3: The First Trip and Triumph
<< 2: Inception and Organization of the Pony Express || 4: Operation, Equipment, and Business >>
On March 26, 1860, there appeared simultaneously in the St. Louis
Republic and the New York Herald the following notice:
To San Francisco in 8 days by the Central Overland California and Pike's
Peak Express Company. The first courier of the Pony Express will leave
the Missouri River on Tuesday April 3rd at 5 o'clock P. M. and will run
regularly weekly hereafter, carrying a letter mail only. The point of
departure on the Missouri River will be in telegraphic connection with
the East and will be announced in due time.
Telegraphic messages from all parts of the United States and Canada in
connection with the point of departure will be received up to 5 o'clock
P. M. of the day of leaving and transmitted over the Placerville and St.
Joseph telegraph wire to San Francisco and intermediate points by the
connecting express, in 8 days.
The letter mail will be delivered in San Francisco in ten days from the
departure of the Express. The Express passes through Forts Kearney,
Laramie, Bridger, Great Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd, Carson City, The
Washoe Silver Mines, Placerville, and Sacramento.
Letters for Oregon, Washington Territory, British Columbia, the Pacific
Mexican ports, Russian Possessions, Sandwich Islands, China, Japan and
India will be mailed in San Francisco.
Special messengers, bearers of letters to connect with the express the
3rd of April, will receive communications for the courier of that day at
No. 481 Tenth St., Washington City, up to 2:45 P. M. on Friday, March
30, and in New York at the office of J. B. Simpson, Room No. 8,
Continental Bank Building, Nassau Street, up to 6:30 A. M. of March 31.
Full particulars can be obtained on application at the above places and
from the agents of the Company.
This sudden announcement of the long desired fast mail route aroused
great enthusiasm in the West and especially in St. Joseph, Missouri,
Salt Lake City, and the cities of California, where preparations to
celebrate the opening of the line were at once begun. Slowly the time
passed, until the afternoon of the eventful day, April 3rd, that was to
mark the first step in annihilating distance between the East and West.
A great crowd had assembled on the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri.
Flags were flying and a brass band added to the jubilation. The Hannibal
and St. Joseph Railroad had arranged to run a special train into the
city, bringing the through mail from connecting points in the East.
Everybody was anxious and excited. At last the shrill whistle of a
locomotive was heard, and the train rumbled in—on time. The pouches
were rushed to the post office where the express mail was made ready.
The people now surge about the old "Pike's Peak Livery Stables," just
South of Pattee Park. All are hushed with subdued expectancy. As the
moment of departure approaches, the doors swing open and a spirited
horse is led out. Nearby, closely inspecting the animal's equipment is a
wiry little man scarcely twenty years old.
Time to go! Everybody back! A pause of seconds, and a cannon booms in
the distance—the starting signal. The rider leaps to his saddle and
starts. In less than a minute he is at the post office where the letter
pouch, square in shape with four padlocked pockets, is awaiting him.
Dismounting only long enough for this pouch to be thrown over his
saddle, he again springs to his place and is gone. A short sprint and he
has reached the Missouri River wharf. A ferry boat under a full head of
steam is waiting. With scarcely checked speed, the horse thunders onto
the deck of the craft. A rumbling of machinery, the jangle of a bell,
the sharp toot of a whistle and the boat has swung clear and is headed
straight for the opposite shore. The crowd behind breaks into tumultuous
applause. Some scream themselves hoarse; others are strangely silent;
and some—strong men—are moved to tears.
The noise of the cheering multitude grows faint as the Kansas shore
draws near. The engines are reversed; a swish of water, and the, craft
grates against the dock. Scarcely has the gang plank been lowered than
horse and rider dash over it and are off at a furious gallop. Away on
the jet black steed goes Johnnie Frey, the first rider, with the mail
that must be hurled by flesh and blood over 1,966 miles of desolate
space—across the plains, through North-eastern Kansas and into
Nebraska, up the valley of the Platte, across the Great Plateau, into
the foothills and over the summit of the Rockies, into the arid Great
Basin, over the Wahsatch range, into the valley of Great Salt Lake,
through the terrible alkali deserts of Nevada, through the parched Sink
of the Carson River, over the snowy Sierras, and into the Sacramento
Valley—the mail must go without delay. Neither storms, fatigue,
darkness, rugged mountains, burning deserts, nor savage Indians were to
hinder this pouch of letters. The mail must go; and its schedule,
incredible as it seemed, must be made. It was a sublime undertaking,
than which few have ever put the fibre of Americans to a severer test.
