Western Life

The Pony Express – Mail Transport by Horse

Before the telegraph and transcontinental railroad, The Pony Express was used to transport mail across the western United States at unbelievable speeds. The system began its deliveries on April 3, 1860 and covered a route of 1966 miles, passing through eight states. The mail would leave from Missouri and travel through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada ending in California, and vice versa. Pony Express riders could transport the mail in less than half the time of a stagecoach, and it became the most effective way of communicating cross-country before the invention of the telegraph.

The founders, Alexander Majors alongside William Russell and William Waddell, were able to get the operation up and running in two months. It consisted of 150 stations in the west, most of which were in remote areas that would ensure the quickest route. The deliverymen rode for between 75 and 100 miles per stretch, changing their horses frequently to ensure the shortest delivery time possible. In its prime, the system had 400 horses and stations ten miles apart, where the animals were swapped. The fastest delivery in the history of The Pony Express was President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address, which took seven days and seventeen hours to complete.

Image: tristan tan / Shutterstock.com

The riders were expected to be model citizens and it was required that they travel with a Bible. These were specially made and had oaths inside that each rider would sign to, swearing they would avoid fighting, drinking or cursing. Apart from these large, leather Bibles, they were expected to travel as lightly as possible to ensure speed. They wore light clothing and most of them rode without weapons. The stops at each station lasted only minutes, and the bags that the mail was kept in were designed to be transferred from one horse to the next as quickly as possible. These sacks were made to fit over the saddle, with a pouch hanging on either side. The mail was also printed on thin tissue paper to ensure that it was lightweight.

The owners had launched The Pony Express in addition to their transportation company which already took mail, freight and passengers across The American West. They were forced to take a heavy loss, which was about $30 ($830 today) for each item that was transported. The gentlemen had begun proving the service in the hopes of securing a government contract, but Congress instead passed a bill to support the construction of a transcontinental telegraph line. The Pony Express closed on October 24, 1861 after the telegraph line opened, as this was a faster, less expensive method. Each June, The National Pony Express Association stages a commemorative ride for its members along the original path, and more than 750 riders take place. Together they carry about 1000 letters, which cost $5 for a pre-printed letter and $10 for a personalised one, in the hopes of keeping the Pony Express’ memory alive.

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