Courtesy of Pony Express Museum
Though a financial failure, The Pony Express revolutionized the country's communication system.
Even the fastest trip to the West coast took several weeks before three Missourians stepped in.
At a time when civil war was inevitable and California was quickly populating because of the Gold Rush, there was a need for faster communication with the West. St. Joseph was on the edge of the frontier and the farthest western city that the railroad tracks and telegraph lines reached, making it the perfect place to start a new, faster way of communication: the Pony Express.
William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors founded the Pony Express to deliver mail using relays of men on horseback all the way to Sacramento, California. Their vision became a reality on April 3, 1860. The first lone rider, Johnny Fry, sped out of the legendary Pikes Peak Stables at St. Joseph with a saddlebag filled with forty-nine letters and five telegrams and rode the first seventy miles to Seneca, Kansas. The first trip to Sacramento lasted nine days and twenty-three hours, an unheard of speed for that time. President Lincoln’s inaugural address was mailed in a record time of less than eight days.
The three founders chose the first floor of the Patee House Hotel for their headquarters. More than thirty riders stayed at the hotel, and letters bound for the Pony Express were mailed from the office.
The nearly two-thousand-mile trail to Sacramento was treacherous. John Foley, administrative assistant of the Pony Express Museum, says only young men with no families who were willing to risk death on a daily basis were encouraged to be riders. “They wanted small, wiry riders because of the weight factor and also young, strong, and fearless men because of the hardships of the trail, the weather, and the Indians. Most of all, they needed good riders. Boys and men raised on the frontier seemed to be the answer,” he says. Eventually, there were more than one hundred stations, eighty riders, and four hundred to five hundred horses. The riders covered 650,000 miles on horseback; they switched riders at home stations, seventy-five to one hundred miles apart.
The Pony Express lasted a mere nineteen months, as it was soon replaced by the telegraph. Though the ride was dangerous, only one rider was killed during the Pyramid Lake War in Nevada by the Paiute Indians, resulting in the only delivery ever lost throughout the duration of the Pony Express. It never became a U.S. mail service, and it was never financially successful, as the three founders lost five hundred thousand dollars and were bankrupt after its failure. Even though unsuccessful, the Pony Express sparked a change in communication and is still one of St. Joseph’s claims to fame to this day.
“It tied California to the rest of the country when the Civil War was going to break out shortly and allowed California to stay in the Union,” John says. “It also made communication faster.” In 1959, materials salvaged from the original Pikes Peak Stables at St. Joseph were used in the restoration of the building that would be the Pony Express Museum on the stables’ original site. Further renovations in 1993 restored the stables to the size they were in 1860. The Patee House was also transformed into a museum and is the only complete original Pony Express building still in existence at St. Joseph.
The pride of the Pony Express still lingers at St. Joseph.
A two-ton, bronze statue of a horse and rider was unveiled in 1940 and sits on the corner of Tenth Street and Frederick Avenue overlooking downtown (Missouri Life February 2008 cover). There is also a rerun of the Pony Express each June. The reenactment either starts or ends at Patee House. Five hundred fifty riders of the National Pony Express Association carry mail across the 1,966-mile trail to Sacramento over a ten-day period, just as the brave lone riders did nearly 150 years ago. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the event.
The Pony Express Museum is an important part of Missouri history and is still one of the main drawing points for tourists in St. Joseph, John says. “There was a lot of legend that surrounded it. Over the years, they ironed those out, but they’re still with us.”