The managers of the Central Overland, California and Pike's Peak Express
Company had laid their plans well. Horses and riders for fresh relays,
together with station agents and helpers, were ready and waiting at the
appointed places, ten or fifteen miles apart over the entire course.
There was no guess-work or delay.
After crossing the Missouri River, out of St. Joseph, the official
route(2) of the west-bound Pony Express ran at first west and south
through Kansas to Kennekuk; then northwest, across the Kickapoo Indian
reservation, to Granada, Log Chain, Seneca, Ash Point, Guittards,
Marysville, and Hollenberg. Here the valley of the Little Blue River was
followed, still in a northwest direction. The trail crossed into
Nebraska near Rock Creek and pushed on through Big Sandy and Liberty
Farm, to Thirty-two-mile Creek. From thence it passed over the prairie
divide to the Platte River, the valley of which was followed to Fort
Kearney. This route had already been made famous by the Mormons when
they journeyed to Utah in 1847. It had also been followed by many of the
California gold-seekers in 1848-49 and by Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston
and his army when they marched west from Fort Leavenworth to suppress
the "Mormon War" of 1857-58.
For about three hundred miles out of Fort Kearney, the trail followed
the prairies; for two thirds of this distance, it clung to the south
bank of the Platte, passing through Plum Creek and Midway(2). At
Cottonwood Springs the junction of the North and South branches of the
Platte was reached. From here the course moved steadily westward,
through Fremont's Springs, O'Fallon's Bluffs, Alkali, Beauvais Ranch,
and Diamond Springs to Julesburg, on the South fork of the Platte. Here
the stream was forded and the rider then followed the course of Lodge
Pole Creek in a northwesterly direction to Thirty Mile Ridge. Thence he
journeyed to Mud Springs, Court-House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scott's
Bluffs to Fort Laramie. From this point he passed through the foot-hills
to the base of the Rockies, then over the mountains through South Pass
and to Fort Bridger. Then to Salt Lake City, Camp Floyd, Ruby Valley,
Mountain Wells, across the Humboldt River in Nevada to Bisbys', Carson
City, and to Placerville, California; thence to Folsom and Sacramento.
Here the mail was taken by a fast steamer down the Sacramento River to
A large part of this route traversed the wildest regions of the
Continent. Along the entire course there were but four military posts
and they were strung along at intervals of from two hundred and fifty to
three hundred and fifty miles from each other. Over most of the journey
there were only small way stations to break the awful monotony.
Topographically, the trail covered nearly six hundred miles of rolling
prairie, intersected here and there by streams fringed with timber. The
nature of the mountainous regions, the deserts, and alkali plains as
avenues of horseback travel is well understood. Throughout these areas
the men and horses had to endure such risks as rocky chasms, snow
slides, and treacherous streams, as well as storms of sand and snow. The
worst part of the journey lay between Salt Lake City and Sacramento,
where for several hundred miles the route ran through a desert, much of
it a bed of alkali dust where no living creature could long survive. It
was not merely these dangers of dire exposure and privation that
threatened, for wherever the country permitted of human life, Indians
abounded. From the Platte River valley westward, the old route sped over
by the Pony Express is today substantially that of the Union Pacific and
Southern Pacific Railroads.
In California, the region most benefited by the express, the opening of
the line was likewise awaited with the keenest anticipation. Of course
there had been at the outset a few dissenting opinions, the gist of the
opposing sentiment being that the Indians would make the operation of
the route impossible. One newspaper went so far as to say that it was
"Simply inviting slaughter upon all the foolhardy young men who had been
engaged as riders". But the California spirit would not down. A vast
majority of the people favored the enterprise and clamored for it; and
before the express had been long in operation, all classes were united
in the conviction that they could not do without it.
At San Francisco and Sacramento, then the two most important towns in
the far West, great preparations were made to celebrate the first
outgoing and incoming mails. On April 3rd, at the same hour the express
started from St. Joseph(3), the eastbound mail was placed on board a
steamer at San Francisco and sent up the river, accompanied by an
enthusiastic delegation of business men. On the arrival of the pouch and
its escort at Sacramento, the capital city, they were greeted with the
blare of bands, the firing of guns, and the clanging of gongs. Flags
were unfurled and floral decorations lined the streets. That night the
first rider for the East, Harry Roff, left the city on a white broncho.
