As a kid, I grew up watching movies and television shows featuring the daringly brave
young riders of
the Pony Express. I would marvel at how they were able to jump on their
ponies and ride off into the horizon in a cloud of dust. So, I was very excited to visit
the museum that told their story. Don't forget to check out the tour video at the bottom
of the article.
The Pony Express Museum, located in Saint Joseph, Missouri, documents the history of the Pony Express, the first fast mail line across the North American continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific coast. The museum is housed in a surviving portion of the Pikes Peak Stables, from which westward-bound Pony Express riders set out on their journey.
The Pony Express Museum is a fantastic place to learn about the legendary mail service that ran from April, 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861. Between exhibits, a 7-part diorama, maps, an archeological dig and artifacts, the museum has entertained and educated visitors from all over the world. The museum just celebrated the 150th Sesquicentennial of the Pony Express on April 1-3, 2010 which drew over 10,000 people.
During the 1950s, a portion of the neglected Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph was saved from total extinction and became the Pony Express Museum. The Goetz Pony Express Foundation, along with aid and support from the Chamber of Commerce, the citizens of St. Joseph, and the St. Joseph Museum, Inc. helped to save this historic structure. After stabilization and renovation of the remaining portion, new exhibits were installed and the stables opened to the public.
In 1993, the museum underwent a further renovation to restore the remaining portion of the stables to its original size. Modern, interactive and educational exhibits were created to depict the need, creation, operation and termination of the famous mail service that lasted from April 1860 to October 1861. Today the museum continues to stand as a tribute to the legend and legacy of the Pony Express and its enduring era.
During our recent visit to the museum, it looked like the whole town was busily getting ready for their fall harvest PumpkinFest, a family arts festival held each year during the second full weekend in October. They were building the "Great Pumpkin Mountain" filled with hundreds of electrically lit carved pumpkins that would come to life on opening night. Unfortunately, we were not able to hang around for the festival, but from what we saw, it looked like it would be a fun event.
Legend of the Pony Express
The Pony Express was a fast mail service crossing the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the High Sierra from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, from April 3, 1860 to October 1861. It became the west's most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph and was vital for tying California closely with the Union just before the American Civil War.
This original fast mail 'Pony Express' service had messages carried by horseback riders in staged relays to stations (with fresh horses and riders) across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. During its 18 months of operation, it reduced the time for messages to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to about ten days, with telegraphic communication covering about half the distance across the continent and mounted couriers the rest.
The idea of a fast mail route to the Pacific coast was prompted largely by California's new found prominence and its rapidly growing population. After the California gold discovery in 1848, thousands of prospectors, investors and businessmen made their way to the California Republic. By 1850 California entered the Union as a free state. By 1860 the population had grown to over 300,000. The demand for a faster way to get mail and other communications to and from this western most state became even greater as the American Civil War approached.
William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell were the three founders of the Pony Express and were already in the freighting business in the late 1850s with more than 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons and some 40,000 oxen. Majors acquired more than 400 horses for this project alone. He selected horses from around the west, paying an average of $200. These averaged about 141/2 hands (4'10") high and averaged 900 pounds each; thus, the name pony was appropriate, even if not strictly correct in all cases.
Russell was a prominent business man and well respected among his peers and the community. Waddell was co-owner of the firm 'Morehead, Waddell and Co.'. After Morehead was bought out and retired Waddell merged his company with Russell's, changing the name to 'Waddell and Russell'. In 1855 they took on a new partner, Alexander Majors, and founded the company of Russell, Majors and Waddell. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies to the West frontier, and Russell had a similar idea for contracts with the U.S. Government for fast mail delivery.
By having a short route and using mounted riders rather than traditional stagecoaches, their proposal was to establish a fast mail service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California with letters delivered in 10 days, a duration many said was impossible. The price was $5 per half-ounce. The founders of the Pony Express hoped to win an exclusive government mail contract, but that did not come about.
Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system could be built and operated continuously year round. Since its replacement by the telegraph, the Pony Express has become part of the lore of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of individual riders and horses over technological innovation was part of the American rugged individualism of the Frontier times.
The approximately 1,900 mile route roughly followed the Oregon Trail and California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then the Mormon Trail (known as the Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it roughly followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierras into Sacramento, California.
There were 184 stations along the long and arduous route used by the Pony Express. The stations and station keepers were essential to the successful, timely and smooth operation of the Pony Express mail system. They were often fashioned out of existing structures, with a number of them located in military forts, while others were built anew in remote areas where living conditions were very basic. The route was divided up into five Divisions: To maintain the rigid schedule, 157 relay stations were located from 5 to 25 miles apart as the terrain would allow for.
At each Swing Station riders would exchange their tired mounts for fresh ones, while Home Stations provided room and board for the riders between runs. This technique allowed the mail to be whisked across the continent in record time. Each rider rode about 75 miles per day.
As the riders left on their trip, they would take the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him. The employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did.
The mochila was thrown over the saddle and held in place by the weight of the rider sitting on it. Each corner had a cantina, or pocket. Bundles of mail were placed in these cantinas, which were padlocked for safety. The mochila could hold 20 pounds of mail along with the 20 pounds of supplies, such as a water sack, a Bible, a horn for alerting the relay station master to prepare the next horse, a revolver, and a choice of a rifle or another revolver.
Eventually, everything except one revolver and a water sack was removed, allowing for a total of 165 pounds on the horse's back. Riders, who could not weigh over 125 pounds, changed about every 75-100 miles, and rode day and night. In emergencies, a given rider might ride two stages back to back, over 20 hours on a quickly moving horse. It is unknown if riders tried crossing the Sierra Nevada in winter, but they certainly crossed central Nevada. By 1860 there was a telegraph station in Carson City, Nevada. The riders received $25 per week as pay. A comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $1 per week.
As the Pony Express Mail service existed briefly in 1860 and 1861 there are consequently very few examples of surviving Pony Express mail today. Also contributing to the scarcity of surviving Pony Express mail was the fact that the cost to send a 1/2 ounce letter was $5.00 at the beginning, a costly sum in those days and mostly unaffordable to the general public. By the end period of the Pony Express, the price had dropped to $1.00 per 1/2 ounce. Even the $1.00 rate was considered a lot of money ($24 in today's money) just to mail one letter in those days. As this mail service was also a frontier enterprise, removed from the general population back east, along with the largely unaffordable rates, there are consequently few pieces of surviving Pony Express mail in the hands of collectors and museums today. Presently there are only 250 known examples of Pony Express mail.
Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern mail route was viable, Russell, Majors and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Jeremy Dehut in March 1861, who had taken over the southern congressionally favored Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line. Holladay took over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches.
Shortly after the contract was awarded, the start of the Civil War caused the stage line to cease operation. From March 1861, the Pony Express ran mail only between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City and connected Omaha, Nebraska and Sacramento, California. Other telegraph lines connected points along the line and other cities on the east and west coasts.
The Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866, after the Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.
Monday - Saturday 9am to 5pm
Sunday - 1pm to 4pm
Pony Express Museum
914 Penn Street
St. Joseph, Missouri 64503