Friday, June 20, 2008

Reriding the Pony Express Route

My nephew left this evening to go meet up with the Pony Express reride and help carry mail across the desert, bringing back to life a romantic bit of western lore. What exactly was the Pony Express? It was the way that U.S. mail was delivered for 18 months in 1860 and 1861. The railroads didn't stretch across the country. Telephones didn't exist. Telegraphs hadn't even been built from coast to coast. So if you wanted to get a message all the way across the West, it had to be hand carried.

Sure, stagecoaches could and did take some mail. But they were slow, and in 1860 the mail contract went to a company that advertised it could take the mail over 1,800 miles in only 10 days. The route went from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, and used horses and young riders to cover the ground quickly. A horse at full gallop can go about 10 miles, so stations were set up at that distance. When a rider came to the station, he would take the mochila with the mail and jump on to a horse that the station master had ready for him and continue on. He would generally go about 75 to 100 miles before another rider would take over for him. Each rider had one section of the trail that they usually rode. They learned that section so well they could cover it quickly at any time of day or night in any weather, including bad winter snowstorms or searing summer heat. One of my favorite books that includes firsthand accounts about the Pony Express is a true story called The White Indian Boy by Elijah Nicholas Wilson.
This Pony Express marker was erected by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s east of Callao, Utah. It is located near the remains of one of the stations. No one lives within 20 miles of this station, so not much has changed since the Pony Express Days.
Here is some of the terrain that the Pony Express riders covered. Along with the mail they carried some water and a revolver. Riders were not allowed to weigh more than 125 pounds, and they were paid $100 a month.. An advertisement recruiting riders read: "Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
These are the remnants of another Pony Express station. The telegraph put the Pony Express out of business in October 1861. The short-lived operation has lived long in people's memories. The vision of young lads galloping across the country with important messages (like Lincoln's inaugural address) has allowed the Pony Express route to be recognized as a national trail. Every year, the entire route is ridden in June, around the time of the full moon to allow for more light on those dark stretches.

Somewhere out in the middle of the Nevada desert, my nephew will be carrying the mail, listening to the coyotes howl, feeling the wind on his cheeks, and reliving a part of history.
This year, the mochila contains a GPS tracker, so if you'd like to see where the rider is, check out http://ponyexpressnationaltracking.com/RiderTracking.html  

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow! I've always known about the Pony Express, but never knew several details you mentioned. The ad for riders was interesting to say the least. The TV show made in the 80's or 90's didn't quite follow reality, but then when do most tv shows reflect reality? Even when reality was more fascinating than fantasy!

Kristen said...

"Orphans preferred"...how harsh! You learn something new everyday! Thanks for the lesson!

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