He rode the first twenty miles in fifty-nine minutes, changing mounts
once. He next took a fresh horse at Folsom and pushed on fifty-five
miles farther to Placerville. Here he was relieved by "Boston," who
carried the mail to Friday Station, crossing the Sierras en route. Next
came Sam Hamilton who rode through Geneva, Carson City, Dayton, and
Reed's Station to Fort Churchill, seventy-five miles in all. This point,
one hundred and eighty-five miles out of Sacramento had been reached in
fifteen hours and twenty minutes, in spite of the Sierra Divide where
the snow drifts were thirty feet deep and where the Company had to keep
a drove of pack mules moving in order to keep the passageway clear. From
Fort Churchill into Ruby Valley went H. J. Faust; from Ruby Valley to
Shell Creek the courier was "Josh" Perkins; then came Jim Gentry who
carried the mail to Deep Creek, and he was followed by "Let" Huntington
who pushed on to Simpson's Springs. From Simpson's to Camp Floyd rode
John Fisher, and from the latter place Major Egan carried the mail into
Salt Lake City, arriving April 7, at 11:45 P. M.(4) The obstacles to
fast travel had been numerous because of snow in the mountains, and
stormy spring weather with its attendant discomfort and bad going. Yet
the schedule had been maintained, and the last seventy-five miles into
Salt Lake City had been ridden in five hours and fifteen minutes.
At that time Placerville and Carson City were the terminals of a local
telegraph line. News had been flashed back from Carson on April 4 that
the rider had passed that point safely. After that came an anxious wait
until April 12 when the arrival of the west-bound express announced that
all was well.
The first trip of the Pony Express westbound from St. Joseph to
Sacramento was made in nine days and twenty-three hours. East-bound, the
run was covered in eleven days and twelve hours. The average time of
these two performances was barely half that required by the Butterfield
stage over the Southern route. The pony had clipped ten full days from
the schedule of its predecessor, and shown that it could keep its
schedule—which was as follows:
From St. Joseph to Salt Lake City—124 hours.
From Salt Lake City to Carson City—218 hours, from starting point.
From Carson City to Sacramento—232 hours, from starting point.
From Sacramento to San Francisco—240 hours, from starting point.
From the very first trip, expressions of genuine appreciation of the new
service were shown all along the line. The first express which reached
Salt Lake City eastbound on the night of April 7, led the Deseret News,
the leading paper of that town to say that: "Although a telegraph is
very desirable, we feel well-satisfied with this achievement for, the
present." Two days later, the first west-bound express bound from St.
Joseph reached the Mormon capital. Oddly enough this rider carried news
of an act to amend a bill just proposed in the United States Senate,
providing that Utah be organized into Nevada Territory under the name
and leadership of the latter(5). Many of the Mormons, like numerous
persons in California, had at first believed the Pony Express an
impossibility, but now that it had been demonstrated wholly feasible,
they were delighted with its success, whether it brought them good news
or bad; for it had brought Utah within six days of the Missouri River
and within seven days of Washington City. Prior to this, under the old
stage coach régime, the people of that territory had been accustomed to
receive their news of the world from six weeks to three months old.
Probably no greater demonstrations were ever held in California cities
than when the first incoming express arrived. Its schedule having been
announced in the daily papers a week ahead, the people were ready with
their welcome. At Sacramento, as when the pony mail had first come up
from San Francisco, practically the whole town turned out. Stores were
closed and business everywhere suspended. State officials and other
citizens of prominence addressed great crowds in commemoration of the
wonderful achievement. Patriotic airs were played and sung and no
attempt was made to check the merry-making of the populace. After a
hurried stop to deliver local mail, the pouch was rushed aboard the fast
sailing steamer Antelope, and the trip down the stream begun. Although
San Francisco was not reached until the dead of night, the arrival of
the express mail was the signal for a hilarious reception. Whistles were
blown, bells jangled, and the California Band turned out. The city fire
department, suddenly aroused by the uproar, rushed into the street,
expecting to find a conflagration, but on recalling the true state of
affairs, the firemen joined in with spirit. The express courier was then
formally escorted by a huge procession from the steamship dock to the
office of the Alta Telegraph, the official Western terminal, and the
momentous trip had ended.
The first Pony Express from St. Joseph brought a message of
congratulation from President Buchanan to Governor Downey of California,
which was first telegraphed to the Missouri River town. It also brought
one or two official government communications, some New York, Chicago,
and St. Louis newspapers, a few bank drafts, and some business letters
addressed to banks and commercial houses in San Francisco—about
eighty-five pieces of mail in all(6). And it had brought news from the
East only nine days on the road.
