Iowa Public Television


The Pony Express Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

posted on December 10, 2010

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The holidays mark one of the busiest seasons for retailers and other economic engines of holiday gift-giving.

For the U.S. Postal Service, 15.8 billion cards, letters and packages will be delivered between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

And while holiday gifts and messages may face some wintertime weather delays, it pales in comparison to the obstacles confronted by some of western America's first mail carriers.

Riders of the Pony Express risked life and limb in a series of 10-mile gallops from Missouri to California.

2010 marks the 150th anniversary of the famed Pony Express. Producer Laurel Bower Burgmaier rode along on the sesquicentennial celebration this summer and filed this report.

"The pony-rider was usually a little bit of a man, brimful of spirit and endurance." –Mark Twain

The Pony Express has become synonymous with the Old West. Despite its short tenure of just 19 months, the fascination with its story is one of its enduring legacies. In the era before electronic communication, the Pony Express was the thread that tied the East to the West.

Les Bennington, Glenrock, Wyoming:" I always consider it was the email of the 1860s. They had never heard of getting mail in 10 days from the East Coast. And, that's what the Pony Express delivered. Otherwise, it would take 20-plus days or even months if it went by ship. It was very much current news as far as the pioneers were considered."

Since 1978, National Pony Express Association, or NPEA, members have recreated the Pony Express in a commemorative, round-the-clock re-ride lasting 10 days.

Lindsey Koch, Seneca, Kansas: "My family's always been in it. My grandpa was, he rode it the first year they rode it across. It's fun to go out and re-ride history basically."

Each June, more than 500 volunteer riders follow the 1,943-mile route carrying U.S. mail. They try to stay as close to the original trail as possible, which spans eight states including California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas and Missouri.

This past June was particularly special, when the annual re-ride marked the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express.

Les Bennington, Glenrock, Wyoming: "The people and the feedback that we received across the whole seven states we've traversed, has been positive. A lot of people have thanked us for doing the re-ride and for keeping history alive."

By the late 1850s a half million people had migrated west, and they wanted up-to-date news from home. Something had to be done to deliver mail faster and to improve communication in the expanding nation. Three Missouri businessmen by the names of William Russell, William Waddell and Alexander Majors developed the Pony Express.

In April 1860, the Pony Express, or "the Pony" as it was affectionately known, began its mail service between Missouri and California.

Men were paid $50 per month, and ranged in age from teenagers to about 40. Weight restrictions were strict. Riders had to weigh less than 120 pounds because they were carrying 20 pounds of mail and 25 pounds of equipment. Horses averaged 10 miles per hour, at times galloping up to 25 miles per hour. During his route of 75 to 100 miles, a rider changed horses eight to 10 times.

Lyle Ladner, Frankfort, Kansas: "I think at that time it was an insurmountable task. You know, to do something that hadn't been done and that fast, that efficiently. It proved what people could do when they wanted to. It's the way it is in the U.S. People can start with nothing and do something fantastic."

David Sanner, Blue Rapids, Kansas: "It gives you an eerie feeling that them young fellers could do that."

During its operation, Pony Express riders completed some 300 runs each way over 600,000 miles and carried more than 33,000 pieces of mail. The mail traveled in four, locked leather boxes sewn onto the corners of a leather knapsack, or mochila as it was called, that fit over the saddle. The design allowed for fast removal and placement on a fresh horse.

Lyle Ladner, Frankfort, Kansas: "You can dream back and think how it would be at that time. You know, they had to be tough to go 100 miles on a horse in the open. They had to be tough."

The Pony Express made its last run on November 20, 1861 after the completion of the Transcontinental telegraph lines.

Historians say while the Pony Express was short-lived, its bold founders and brave riders helped spread important news, shrink a continent, and bind a nation that was being torn apart by civil war.

Les Bennington, Glenrock, Wyoming: "The main thing that intrigues people most is it's a lone horse and rider against the elements. They kept to the time and to a schedule as close as they could with all the perils and everything."


Tags: animals history horses news pioneers