How the Pony Express Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Sarah, I think our boss asked us to read a classified ad for a new How Stuff Works position, didn't he?

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Here it is. Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert pony riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.

Katie Lambert: Wait.

Sarah Dowdey: That doesn't sound right, does it?

Katie Lambert: No. That's actually a different ad. It's for the Pony Express. It's a made-up one, FYI, as often as it's been printed.

Sarah Dowdey: Katie didn't make it up.

Katie Lambert: In the days of email - Sarah and I constantly email even though we sit in cubes right next to each other - we often hear laments about the death of the letter. That's because, of course, letter writing is a very romantic type of pursuit, and your letters can get lost, and perilous things can happen, as Romeo and Juliet can attest.

Sarah Dowdey: But if you wanted to exchange messages in a fairly reliable way, and do it quickly, there was a mail service in the 1800s that might have just worked for you.

Katie Lambert: The Pony Express. Let's take a moment just to picture the life of a Pony Express rider. You're a young, determined guy, and you have a mission to traverse the wilds of the west at breakneck speed to deliver history-making news, like Abe Lincoln's inaugural address, or the taking of Fort Sumter. You have a very long way to go, and on the way you might run into disaster: terrible weather, injury to you or your horse, hostile Indians, or thieves. But this mission is necessary, so let's talk about why.

Sarah Dowdey: We needed the Pony Express to connect the east coast to California because California was quickly becoming a popular place to live, and with the gold and everything, it's got a lot of good natural resources. It's becoming a business destination as well. having it stranded all the way out there on the west coast is not good for California or for the people back on the east coast.

Katie Lambert: As long as we can't communicate, they're in complete isolation. Also in the late 1850s, the rumblings of an impending civil war were felt. The government felt it needed to be in contact with those far away lest they accidently get mixed up with the south, say, and lines of communication need to be open.

Sarah Dowdey: Before the Pony Express, mail took a really long time to get to the west coast, about three or four weeks. The route was incredible sounding. It would go by steamship, and then across Panama on horses and by railroad, and then come back up again by ship. You can imagine what an effort to send one letter.

Katie Lambert: We do have a stagecoach system, but that took forever too. It took forever as in 20 days forever. According to the National Postal Museum, the citizens of Los Angeles learned that California had been admitted to the Union six weeks after it happened. They were essentially cut off from the rest of the country, and we need to fix it, at which point enter Senator William M. Gwin.

Sarah Dowdey: He's very attuned to the threat of a civil war, so he suggests a new system, one that's going to be faster and better than the stagecoaches. The men behind the Pony Express are all businessmen with a lot of experience. History sometimes paints them as these tricky villain types, but that's not exactly true.

Katie Lambert: We've got William Hepburn Russell - who liked the finer things in life and was later embroiled in an embezzlement scandal - William Bradford Waddell, and Alexander Majors. Our businessmen already have a company they can use to start up this service, the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express Company, whic h we all have to admit isn't quite as catchy as the Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: It doesn't have a good ring to it at all.

Katie Lambert: They figure that if there's a war, their services will be much more in demand and they can get rich.

Sarah Dowdey: There's also this really lucrative government contract they're hoping they can get. Whoever can set up a mail service and take the business from the stagecoach guys is going to get $1 million. Our little group of businessman desperately want that $1 million.

Katie Lambert: Now it's time to set up the Pony Express, see if they can win this contract. They put their headquarters in St. Joseph, Missouri. The idea is to get mail all the way to Sacramento, covering Kansas and beyond. The trail that their riders will follow will cover about 2,000 miles.

Sarah Dowdey: Those 2,000 miles are going to be interspersed with somewhere between 160 and 190 stagecoach stations. They're betting that the horses will need to be changed every ten miles or so to stay really fresh and keep up that pace that'll get their mail there fast.

Katie Lambert: And of course, we'll need lots of personnel, including riders, station hands, and ferryers. Perhaps we should mention they need to set up this entire operation in two months.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is one of the first amazing statistics about the Pony Express.

Katie Lambert: A very tight deadline.

Sarah Dowdey: So the official opening is on April 3rd, 1860. The first trip west takes about ten days, which is obviously a huge improvement over the stagecoach route. The rider's greeted by huge, celebrating crowds. Everybody's glad. This is a new era in communication.

Katie Lambert: Talking about our riders, Mark Twain called them the swift phantoms of the desert. There were about 500 horses that were part of the Pony Express, and between 80 and 200 rides, depending on which account you're reading. The horses were very small and of different breeds, but they weren't actually ponies. That's not completely accurate.

Sarah Dowdey: The ad that we mentioned wasn't actually ever circulated at the time of the Express, but it's true that they did need light riders under 125 pounds or so because the horses are carrying mail and gear along with the rider, and they do have to be moving pretty quickly.

Katie Lambert: The riders were paid $25.00 a week, which was a very handsome proposition, but it was well deserved after a 125-mile ride. Often they were going 75 to 125 miles in one trip with no stops. This wasn't an ambling sort of pace. They were riding really hard.

Sarah Dowdey: But not actually galloping. I think we all imagine them racing at top speed across the west, but they're not galloping because that's a really good way to break a horse's leg on rough terrain. They had a lot of obstacles to avoid too. Another reason not to go at top speed, there were buffalo back when buffalo actually roamed the west. They had a lot of rules from this company. There was no swearing, which reminded us of our vaudevillians, so I guess there's no "son of a gun." No fighting. No drinking, and they handed a Bible to each of them, although those were supposedly later taken away to lighten the load further.

