The Pony Express was more than twice as fast as its competitors.
In the mid-19th century, California-bound mail had to either be taken overland by a 25-day stagecoach or spend months inside a ship during a long sea voyage. The Pony Express, meanwhile, had an average delivery time of just 10 days. To achieve this remarkable speed, company owners William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors set up a string of nearly 200 relief stations across what is now Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Lone horsemen would ride between stations at breakneck pace, switching mounts every 10-15 miles and then handing their cargo off to a new courier after 75-100 miles. The relay system allowed mail to criss-cross the frontier in record time. The company’s personal best came in March 1861, when riders carried the inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln from Nebraska to California in just seven days, 17 hours.
It was a financial flop.
Despite its enduring place in Old West legend, the Pony Express never turned a profit during its year and a half history. The company began making deliveries in April 1860, but service ground to a halt just a few weeks later when the Pyramid Lake War erupted between the United States and the Paiute Indians. The temporary shutdown cost the company some $75,000, and it continued to hemorrhage cash over the next few months due to high operations costs and its failure to secure a government mail contract. Though hailed in the press for its efficiency and adventurous spirit, the Pony Express eventually folded in October 1861, having lost as much as $200,000.
There was a weight limit for Pony Express riders.
Since speed was its main goal, the Pony Express went to great lengths to keep its horses’ loads as light as possible. Rather than burly cowboys, most of the riders were small, wiry men who weighed between 100 and 125 pounds—roughly the same size as a modern horseracing jockey. Their average age was around 20, but it wasn’t unusual for teenagers as young as 14 to be hired. One man named “Bronco” Charlie Miller claimed he was only 11 years old when he first joined the Pony Express.
Riders were required to take a loyalty oath.
In exchange for their $100-150 monthly salaries—a substantial sum for the time—Pony Express riders were expected to take a loyalty oath that read: “I do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while an employee of Russell, Majors and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.” Those who broke the rules risked being dismissed without pay, but it appears that few Pony Express employees followed the pledge to the letter. Liquor flowed freely at relief stations, and an eyewitness named Richard Burton reported that he “scarcely ever saw a sober rider.”
Mail was carried in a specially designed saddlebag.
To cut down on weight and facilitate swift horse and rider changes, the Pony Express used a special type of mailbag known as a “mochilla”—the Spanish word for knapsack. This consisted of a leather cover that was draped over the saddle and held in place by the rider’s weight. It featured four padlocked pockets—three for mail and one for the rider’s timecard—and was capable of holding up to 20 pounds of cargo. At each relief station, riders would simply grab the mochilla off one mount and then throw it over the next, allowing them to switch horses in the span of just two minutes.
Ordinary people almost never used the Pony Express.
The speed of the Pony Express didn’t come cheap. In its early days the service cost $5 for every half-ounce of mail—the equivalent of some $130 today. Prices were later reduced to just $1, but they still remained too high for everyday mail. Instead, the service was mainly used to deliver newspaper reports, government dispatches and business documents, most of which were printed on tissue-thin paper to keep costs (and weight) down.
One rider completed a 380-mile run in less than two days.
In May 1860, Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam took off on the most legendary ride in Pony Express history. The 20-year-old was scheduled to make his usual 75-mile run from Friday’s Station east to Buckland Station in Nevada. Upon arriving at Buckland, however, he found that his relief rider was petrified of the Paiute Indians, who had been attacking stations along the route. When the other man refused to take the mail, Haslam jumped back in the saddle and rode on, eventually completing a 190-mile run before delivering his mochilla at Smith’s Creek. After a brief rest, he mounted a fresh horse and retraced his steps all the way back to Friday’s Station, at one point passing a relay outpost that had been burned by the Paiutes. By the time he finally returned to his home station, “Pony Bob” had traveled 380 miles in less than 40 hours—a Pony Express record.
Riders didn’t have the deadliest job on the Pony Express.
Pony Express riders had to deal with extreme weather conditions, harsh terrain and the threat of attacks by bandits and Indians, but life may have been even more dangerous for the stock keepers who manned the relief stations. Their outposts were usually crude, dirt floor hovels equipped with little more than sleeping quarters and corrals for the horses. Many were located in remote sections of the frontier, making them extremely vulnerable to ambush. Accounts differ, but Indians reportedly attacked or burned several relay stations during the Pyramid Lake War in the summer of 1860, killing as many as 16 stock hands. By contrast, only a handful of riders—six, according to the National Park Service—died in the line of duty during the entire history of the Pony Express.
Buffalo Bill Cody probably wasn’t a Pony Express rider.
In his autobiography, the famed frontier showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody claimed that he served as a Pony Express rider at the age of 14. He even alleged that he once rode a record 384 miles in a single run. But while Cody almost certainly worked as a messenger for the owners of the Pony Express, there is no record of him ever carrying the mail, and evidence suggests he was probably in school in Kansas during the company’s brief history. Whatever Cody’s involvement with Pony Express was, there’s no doubt that he later kept its memory alive with his famous “Wild West” vaudeville shows, which featured Pony Express riders and horse swaps as a recurring stunt from 1883 until 1916.
The transcontinental telegraph dealt the Pony Express its deathblow.
For all its financial troubles, the Pony Express didn’t truly collapse until a better alternative appeared on the scene. The company had spent its brief history bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western telegraph lines, but it was finally rendered obsolete on October 24, 1861, when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line at Salt Lake City. The Pony Express ceased service just two days later. Despite operating for only 19 months, its riders had successfully delivered some 35,000 pieces of mail and traveled more than half a million miles across the American frontier.