By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Stirrup memories: Lore about the Pony Express continues riding on


The Pony Express was in operation only about 18 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. But it played a celebrated important role in American history and was of great financial importance to our country. It helped tie together the Pacific and the Atlantic coasts and integrate the vast expanse between.

This organization was originally known as the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company. It morphed into the Pony Express and served to greatly speed up mail delivery.

Principals of the firm were William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell, who committed to setting up some 150 relay stations along the route of a pioneer trail that passed through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California.

They hired horseback riders to carry the mail from station to station, employing a fresh rider and mount at each stop. And it sped mail deliveries across a vast America, a measure made more important when Postmaster General Joseph Holt scaled back overland services to California and the central regions of the country in 1858 .

A "Men Wanted" ad appeared in the Sacramento Union of March 19, 1860, seeking riders on the Overland Express Route via Salt Lake City.

Wages were set at $50 per month. Employees were required to take a loyalty oath.

Terms banned profane language and intoxicating liquors, violation meaning “dismissal without pay." But one observer said he never saw a sober rider.

This Pony Express service quickly became part of the lore of America West, with its young wiry riders representing rugged Americanism. Points of departure for the mail were San Francisco, Sacramento, New York and St. Joseph, Mo.

The distance from St. Joseph to Sacramento was about 1,800 miles, and the Pony Express claimed to have reduced the time to cover it 10 days. Previously, California mail went overland on a 25-day stagecoach trek or endured a long sea delivery by ship.

Riders each rode 75 to 100 miles a day. As the rider neared the next relay station, he sounded a horn to announce his pending arrival, so a fresh horse and rider could be ready, as speed was vital.

Weight was equally important in order to keep postage costs down for customers. Even so, Pony Express service, charged by the half ounce, and was by no means cheap. So the Pony Express carried mostly business documents, government dispatchesand news reports, generally printed on tissue-thin paper.

Much consideration was given to keep the weight a horse was to carry down on these long rides. The riders were mostly wiry teenagers weighing 100 to 125 pounds. Specially designed saddles cut down use of wood.

Mail was kept in a mochella, Spanish for knapsack, with a leather cover draped over the saddle and held in place by the rider’s weight. The mochella had four padlocked pockets, three for mail and one for the rider’s time card. All told, the cargo typically ran about 20 pounds.

At the relay station, the arriving rider simply grabbed the mochella from his saddle and passed it to his replacement. An exchange could be accomplished in just two minutes — quicker by far than re-saddling.

Originally, Pony Express riders were issued rifles. But they were found too awkward and bulky, so were replaced with revolvers.

In addition to the cost of its some 80 trading stations, the company had to hire about 4,400 employees.

Pony Express riders faced not only the danger from natives like the Paiute, but also extreme weather conditions and rugged terrain. It was dangerous as well for the station keepers, as their quarters were located in remote areas vulnerable to ambush.

During the summer of 1860, Indians were accused of attacking and burning relay stations along the trail and killing as many as 16 stock hands. But only a “handful of riders” — about six — died in the line of duty, according to the National Park Service.

A rider named Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam rode a record run.

After riding east from Friday’s Station to Buckland Station in Nevada, his normal section, he learned his relief rider was “petrified” of the Paiutes, as they had been attacking stations along this route, and refused to embark on the next leg. After a brief rest, he got back in the in the saddle and continued on a fresh mount to the next station.

Haslam rested there for nine hours. Then he retraced his route to Friday's Station with the westbound mail.

Along the way, he passed a relay outpost attacked by the Paiutes. In all, he covered 280 miles in less than 40 hours, establishing a Pony Express record.

There are no records of women riding for the Pony Express, but some handled other jobs. One of them earned praise from Mark Twain for her excellent coffee.

One woman opened a store across from a relay station and saw it become a popular business. Another served meals and homemade bread from a relay station.

Can you imagine how a rider reacted when he got to that station and smelled bread fresh from the oven?

A 2014 re-enactment included a 71-year-old great grandmother, Pat Fanelli, being picked up by her granddaughter, Jessica Sloat. They crossed the American River at William Pond Park 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and Fanelli termed it an easy ride.

A stellar Pony Express ride that will forever be remembered was the one carrying Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address from Nebraska to California in seven days and 17 hours.

Sadly, despite their ingenuity, planning and strategies, the organizers were never able to make money.

Competition included a telegraph line that came into Pony Express country. The Paiute war also proved costly, and they cashed out at a loss.

But I’m grateful to the Pony Express and for the chapter of our history they gave us. What a thrill it would be to get up early in the morning and start out on a Pony Express ride.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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