The “help wanted” ad in the newspaper didn’t mince words:
“Wanted. Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.”
Through this and similar advertisements, several hundred riders were recruited for a remarkable venture that began 150 years ago this week. On April 3, 1860, the Pony Express began delivering mail and other vital documents from St. Joseph, Mo., to San Francisco. The service charged $5 to carry a half-ounce letter across the continent, a price that was later reduced to $1.
The logistics were impressive. Relay stations—190 in all—were established an average of 10 miles apart across the West. Ten miles is the most a horse can gallop without pause. Riders, who could not weigh more than 125 pounds, were permitted 20 pounds of personal gear (most of it water, plus a rifle and pistol) and carried 20 pounds of mail.
The riders raced all-out to the next station, changed mounts on the run, and continued on for nine more stations, or another 90 miles. It took nearly 100 horses and a dozen riders to cover the 1,966 miles from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. But with the advent of the Pony Express, mail delivery that previously took 25 days by stagecoach (and prior to that, nearly six months by ship) took just 10 days.
A mere 19 months after the Pony Express began, it ceased to exist. It was forced out of business when telegraph wires linked California with the East. As a result, messages could be transmitted for pennies instead of dollars and arrive in minutes instead of days. The Pony Express name and facilities were sold to Wells Fargo, a bank that used the symbol for most of the next century.
In the 19 months that it existed, the Pony Express suffered the loss of only one rider and one mail pouch. But the achievements of those incredibly brave riders became a legendary part of the settlement of the West.