At the outset, the Express reduced the time for letters from New York to
the Coast from twenty-three days to about ten days. Before the line had
been placed in operation, a telegraph wire, allusion to which has been
made, had been strung two hundred and fifty miles Eastward from San
Francisco through Sacramento to Carson City, Nevada. Important official
business from Washington was therefore wired to St. Joseph, then
forwarded by pony rider to Carson City where it was again telegraphed to
Sacramento or San Francisco as the case required, thus saving twelve or
fifteen hours in transmission on the last lap of the journey. The usual
schedule for getting dispatches from the Missouri River to the Coast was
eight days, and for letters, ten days.
After the triumphant first trip, when it was fully evident that the Pony
Express(7) was a really established enterprise, the St. Joseph Free
Democrat broke into the following panegyric:
Take down your map and trace the footprints of our quadrupedantic
animal: From St. Joseph on the Missouri to San Francisco, on the Golden
Horn—two thousand miles—more than half the distance across our
boundless continent; through Kansas, through Nebraska, by Fort Kearney,
along the Platte, by Fort Laramie, past the Buttes, over the Rocky
Mountains, through the narrow passes and along the steep defiles, Utah,
Fort Bridger, Salt Lake City, he witches Brigham with his swift ponyship
- through the valleys, along the grassy slopes, into the snow, into
sand, faster than Thor's Thialfi, away they go, rider and horse—did
you see them? They are in California, leaping over its golden sands,
treading its busy streets. The courser has unrolled to us the great
American panorama, allowed us to glance at the homes of one million
people, and has put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes. Verily
the riding is like the riding of Jehu, the son of Nimshi for he rideth
furiously. Take out your watch. We are eight days from New York,
eighteen from London. The race is to the swift.
The Pony Express had been tried at the tribunal of popular opinion and
given a hearty endorsement. It had yet to win the approval of shrewd
(1) Root and Connelley's Overland Stage to California.
(2) So-called because it was about half way between the Missouri River
(3) Reports as to the precise hour of starting do not all agree. It was
probably late in the afternoon or early in the evening, no later than
(4) Authorities differ somewhat as to the personnel of the first trip;
also as to the number of letters carried.
(5) On account of the Mormon outbreak and the troubles of 1857-58, there
was at this time much ill-feeling in Congress against Utah. Matters were
finally smoothed out and the bill in question was of course dropped.
Utah was loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War.
(6) Eastbound the first rider carried about seventy letters.
(7) The idea of a Pony Express was not a new one in 1859. Marco Polo
relates that Genghis Khan, ruler of Chinese Tartary had such a courier
service about one thousand years ago. This ambitious monarch, it is
said, had relay stations twenty-five miles apart, and his riders
sometimes covered three hundred miles in twenty-four hours.
About a hundred years back, such a system was in vogue in various
countries of Europe.
Early in the nineteenth century before the telegraph was invented, a New
York newspaper man named David Hale used a Pony Express system to
collect state news. A little later, in 1830, a rival publisher, Richard
Haughton, political editor of the New York Journal of Commerce borrowed
the same idea. He afterward founded the Boston Atlas, and by making
relays of fast horses and taking advantage of the services offered by a
few short lines of railroad then operating in Massachusetts, he was
enabled to print election returns by nine o'clock on the morning after
This idea was improved by James W. Webb, Editor of the New York Courier
and Enquirer, a big daily of that time. In 1832, Webb organized an
express rider line between New York and Washington. This undertaking
gave his paper much valuable prestige.
In 1833, Hale and Hallock of the Journal of Commerce started a rival
line that enabled them to publish Washington news within forty-eight
hours, thus giving their paper a big "scoop" over all competitors.
Papers in Norfolk, Va., two hundred and twenty-nine miles south-east of
Washington actually got the news from the capitol out of the New York
Journal of Commerce received by the ocean route, sooner than news
printed in Washington could be sent to Norfolk by boat directly down the
The California Pony Express of historic fame was imitated on a small
scale in 1861 by the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, then, as now, one of
the great newspapers of the West. At that time, this enterprising daily
owned and published a paper called the Miner's Record at Tarryall, a
mining community some distance out of Denver. The News also had a branch
office at Central City, forty-five miles up in the mountains. As soon as
information from the War arrived over the California Pony Express and by
stage out of old Julesburg from the Missouri River—Denver was not on
the Pony Express route—it was hurried to these outlying points by fast
horsemen. Thanks to this enterprise, the miners in the heart of the
Rockies could get their War news only four days late.—Root and
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