Katie Lambert: Maybe take a pamphlet or something instead.

Sarah Dowdey: There are debates about whether they carried guns or not, but how surprising would it be if you've got all these dangers out on the road for them to be carrying a weapon.

Katie Lambert: You might be tempted, yeah. Some other dangers were losing your trail when it was dark and traveling through snowstorms. They did have places to stay along the way, these home stations. According to some accounts, they were absolutely disgusting. According to others, they were pretty awesome. Part of our problem putting together a reliable story is that our Express founders weren't into writing memoirs of their business ventures, so it was left up to the public imagination to fill in the details.

Sarah Dowdey: In case you 're wondering about how the actual transferring of the mail happened, they carried all the mail in a mochilla, which was a type of leather saddlebag that it could be really quickly switched from horse to horse when one rider rode into a station and either finished his run entirely, or just switched horses. It had all these different pockets in it. Some of them were locked up. Didn't you say they could only -?

Katie Lambert: Some of them could only be opened at military stations.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, so maybe if you had a top-secret government document, you don't want it to get lost on the way. They actually wrapped the letters in oiled silk so nothing bad would happen to them. The backs also had a timecard, just so you would know exactly how fast the mail was getting there.

Katie Lambert: So you'd better hurry up. It cost $5.00 to send a letter, so only the rich and important were sending mail, diplomats and bank officials, for example. Later, the price went down to $1.00 for a half ounce, which was still pricy, but that's when the business was failing, which we'll discuss a little bit later. We do want to talk about some of the famous riders for the Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: Probably the most famous was Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam, which is not - we're not talking about "The Outsiders" with Pony Bob. He's known for his 380-mile ride straight through during which he comes across a station hand who's been murdered by Paiutes. They'd also burned down the station, so I guess he was thinking he'd better just keep on going.

Katie Lambert: Facing imminent danger, he was fearless. He also carried Lincoln's inaugural address 200 miles in just over eight hours after he'd been shot in the face with an arrow.

Sarah Dowdey: We're kind of imagining one of those fake arrow hats, but it must've been much more painful than that.

Katie Lambert: Our next one is Buffalo Bill Cody, who is, of course, known for shooting a lot of buffalo, shooting a lot of everything, and setting up these Wild West shows. He kept the Pony Express alive through his Wild West show even though he was never actually a ride. You will always see his name connected to the Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: Another one who's in the same league as Buffalo Bill is Wild Bill Hickok. He may or may not have actually been a rider for the Pony Express, probably not, but either way, he was very famous for it, again for shooting people and gambling, too.

Katie Lambert: Yes. But nothing lasts, and neither did the Pony Express. After 18 months, it shut down in October 1861. We should say that this whole thing was a financial disaster for our businessmen. They didn't make a penny. In fact, they lost a lot of pennies, $200,000.00 worth of them.

Sarah Dowdey: I wonder if they had insurance for this project.

Katie Lambert: One would hope, but I think they went bankrupt.

Sarah Dowdey: The second thing that ends the Pony Express, and I think we all know this, is that new technologies are on the way. We have a railroad that crosses the continent, and we have a telegraph system which makes these reckless, expensive rides absolutely unnecessary.

Katie Lambert: So how did the Pony Express do all in all? It lost money, but it didn't lose mail. It said only one or two bags of mail were ever lost. Although it didn't last long in reality, it's lived for a long time in the American consciousness. You've got this story of danger, and romance, and the pioneering spirit. Of course, that's what we like. People still ride the trail today, so history lives.

Sarah Dowdey: That sound like kind of a fun thing to do. It kind of reminds me of the Natchez Trace and how this kind of wild, dangerous highway becomes a lovely, scenic roadway.

Katie Lambert: I read another story about a Pony Express rider who was killed, and they found his bag of letters later, and one of them actually made it to where it was supposed to go. That envelope is now at the National Postal Museum, if you're looking for a tangible connection to the Pony Express.

Sarah Dowdey: Speaking of mail, it is time for listener mail. Appropriately enough, we're doing real mail today.

Katie Lambert: First, we have a really lovely original watercolor that's from Donna in Moldova that was handmade by a local artist. She also wrote us a letter in really beautiful handwriting saying that she was a big fan, and that she recently moved to the Republic of Moldova due to her husband's work. She was hoping we could cover some of those topics, "Because it would be utterly fascinating to walk the streets of the capital city listening to my favorite podcast discuss the sites which surround me." Donna, we'll add some to our list. In contrast to Donna's watercolor, we have three postcards from technical sergeant Elkins who's based in Kuwait. One of them has a bodybuilder with flames behind him. Another has a ship, and another one has HAWK. Thank you for these lovely additions to our wall of letters.

Sarah Dowdey: The body builder is totally going on the wall.

Katie Lambert: If you'd like to send us some real mail, please do. If you're more of an email person, we're at HistoryPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com, and you can also keep an eye on what we're researching and reading if you follow us on Twitter at MissedinHistory, or join our Facebook fan page. As always, check out our home page at www.HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit www.HowStuffWorks.com. Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the www.HowStuffWorks.com home page.