Trails Through History: Pony Express Historical Trail

By Carla Charter

When people remember the Pony Express, they think of men galloping across the West with the mail. A historic trail now marks their route across the West. The official start of the trail was in Saint Joseph, Missouri and the official end of the trail was San Francisco, California.

The perceived beginning of the story was a St Joseph newspaper advertisement that supposedly said that it was looking for “Thin wiry fellows between the ages of 18 and 25, orphans preferred. This story was proven to be a myth.” said Frank Norris, Historian of the National Trail Intermountain Region, Santa Fe, New Mexico.  An advertisement for riders however, was placed in the Sacramento Union. “So, a bunch of California kids answered the call and became pony express riders,” he continued.

There were 176 Pony Express stations set 10 to 15 miles apart. The riders rode at about 5 miles an hour at a slow trot between stops. When the riders would arrive at a station, they were met by personnel to take care of the horses. “They would ride a tired horse into the station and receive a fresh horse from the station,” Norris said. “This would continue for five stations at which time the riders would stop at a home station and rest for the night.  The next day they would ride five more stations back home,” he continued.   No one knows how many riders there were and who they were.  “Most businesses keep records which eventually get placed in a repository. There are no such known papers from the Pony Express,” Norris said.

There were four or five instances where riders were killed in the line of duty. Among the causes of death for a rider could include falling off the horse at night.  “Sometimes riders had no idea where they were or where they were going, but the horses knew. Riders were not usually robbed because although they may be carrying valuable dispatches, they did not carry money. “

The fastest Pony Express journey was made in eight and a half days with the riders bringing the news of Lincoln’s inauguration. Most journeys however took 10 to 11 days. “Prior to the Pony Express the fastest way to get mail from the Mississippi River to California was by stagecoach, which took 25 days. This was considered rapid transit,” Norris said.

The Pony Express was in business from April 3, 1860 from November 19,1861. In October 1861, the telegraph began transmitting letters and news. “There was no need for men running across the country on horses when the telegraph could do it more cheaply and instantaneously,” said Norris.

As for the current historic trails, Norris said, during the mid-twentieth century popularity with interest grew in the idea of historic trails with the creation of the Santa Fe Trail, Old Spanish Trail, and Oregon Trail. The Pony Express trail was created in 1992 and is 1,946 miles long.

The stops along the trail include interpretive signs, granite markers, and kiosks that talk about the Pony Express. Visitors can stop at county and state historical museums to learn more about the Pony Express as well.

There are a number of Pony Express stations still standing as well. These include Hollenberg in North Kansas, Cold Springs in Nevada, Camp Floyd, Fairfield Station in Utah, and Patte House in Saint Joseph, Missouri is where horse would be ridden to the motel to pick up the mail bags.

A Pony Express re-ride is held every June, sponsored by the National Pony Express Association.  Several hundred equestrians creating a long chain to California, ride four to five miles at a time.  The event runs for 12 days around the clock. There is an on-line tracker where people can follow the ride in real time  during the event.

More information on the Pony Express Historic Trail can be found at www.nps.gov/poex/

More information on the Pony Express Re-ride can be found at www.nationalponyexpress.org