Keeping Tradition Alive: The Pony Express Rides Again!

Story by Rebecca West, Photos courtesy of NPEA
As the outline of the solitary figure silhouetted on horseback hove into view, a sense of relief mixed with excitement flooded the other rider waiting in the shade for the handoff to take place. His mount, sensing the change in his mood, started to shift restlessly and began neighing softly. The relay would be like others they’d experienced but he yearned to take possession of the mochila and be on his way as he studied the growing clouds encroaching from the east.

He’d only have 20 miles to go even if the weather didn’t hold, but he wanted to get going and hopefully avoid the worst of it before seeking refuge and bedding down for the night. Such is the life of a Pony Express rider, a job where the elements have little mercy for mere mortals, no matter how important their job.

Wait! What?! Didn’t that end, like, more than 160 years ago? Technically, yes. Operating for only 18 months between April 1860 and October 1861, the Pony Express temporarily tied together the nation to deliver mail and news until the much-anticipated transcontinental telegraph line was completed. While in the overall scheme of things a mere blip on the radar, today, the rustic mail line is still very much associated with America’s Old West.

Single riders could obviously cover far more ground and rougher terrain in much shorter periods of time than other modes of transport, such as stagecoaches or covered wagons. Pony Express stations were typically located between 5 and 20 miles apart, and the terrain and its impact on horse travel determined the number and the distance between stations.

According to the National Pony Express Association, “At each relay (swing) station, riders would exchange their tired horse for a fresh one. Home stations (usually the older stage stations) had horses, plus housed the riders between their trips. There were about 25 home stations along the route. This arrangement allowed the mail to speed across the country in record time. Each rider rode about 75-100 miles per shift, changing horses 5-8 times or so. Two minutes was allotted for horse and mochila exchanges at each station.”

But the pioneering enterprise wasn’t to last, because on June 16, 1860, roughly 10 weeks after the Pony Express began operations, Congress authorized a bill instructing the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidize the development of a transcontinental telegraph line to connect the area surrounding the Missouri River with the Pacific Coast.

The passage of the bill would ultimately join California’s Overland Telegraph Company with Nebraska’s Pacific Telegraph Company. While work on the ambitious construction project was underway, the Pony Express continued its mission of delivering mail and newspapers back and forth between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

Then, on October 26, 1861, for the first time in the nation’s history, San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City. On that day, the Pony Express was officially terminated, but it wouldn’t be until November that the last of the mail was delivered over the established route.

Even if the line hadn’t come to fruition, North America’s first transcontinental railroad began construction in 1863 and was completed by 1869, rendering the overland delivery service moot after connecting the Eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the Pacific Coast at the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay.

Nowadays, the NPEA, in conjunction with the United States Postal Service, hosts an annual re-ride where 1,500 U.S. postal customers can have their mail delivered in the same manner it was carried during its heyday.

This is stellar news for horse lovers, history buffs, and philatelists (stamp collectors) as the 165th anniversary of the Pony Express gears up for another nearly 2,000-mile journey to commemorate the early mail system. The 2024 event is scheduled to begin June 17, heading west from St. Joseph to Sacramento. Last year, the ride was done in reverse. It will continue over 10 days, 24 hours a day, with member riders switching off every 10 miles while carrying the traditional mochila (a square leather saddle pouch) to deliver the mail.

“The postal service got involved because the Sacramento postmaster started sending letters of sisterhood to Missouri,” stated USPS spokeswoman Gina M. Segura. “We thought it would be a fun, unique way to get that across.”

Segura explained that the Sacramento Postal Customer Council began writing the letters of sisterhood four years ago and sending them on the Express. Missouri reciprocated and started sending letters back. Postal customers can send letters via the Express through the NPEA website by filling out an application form. The submission process for 2024 ends in May. Anyone who’d like to get involved or follow this year’s progress can do so by visiting NPEA at nationalponyexpress.org.



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