remote sections of the frontier made them extremely vulnerable to ambush. During the Pyramid Lake War several relay stations were attacked and burned to the ground in the summer of 1860. As many as 16 stock hands were killed during the war.
Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam
In May 1860, the most legendary rides in Pony Express history occurred. A young 20-year-old Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam was scheduled to make his usual run from Friday’s Station East to Buckland Station in Nevada. The cargo he was carrying was President Lincoln’s inaugural address.
When he arrived his relief rider confessed that he was terrified of the Paiute Indians, who had been attacking stations regularly, and refused to ride. With a schedule to keep Haslam jumped back on a horse and took off.
Haslam completed a 190-mile run without stopping before delivering his mochilla at Smith’s Creek. He stopped to take a much needed 9 hour rest before mounting a fresh horse and retraced his steps all the way back to Friday’s Station.
Along the way back he passed a relay outpost on fire that had been raided by the Paiutes. During the escape Haslam was shot through the jaw by an arrow and lost three of his teeth. Haslam rode on all the way back to his home station. When he arrived he had traveled 380 miles in less than 40 hours! A Pony Express record.
It boggles the mind to think what that ride must have been like it. If traveling 380 miles by car on smooth highway can leave a driver yearning for a nap just imagine riding 40 hours at full gallop through the wilderness, and being wounded for 8 of those hours.
The Reality Behind the Legend
For all the obstacles the Pony Express overcame the sad reality was that it never turned a profit during its year and a half history. On October 1861 the Pony Express closed its doors after losing as much as $200,000 dollars. The timing, however, was almost perfect.
On October 24, 1861, Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line in Salt Lake City. That was the final nail in the coffin that made the Pony Express obsolete, but started their legend. They ceased delivery service just two later.
Even though they were only in operation for 19 months they have proven their worth by successfully delivering an estimated 35,000 pieces of mail. The Pony Riders had traveled more than 500,000 miles across the American frontier.
It was Erwin George Baker that gave high-speed endurance traveling the phrase Cannonballing. His first cannonball ride was in 1914 riding an Indian motorcycle from coast to coast in 11 days and setting the transcontinental record. It was that same run that earn him his nickname, “Cannonball”.
Over his career Cannonball Baker made 143 cross-country record runs covering 550,000 miles. A hero in his own right that has continued to inspired generations of likeminded individuals to this day. However, I cannot help but feel that the spirit of traveling from point A to point B as fast as possible was born at the Pony Express Company.
These brave riders, like Cannonball Baker, decided that the challenge outweighed the dangers. Whether on horseback or motorcycle these men rode through hell and back with only the clock for company.
My respects to Cannonball Baker and the Pony Express Riders, may their legend never grow old.
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