Today in 1860, the first Pony Express run began in St. Joseph, Missouri. The run’s destination was Sacramento, California, a distance of more than 2000 miles that was covered in a little less than eleven days. The Pony Express proved that vast continental distances could be covered in relatively short periods of time with organization and good planning. The image of the Pony Express rider---young and alone, determined to see his mission through---is still part of the American image of the Wild West.
The Pony Express was born out of the need to get messages from the eastern United States to California. Between those two areas lay broad plains, treacherous mountain passes and Native American tribes. Normally, letters and parcels going west were carried by one of two overland routes or by sea to Panama, where cargo was ported over the isthmus and loaded into ships again for the Pacific half of the journey. Depending on the final destination, delivery could take weeks or even months. The founders of the Pony Express wanted to cut that time down to ten days.
The Pony Express route was divided into sections, with each section being about 10 miles long. The distance was used because it is the distance a horse can comfortably gallop. At the end of each section was a station where the rider would transfer his mail pouch to a new horse and continue on. A new rider took over every 100 miles or so. Thus would the routine continue all the way to California. Along with the direct route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, there were other spur routes which split off from the main route and went to places like San Diego.
The men who began the Pony Express wanted to secure the $1,000,000 mail contract Congress had granted to another company to deliver mail to California using stagecoaches via a different route. Even though the 10 day delivery time promise was met, Congress only granted the Pony Express’s parent company (the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company) part of the contract running from St. Joseph to Salt Lake City, Utah. The original holder of the government contract, the Overland Mail Company, operated the Pony Express from Salt Lake City to destinations in California.
Even though the Pony Express cut delivery times dramatically, the world was changing. On October, 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph line was completed. This meant that messages taking 10 days to deliver could now be transmitted coast-to-coast in minutes. The horse and rider had been outpaced by the electron.
Despite the fact that mail cost $5 per 1/2 ounce to send when the Pony Express began (eventually, the price dropped to $1 per 1/2 ounce), the service was a financial failure. But by the time the Pony Express service was ended in November, 1861, it had done a great service to settlers in California and had shown the best routes across the center of the nation, routes that would, in a few years, be used by the first transcontinental railroads.