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It was fast, it didn’t last long but it left a legacy

The Pony Express began its run on April 3, 1860

A poster advertising the Pony Express
An 1860 poster advertises the Pony Express.

In the mid-19th century, getting word from one coast to the other was a monthslong undertaking involving stagecoaches and steamships.

The Gold Rush, the newly acquired Oregon and California territories, and the Mormons’ flight to what is now Utah created a surge of migration to the West. Yet railroad and telegraph lines reached only as far as St. Joseph, MO.

Enter the Pony Express.

Formally known as the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Co., the enterprise began on April 3, 1860, and shortened the time it took to get mail across the country to 10 days from more than three weeks.

Along the 1,943-mile route were relay stations with horse stables and wells. The stations were spaced 10-15 miles apart — about as far as a horse could run at full gallop — and largely followed established trails. Riders would cover about 75 miles a day, switching horses at each station for maximum speed.

The undertaking was not for the faint of heart. The terrain could be tricky, the weather could be harsh and the territory could be hostile, with riders and stable hands vulnerable to attack by bandits and Paiute Indians, who were resentful of the encroaching settlers in their traditional lands.

Riders were also required to take an abstemious oath:

“I, [name], do hereby swear that … I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”

Employees were paid handsomely, financed by the high price of the service — which was out of reach for most Americans.

That price did not cover expenses, though, and the Pony Express operated in the red.

When a transcontinental telegraph line was completed in October 1861, the Pony Express rode off into the sunset, having delivered roughly 35,000 letters between East and West.

Although the service was a U.S. Mail contract route only during its last four months, it remains an important part of postal lore and is faithfully recreated each year through activities such as the Hashknife Pony Express ride in Arizona.

The “History” column appears occasionally in Link.