The Pony Express mail service began on April 3, 1860, at 7:15 p.m., when a lone rider departed on horseback from the gates of Pikes Peak Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri, headed west. He carried a pouch containing official papers, 49 letters, five private telegrams, and copies of the St. Joseph Gazette.
The Pony Express was a risky venture, proposed by Messrs. Russell, Majors and Waddell, partners of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company. The railroads ended at St. Joseph in 1860, with Sacramento, California, 2,000 miles beyond; a trip taking three to six weeks by stagecoach and steamboat.
The plan called for a non-stop, 10-day dash by horseback, at a full gallop, carrying saddle-borne mail across plains, mountains and deserts, dodging bandits and hostile Indians, from St. Joseph to Sacramento. Many declared this an impossible task.
The Pony Express was a massive operation, requiring 120 riders (they could not exceed 125 pounds), 400 horses and several hundred support personnel. Riders were required to swear this oath, on the bible, prior to employment: While I am in the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.
The maximum distance a horse could travel at full speed being about 10 miles, 184 express stations were placed at approximately that interval. Riders would arrive at full gallop, transfer the 20 pound mail pouch from the exhausted horse to a fresh one, mount-up and race off at full speed.
A rider was in the saddle day and night for distances of 75-100 miles. In some instances a given rider might be forced by circumstance to ride two stages back to back, totaling more than 20 hours on a galloping horse. For their loyal service they were paid the lavish sum of $25 per week. (A comparable wage for unskilled labor at the time was about $1 per week.)
The cost to send a one-half ounce letter was $5 (the equivalent of about $135 nowadays); a lot of money to mail one letter. Only the wealthy and the government could afford such costly rates. However, this quick delivery of political dispatches and military orders, on the eve of the Civil War, helped preserve California and its gold for the Union.
Carrying mail along the entire route lasted only until March, 1861, after which the Pony Express ran mail only between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The mail service announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Salt Lake City. In its short life the Pony Express took in more than $90,000; but it lost $200,000.
The Pony Express was headquartered in St. Joseph, at the Patee House (pronounced PAY-tee), a four-story, red brick structure built in 1858 and reputed to be the finest hotel west of the Mississippi. It provided the last taste of civilization for pioneers and prospectors bound for the great western frontier. In sharp contrast to the hotel’s opulence, its top floor held a sanitarium for epileptics.
Pony Express stables and riders quarters were a few blocks away at what is now the Pony Express National Museum. The museum houses educational, state-of-the-art exhibits centering on the creation, operation and the demise of the Pony Express. Visitors tour the reconstructed stables where it all began.
Also, the Patee served as a recruiting station for the Union Army. Union soldiers began enforcing martial law in St. Joe in 1860, setting up an army courtroom in the Patee ballroom. Miscreants were hanged across the street. Today, the Patee houses a frontier museum, offering a glimpse of how people lived in the 1800s. The reconstructed offices of the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express Company, the group that ran the Pony Express, are a highlight of the museum.
On the grounds of the Patee House Museum sits the small frame house where Jesse James, using the alias Thomas Howard, lived with his wife and four children. The Jesse James Home (relocated to this site) is the very house where, on April 3, 1882, Jesse noticed a dusty picture on the wall. While standing on a chair to clean the picture, Jesse was gunned down by Robert Ford, a member of his gang. The tour of the home includes the chair, the bullet hole in the wall and much memorabilia of America’s most infamous “wild west” outlaw: Jesse Woodson James.
These sites are of great historical interest, offering a glimpse into the days of the wild west.