Pony Express Ingenuity
I just finished the second round of edits on my next release, Expressly Yours, Samantha, which will be released in March. I did a lot of research for this book, which centers around the Pony Express. The one fact that sticks with me, even now, is how the route, all 1,966 miles of it, across seven states, could have been put together in 67 days. Imagine what it would be like today, to build a road that long, through that many states. We would be tied up in legislation for twenty years or more!
So how did it come about so quickly in 1860? Three visionary men–William Russell, William Waddell and Alexander Majors–banded together and developed a route following the path of least resistance heading west from St. Joseph, MO. This was the path every wagon train took as they left St. Joe every spring, and was well carved by the year 1860.
By using this trail, and existing structures wherever they could find them, they cut down on the amount of time needed to put their plans in place. The Patee House, in St. Joseph, a luxury hotel built in 1858, was headquarters for the Pony Express. It is the only building in St. Joseph which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there is a museum in the hotel which commemorates the Pony Express.
The trail consisted of relay stations and home stations. The relay stations were set about ten miles apart, the number of miles a horse could run at a full gallop. At a relay station, the rider would change his spent horse for a fresh one, would throw the mochila, the pouch carrying twenty pounds of mail, over his saddle and would protect the mail by sitting on it. The relay stations were people’s homes, when possible, or other buildings already constructed. If needed, a relay station was built, using whatever materials were at hand, and were crude dwellings, housing a station manager and sometimes, an assistant.
Home stations were set up at approximately eighty-mile intervals, and were where the riders would switch out as well as the horses. Riders typically spent at least eight hours in the saddle, riding at top speed across an unruly land. The first home station on the route west was the Smith Hotel in Seneca. This was a popular stop for the wagons headed west, as well as an established stagecoach stop. This picture, taken in 1882, shows the type of facility the Smith Hotel was. The Pony Express riders got to share the attic of the hotel when they were between rides.
Other home stations were not so grand as these. As a rider galloped further west, civilization got left behind. There was still a route to follow, but the fine hotel establishments, like the Patee House and the Smith Hotel, were not yet in existence. Home stations became smaller, and were constructed from local materials. This is one example. It now sits in the middle of a town square along the route.
The Pony Express went out of business 18 months after it began, due to the emergence of the telegraph, which now stretched from sea to sea. The operation was nearly bankrupt anyway, so the telegraph was a blessing in disguise. The legend of the Pony Express and its riders lived on, though, long after the operation shut down. Buffalo Bill, one of the riders, and Wild Bill Hickok, who ran a supply operation for the Express, became famous during the Wild West Shows of the late 1800s. It’s a colorful part of our American history, and I’m fortunate to have been able to use it in one of my stories.