The Pony Rides Again (and Again): Although It Ran Only Briefly 150 Years Ago, the Pony Express Still Defines Our Understanding of the Old West

By Corbett, Christopher | American Heritage, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Pony Rides Again (and Again): Although It Ran Only Briefly 150 Years Ago, the Pony Express Still Defines Our Understanding of the Old West


Corbett, Christopher, American Heritage


SHORTLY BEFORE LAST Christmas, a prominent New York auction house put up for bid a collection of 63 postmarked envelopes and stamps that the daring riders of the Pony Express had carried 150 years ago. Experts estimated that the rare collection, Owned by Thurston Twigg-Smith, an 88-year-old philanthropist and former publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser, might net $2.5 million. It drew $4 million.

That the Pony Express generated such income would have gladdened the hearts of the venture's original founders--William Hepburn Russell. Alexander Majors. and William Bradford Waddell--who never made a dime from the business. The heroic. nearly 2,000-mile delivery of mail across the country hemorrhaged money, from the first day a rider saddled up until the click of the transcontinental telegraph shut it down 78 weeks later. The Pony Express was one of the most colossal and celebrated failures in American business history, but its legacy, as the sale at Robert A, Siegel Auction Galleries suggests, remains an enduring and revered piece of the Old West myth. Even today, old-timers in the remotest parts of the American West still speak of "the days of the Pony." Few figures in that region's history loom larger than those true riders of the purple sage, whom Mark Twain called "the swift phantoms of the desert."

In its own day, the Express caused quite a stir. By beginning where the train and the telegraph line stopped at St. Joseph. Missouri. in 1860, the service closed an information gap that had long frustrated both coasts. The Pacific slope was a far country in those days: mail from the East took not days or weeks but many months to cross the nation by stagecoach or to be shipped around the stormy Cape Horn or through the fever-ridden Isthmus of Panama. The Pony cut the time of moving information overland to 10 days or less. and on this count at least it proved a spectacular success. It initially cost customers $5 to send one letter, although rates would crumble as the firm desperately tried to generate business. Still. that was a lot of money in 1860, when a laborer in Kansas might make only that in a week. Patrons of the fast service thus tended to be banks, newspapers, and officials, including diplomats. "[The riders] got but little frivolous correspondence to carry," noted Mark Twain.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"No enterprise of the kind in its day was ever celebrated on the Pacific coast with more enthusiasm than the arrival of the first pony express," wrote historians Frank A. Root and William E. Connelley in The Overland Stage to California (1901). "News of the arrival of the first mail across the continent by the fleet pony was published with flaming head-lines in a number of the coast evening papers." Huge crowds assembled in San Francisco to welcome the brave rider who had brought news so quickly from so far. Only a few observers made negative comments, claiming that the entire venture was a mere publicity stunt designed to drum up more lucrative mail contracts.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The privately financed Pony Express was hastily thrown together in late 1859 and began operations on the evening of April 3, 1860. After the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad train arrived late that day with the mail, a rider and his horse were ferried across the Missouri, beading west into history. That cargo's goal was Sacramento, capital of the state of California, which had been rocketed into the Union on the heels of the gold rush just 10 years before. At the same time, another rider had set out eastward from California.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Piggybacking on existing posts along the Oregon Trail and other established overland routes, the Pony Express set up operations with approximately 190 way stations about 10 to 12 miles apart. Someone had been hired to feed and care for the horses at each stop. The average station, wrote the celebrated British explorer Richard Burton, who followed the route while the Pony was running, "is about as civilized as the Galway shanty [Burton loathed the Irish], or the normal dwelling-place in Central Equatorial Africa. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Pony Rides Again (and Again): Although It Ran Only Briefly 150 Years Ago, the Pony Express Still Defines Our Understanding of the Old West
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.