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The Pony Express Unites America

In 1860 an ad appeared in a California newspaper: "Wanted! Expert riders not over 18 willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." Hundreds of young men lined up for the chance to encounter adventure and the 80 who were finally chosen became the celebrated riders of the Ponny Express. At the time, railroads and telegraph service went no further than western Missouri. The fastest way to get mail to the frontier lands of California was by horse-drawn stagecoaches that carried passangers and mail from town to town and took more than three weeks to complete the hazardous journey. Mail service by ship around the southern tip of South America took over six months.

A faster mail service was desperately needed. The idea for the Pony Express started with William H. Russell. This revolutionary service would guarantee delivery of letters from Missouri to California in an amazing ten days. The new express mail route streched 1,840 miles through lush prairies, treacherous mountains, sagebrush-covered valleys, inhospitable deserts, the 'badlands' of Utah and Nevada, and finally into the friendly California towns before ending up in Sacramento.

To start the Pony Express, the freighting company set up 190 relay stations along the routes and bought 500 of the finest horses. The riders were given a Bible and two revolvers, and they were prohibited from swearing and drinking. Each relay station was no more than 15 miles from the last one to ensure a steady supply of fresh horses. Most stations were rough simple cabins staffed by a stationkeeper and one or two helpers. A new rider would take over at each home station.

Early in the evening on April 3, 1860, a festive crowd gathered in St. Joseph, Missouri, to witness the birth of the Ponny Express. After loading the final pieces of mail from train from Washington and New York, the first Ponny Express delivery was off running to the sound of a brass band and the boom of a cannon. After crossing the Missouri River on a ferryboat, the rider was greeted by another large crowd. About an hour after leaving the ferry, the rider arrived at the first relay station, where he threw the mail on the fresh horse and took off again into the desolate night. The daring lone riders had to deal with a full range of conditions, from raging rivers to blinding blizzard and attacks from wolves and mountain lions.

Six days after leaving St.Joseph, the Pony Express arrived in Salt Lake City, just four days away from Sacramento. On April 13, a young rider galloped into Sacramento to complete the historic journey. As the rider entered the town, he was greeted as a hero by the massive crowd of joyful and excided citizens. A holiday had been declared, buildings were decorated, bonfire was lit, and the bands played.

The final leg of the journey was to deliver the mail by paddle steamer from Sacramento to San Francisco. When the boat reached its destination at about midnight, it was greeted by yet another celebration of bonfire, rockets, and bands. In spite of the danger, they managed to get the mail through.

The fame of the brave young riders spread far and wide. The most famous riders were "Buffalo Bill" Cody and "Wild Bill" Hickok. When he joined the Pony Express as a skinny 15-year old, Cody was the younger rider but he soon proved his worth with many daring runs through hostile Indian territory in Wyoming. Once he rode an amazing 384 miles without a break to set the record for the longest nonstop ride in Pony Express history.

The Pony Express proved such a spectacular succes that the mail run was increased to twice a week in each direction. However, because of the high cost it was used only by the wealthy or in extreme emergencies. Most people continued to send mail by regular slow delivery.

When the Pony Express made its first run, it was doomed to a short life by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph. As the telegrph terminals extended, the Pony Express route become shorter and shorter. By the time Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, its route ran only from Nebraska to Nevada. To make matters worse, the Indian War in 1860 dealt another serious blow to the company. Regular service was disrupted because many stations were burned to the ground, stationkeepers were killed, and horses and equipment were stolen. The Pony Express recovered from the Indian War but in 1861 the last wires were connected on the transcontinental telegraph line and instant communication from coast to coast was possible.

Although the Pony Express lasted only 18 months, it united the nation at a time when people demanded quick communication, and the young riders became a whole new type of Western hero. For generations the Pony Express ramaned a vital part of Western folklore, and exciting reenactments became one of the most popular parts of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. It remains a vital part of the nation's history.