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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans

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THE PONY EXPRESS

WHEN gold was discovered in California, thousands of persons moved to the Pacific Coast. The lack of mail facilities for these emigrants was keenly felt. At first, it took months for a man in the East to exchange letters with any one in California.

In 1854, it was proposed in Congress to establish a weekly mail between St. Louis and San Francisco. The time required would be ten days, [340] and each trip would cost the Government five thousand dollars. Congress thought this was a wild scheme, and so nothing was done about it.

California had to content itself with getting mail by way of Panama. If the ships were not delayed, a letter would be delivered in about three weeks. It took so long to cross the continent that, when Utah Territory was created, in 1850, three months passed before the news reached Salt Lake City.

Eight years later, the stage-coaches of the Southern Overland Mail covered the distance of twenty-seven hundred and fifty-nine miles, between St. Louis and San Francisco, in three weeks. The fare was one hundred dollars. The outfit consisted of one hundred stage-coaches, one thousand horses, five hundred mules, and seven hundred and fifty men, of whom one hundred and fifty were drivers. Letters were carried for ten cents a half-ounce.

It was a long, tiresome, and sometimes exciting journey. The mail was put in big bags, securely strapped on top, or in the back of the stage. The passengers were inside, while the intrepid driver forced his plucky horses from station to station, along the rough roads. Often the traveler had to hold on for dear life, while the coach went over ditches or down the steep incline of the moun- [341] tains, rocking from side to side, and threatening to pitch over or slide down a precipice at any moment.

Sometimes it rained; it was very cold in winter and hot and dusty in summer; and the war-whoop of the Indians suggested the possibility of an attack on the coach. Then again, the bold appearance of a band of highwaymen resulted in a hold-up, while the mail-bags were robbed, and the passengers were searched for their money and jewelry. An attack on the mail-coach was by no means an unusual occurrence.

Horses were changed at regular stations. The passengers alighted, ate their meals, visited awhile, or stretched their cramped limbs while the new teams were being hitched. Then up and in place,—the crack of the whip, a whoop from the driver, and the coach disappeared down the road! Three weeks of this was anything but a pleasant journey.

In 1860, a system of carrying mails and small parcels by the use of ponies was established. It was called the "Pony Express." The schedule was fourteen days in all, by rail from New York to St. Joseph, and thence by running ponies to Sacramento. The little animals made wonderful distance, and were very accurate in their schedule, always arriving on time.

[342] The ponies employed were selected with care for their speed and endurance. They were housed, and fed, and rubbed down with every possible attention. Ten miles, at the full limit of his speed, was demanded of each little animal, if the road was bad, and more, if the road was good.

Across the prairies, where the land was level, and the traveling good, pony and rider flew like the wind, scarcely noticing the sweet grass or the wild flowers by the way. Up the mountain sides, across streams, through the forests, around sharp turns, went the Pony Express at top speed. In summer heat and winter cold, in rain and snow and dust and drought, the rider and his pony made schedule time. At the end of the run, flecked with foam, panting with exertion, and covered with dust or mud, but still full of fire and strength, the pony would be rewarded by a rub down.

The rider dismounted, stretched his legs a little; then he remounted another waiting pony, received his precious bundles, and was off like a flash down the trail on another lap of the journey. Thus, one rider made several changes, and the pony he left behind, after its rest, was prepared for another rider taking him back to his first station.

Nearly two thousand miles had to be covered in [343] eight days. There was no idling for either pony or rider. Once under the saddle, the little animal leaped to his course like a fire horse to his harness. The rider was trained to the saddle, and could ride better than he could walk.

The packet of letters made a bundle not much larger than an ordinary writing-tablet, but every letter had been paid for, five dollars in advance. There were hundreds of them, written on the thinnest paper that could be found.

Twenty pounds was the limit of the weight of the mail-bag. In all, six hundred and fifty thousand miles were covered by the riders of the company, and only one small package was lost. Each rider was provided with pistols to protect himself from attack, and had to be a courageous, skillful and trustworthy man.

But the Pony Express never paid expenses. It was operated for sixteen months, and lost money all the while. At the end of that time, it was abandoned. When the telegraph was completed across the plains, the rate of postage fell to one dollar a letter, and the pony and his rider went out of business.

However, the Pony Express opened the way for the cross-continent telegraph and railway, and was evidence of how enterprising the early emigrants [344] were while they were settling and developing the wonderful country beyond the Rocky Mountains.


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