By 1860 almost half a million Americans lived on the Pacific Coast. At the time it took three week for information to flow between the two main American ports; New York in the East and San Francisco. Something had to be done. Something was done.
At 5:00 pm on April 3, 1860 the legendary Pony Express began. The first trip between St. Joseph Missouri and Sacramento California took nine days and 23 hours. The eastbound trip from California to Missouri took “ten days to the minute.” The Pony Express had beaten the stage coach mail carriers by a full 10 days.
During the 18 months spanning April 1860 to October 1861 the Express operated between St. Joseph Missouri and Sacramento California. The Express moved mail and news reports across the country faster than ever before by utilizing an ingenious horse and rider relay system. The entire system was composed of 190 stations, 420 horse, 400 station operators, and 80 rides.
The riders were “cool-headed nervy” men who were the “pick of the frontier.” They were men like “Boston” Boulton, “Irish Tom” James, and “Little Yank” Martin. Across prairies and deserts, over mountains and hills, those daring horse riders kept the transcontinental communication system going year-round. It was “something not seen since the times of the Romans in Europe.”
It kept folks on both coasts and everywhere in between received letters from family and friends and kept abreast of the latest news. Newspaper readers learned the names and destinations of ships along with the number of gold miners headed to California and the amount of gold being shipped to New York City. Merchants and Traders kept abreast of the latest commodity prices.
California bound travelers learned of the current conditions on the Panama Isthmus, the weather in San Francisco, and the number of Chinese arrivals on the West Coast. They even read about who fought and who’d won the most recent duels in San Francisco. But the Pony Express was doomed to obsolescence.
On April 12, 1861 Confederate cannon bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The Civil War had begun. The tragic news of battles was relayed across the continent but about six months later the first transcontinental telegraph went into operation. Two days after that, the Pony Express ceased to exist.
The Express had reduced communication time between the coasts from weeks to days. The new telegraph reduced the time to mere minutes. In late October 1861 newspapers reported…
New York, Queen of the Atlantic, and San Francisco, Queen of the Pacific, are now united by this noblest symbol of our modern civilization.
The first telegraph from California to the East Coast read…
To Araham Lincoln, President of the United States: [It’s not known if the original telegraph misspelled “Abraham” or if it was the paper that published the report]
In the temporary absence of the Governor of the State, I am requested to send you the first message which will be transmitted over the wires of the telegraph line which connect the Pacific with the Atlantic States.
The people of California desire to congratulate you upon the completion of the great work. They believe that it will be the means of strengthening the attachment which binds both the East and the West to the Union, and they desire in this, the first message across the Continent, to express their loyalty to that Union, and their determination to stand by the Government, in this, its day of trial. They regard that Government with affection, and will adhere to it under all fortunes. STEPHEN J. FIELD, Chief Justice of California.
Nevertheless, the Pony Express lives on in American legend and folklore and stands as a shining example of American ingenuity and progress.
Note: April 3, 2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of the Pony Express.
FYI: Pony Express carrier Equus ferus caballus included horses as well as ponies. The main difference between “horse” and “pony” breeds is the full grown size; ponies mature to less than 14.2 hands.
Glenn Danford Bradley: The Story of the Pony Express: An Account of the Most Remarkable Mail Ever in Existence and its Place in History
New York Times 1860-1861