On this day in 1860, two “young, skinny, wiry fellows” were galloping on fast horses across the great Western frontier, one headed west and the other east, on the very first run of the Pony Express.
Before the Pony Express, it took weeks if not months for letters to get between eastern and western parts of the country. (“Can somebody tell us what has become of the U. S. mail for this section of the world?” the Los Angeles Star asked in 1853, noting that it had been “some four weeks since it has arrived.”) The Pony Express promised delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri, the western terminal of the nation’s rail system, and Sacramento, California, in ten days or less.
The Pony Express network was a masterpiece of organization covering a 1,966-mile route, with 190 relay stations set 10 to 15 miles apart. A rider carrying up to 20 pounds of mail galloped as fast as he could to the next station, where he leapt onto a fresh horse and headed on. About every eight stations, a new rider took over. The system used 400 horses and 80 riders, who were each paid $25 a week to face empty wilderness, howling blizzards, scorching sun, and occasional Indian attacks. It is said that a Pony Express advertisement read, “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
The first riders left St. Joseph and Sacramento on April 3, 1860. On April 13 the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento, beating the eastbound delivery by two days.
Ten days to cross the West was like lightning in 1860, but the era of the Pony Express was to be short-lived. On October 24, 1861, the transcontinental telegraph opened. Two days later, the Pony Express went out of business and passed into American legend