Pony Express Museum
Original well in the Pony Express stables.
Pony Express rider Billy Fisher
"Moment in Time" exhibit
On April 3, 1860, the people of St. Joseph gathered to witness an event as exciting in those days as our space travels are to this generation.
It is difficult to imagine, with
today's instant world-wide communications by satellite and computer,
the problems that must have faced our nation's settlers just before
the Civil War.
St. Joseph was fortunate, with the arrival of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad Feb. 14, 1859, this city was on the western edge of civilization.
Settlers headed west from here faced a 2,000-mile trip by wagon train that often took three months of hardships. Those who had already reached California and its promise of gold found themselves cut off from the rest of the world.
At a time when there were no telephones, radios or telegraph, letters from New York to San Francisco took 30 days by steamship around South America. An overland mail route by Butterfield Express took 23 days for delivery.
Most knew it was a matter of time before the telegraph and the railroad would span the nation, but with the Civil War looming on the horizon, something was needed now.
William H. Russell, William Bradford Waddell and Alexander Majors were already in the freighting business with 4,000 men, 3,500 wagons and 40,000 oxen in 1858. They held government contracts for delivering army supplies in the West, and Russell envisioned a similar contract for fast mail delivery.
Their proposal was a fast mail service between St. Joseph and Sacramento, California by a Pony Express with letters delivered in the unheard time of 10 days. It was not exactly overnight, but perhaps overpriced for the time, at $5 a half-ounce. Their goal was to snare a government contract for delivery of the mail, something that did not come about.
Russell, Majors and Waddell literally put together the Pony Express in a two-month period during the winter of 1860. It was an enormous undertaking, assembling 156 stations, 120 riders, 400 horses and hundreds of employees, all during January and February of 1860 - without the benefit of radio, telephones, telegraph or even mail service.
The novel ad read: "Wanted, young skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen, must be expert riders willing to risk death daily, orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week. Apply Central Overland Express." This ad is now believed by some top Pony Express historians to be a phony.
In St. Joseph, Russell, Majors and Waddell selected the first floor of the town's newest hotel, Patee House, as their headquarters. More than 30 riders checked into the hotel. Since the Pony Express was not part of the U.S. mail service, local letters bound for the Pony Express were mailed at the Patee House office for delivery to California.
The people of St. Joseph had an inkling they were on to something big, and about everybody in town turned out for the start of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860. Mail from the east coast was late and the crowd waited until almost dark for the arrival of the mail train from Hannibal.
The famous painting by Charles Hargens of the start of the Pony Express is not an historically accurate portrayal of that important day, because the first Pony Express rider actually left during the night.
Historians have never fully agreed whether Johnny Fry or Billie Richardson was the first rider, but whoever he was rode the short distance from the Pikes Peak Stables at 9th & Penn to Patee House at 12th & Penn.
Alexander Majors was a religious man and resolved "by the help of God" to overcome all difficulties. He presented each rider with a Bible and required this oath:
"While I am the employ of A. Majors, 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."
Major M. Jeff Thompson was soon to leave St. Joseph to become a famous Confederate general. This is a sample of his oratory the day he initiated the Pony Express:
"This is a great day in the history of St. Joseph. For more than a decade she has been the portal through which passed the wagon trains for the great west.
"Now she is to become the connecting link between the extremes of the continents. For the first time in the history of America, mail will go by an overland route from east to west.
"The time will come when steam will drive a railroad train through those fastness' and bear passengers from St. Joseph to California in less than a week.
"I see you smile, my fellow citizens, and nudge each other at the idea I am harboring. Some of you are saying, 'Jeff is dreaming as usual of the impossible and unknown, 'but I tell you all that, as sure as I stand here, the day will come when at this very town you may board a train which will take you through the gold fields, and that within a very few years.
"More than that, I say to you the wilderness which lies between us will blossom as the rose, cities will spring into existence where the Indians and Buffalo now hold possession. Mountains will be tunneled, streams bridged and the iron monster which has become mankind's slave will ply between our confines and those far distant shores.
"As the Indian vanishes, the white man takes his place. Commercial activities will replace the teepee and the campfire. Schools and colleges will spring into existence and the refinements of civilization will span the continent.
"Of all these things, the California Overland Express is the forerunner. Hardly will the cloud of dust which envelopes the galloping pony subside before the puff of steam will be seen upon the horizon.
"Citizens of St. Joseph, I bid you three cheers for the Pony Express - three cheers for the first overland passage of the United States Mail."
Well, it was an exciting start, but hardly a financial success. The owners knew it was only a matter of time before the telegraph would replace the Pony Express.
The Pony Express ran each week in each direction, with an average time of 10 days. Delivery of Lincoln's inaugural address set a new record of slightly less than eight days. The mail averaged almost 250 miles a day.
In the nineteen months the Pony Express existed, only one rider was killed by hostile Indians, and only one bag of mail was lost. The riders had covered 650,000 miles by horseback.
Exciting as it was, the Pony Express was never a financial success. It was never a part of the U.S. Postal service, although the galloping Pony Express rider was the official symbol on every letter carrier's shoulder until the invention of Mr. Zip.
The most significant thing the Pony Express accomplished was to help hold California - and its gold - for the Union at the start of the Civil War.
Russell, Majors and Waddell lost $500,000 on the Pony Express. Eventually Ben Holladay became the owner of what remained of the Pony Express. He merged it with his Central Overland Stage Lines.
William Russell, former president, died in 1872, broke and shunned. William Waddell never went back in business. A son was killed in the Civil War, his property was sold for taxes, and he, too, died broke in 1872.
Alexander Majors returned to freighting and in 1867 moved to Salt Lake City. He took part in construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, and died in 1900.
And wealthy Ben Holladay died a poor man shortly after the Panic of 1873.
As a business venture, the Pony Express was a failure. It lasted only 19 months. But a century and a quarter later, it still fascinates the world as an example of good old American determination and know-how.
Today, the Pony Express, along with Jesse James who departed this earth here on April 3, 1882, keep St. Joseph on the map worldwide.