The story of the Pony Express, a western mail route that traversed Utah, and its short but sensational history.
One hundred fifty years ago, the Pony Express mail service operated between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. The Pony Express was a business venture of freighting firm Russell, Majors and Waddell, and existed for only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861.
Mail service across the western territories had long been a problem, since the settled areas of the Midwest and California were separated by a vast stretch of sparsely settled, inhospitable terrain. Mail delivery generally took more than three weeks by stagecoach, but the Pony Express traversed this 2000-mile distance in ten days. To deliver the mail quickly, horseback riders raced simultaneously from both the eastern and western ends of the route. They rode in relay, and galloped up to 125 miles during a single shift. Stations spaced about ten miles apart furnished fresh horses and supplies to the 80 riders. Each rider carried a satchel for letters and wasted no time at the relay stations, stopping only for water and to transfer the precious mail onto a waiting horse. These men rode day and night, winter and summer, in good weather and bad.
The Utah Territory occupied a central position along the route, and many Utahns played a role as riders, agents, and station managers. Of the 190 stations strung between Missouri and California, 20 were in Utah. Of the 500 horses used, many were mustangs obtained near Kimball Junction and Antelope Island.
The Pony Express provided excellent service and was a great publicity success, but ultimately proved a financial failure. The new service required hundreds of horses, riders, stations, station managers, and support services such as feed and blacksmithing. The cost to send a letter was five dollars per ounce. But while receipts were high, expenses were even higher.
It was technological progress, however, rather than finances, which caused the demise of the Pony Express. While Pony riders were setting speed records across the country, construction was underway on a communication system they could never beat – the transcontinental telegraph. A message that took ten days by Pony Express took only 10 seconds by telegraph. In October 1861 the Pacific Telegraph was completed at Salt Lake City, and the Pony Express became obsolete overnight.
Image: Pony Express, 1860. A Pony Express rider en route across western Utah in 1860. Photograph of a drawing. Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society.
See Jay M. Haymond, “Pony Express in Utah,” Utah History Encyclopedia, http://historytogo.utah.gov/; Jeffrey D. Nichols, “The Pony Express Added a Colorful Chapter in Utah History” History Blazer, January 1995, http://historytogo.utah.gov/; Harold Schindler, “Territory in Transition” Salt Lake Tribune, 8/20/1995, p J1; Gayen and Tom Wharton, It Happened in Utah (Salt Lake City, 2nd ed, 2007), pp 29-33: “History of the Pony Express” and “Boyd Springs Pony Express Station,” Monuments and Markers Database, Utah Division of State History, http://history.utah.gov/research_and_collections/markers/index.html