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The Pony Express "Publicity Stunt"

Updated on June 30, 2015

The Pony Express

The Pony Express was an efficient mail service, but not a profitable one. It’s recorded the Pony Express lost $200,000 by the time it closed operations in October 1861. Operations for the enterprise officially began April 3, 1860, but the venture went under in only 19 months of service.

The Pony Express was the first "express" mail line across the United States and actually began as a "publicity stunt." The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company formed the Pony Express hoping it would help them win a Million dollar government mail contract. The Pony Express became a subsidiary of the famous freight and stage company.

Before the advent of the Pony Express, the railroads and telegraph lines extended no further west than St. Joseph MO. Mail traveling west by stagecoach could take months.

Relay of Mail Carriers

The Pony Express concept solved this problem. It was a relay of mail carriers riding by horseback over a route nearly 2,000 miles. It became the fastest way to deliver mail between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento taking between 7 and 8 days to complete. Carriers averaged 10 mph, covering about 75 to100 miles before another rider took his place.

However, it was a dangerous job. Riders would face Indian attacks and severe weather, not to mention the rugged terrain. At first the owners, William Russell, William Waddell, and Alexander Majors thought recruiting riders for the job would be difficult. But to their surprise many applicants were eager to take the challenge.

Anad in a California newspaper read: "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred." They were usually lightweight young men who were paid between 100-125 dollars a month. Most of the riders were around 20, but one by the name of “Bronco Charlie Miller” was only 11. The oldest rider was in his mid 40’s. Perhaps the most famous was “Buffalo Bill Cody.”

At 15, Cody became a Pony Express rider and given a short 45-mile run. After a few months, he was transferred to a Division in Wyoming. There he made the longest non-stop ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back and found his relief rider had been killed. Cody covered the distance of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous portions of the trail and completed it in 21 hours and 40 minutes using 21 horses.

However, before being hired, riders were required to make this oath. “I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services."

Pony Express stations were originally about 25 miles apart. Adding more stations allowed for fresh horses at intervals of 10 to 15 miles. The Pony Express owned about 400 Mustang and Morgan horses which were found to be best suited for the terrain riders had to traverse.

Riding in a relay fashion, each rider rode through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Their schedule allowed ten days for the trip but most were made in 8 to 9. The mail was then carried by boat to San Francisco.

The Pony Express ran all day and night summer and winter. There were only 183 men that rode for the Pony Express. One of those was Pony Bob" Haslam, perhaps the most daring and resourceful rider on the route. He began by helping to build some of the stations. His most important ride, 120 miles in 8 hours and 20 minutes while wounded, was the fastest trip ever made by the Pony Express. He was carrying President Lincoln's Inaugural Address.

The owners spent $700,000 and in the end had a $200,000 deficit. The company failed to get the million dollar government contract because of political pressures and the outbreak of the Civil War.

The Pony Express became a very expensive operation for Russell and his partners. When the transcontinental telegraph reached California, the Pony Express was discontinued.


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    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      You're welcome gray. I haven't done one on him mainly because his story is so well known. But I have many Old West hubs of colorful characters.

    • grayghost profile image


      7 years ago

      I really enjoyed this. I have been researching to do a Hub that involves Buffalo Bill and came across your Hub that included his stint with the Pony Express. Well written and informative!


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