In 1860, news didn’t exactly travel the way it does now. It took a month for word from the east coast to reach California. But then came the Pony Express. The all-out, high-speed mail service started in St. Joseph, Missouri, and ended 10 days later in Sacramento. The first rider took off 150 years ago Saturday. Even though the Pony Express didn’t last long, its legend is still going strong.
Ever notice the ancient Wells Fargo sign on the historic Hastings Building at 2nd and J Streets in Old Sacramento? Well, that’s where the first Pony Express mail arrived on April 13th, 1860. It was apparently quite the scene …
Nardone: “Banners were hung across the street. It was lined. People were cheering. The Pony Express was coming into town and he’s being led by about 10 people on horseback, kicking up dust.”
That’s Joe Nardone, the Pony Express Trail Association’s master historian. We met in front of the Hastings Building, recently, across the street from a life-size statue of a rider sprinting into town. The riders were typically tiny – they had to be, to ride fast. And they must’ve been tough and fit, because they took a real pounding. Riders galloping 24/7, passing the mail from horse to horse and man to man, could cover the almost two-thousand mile trail in 10 days.
Every year, Pony Express fans re-enact the ride – a way of keeping the legend fresh to this day. It’s a legend that has spawned songs, like this one from Riders in the Sky …
“Cody of the Pony Express” by Riders in the Sky: “Totin’ the mail beside him, he’s got the trail to guide him, Cody of the Pony Express.”
… and TV shows like The Young Riders …
“The Young Riders,” 1989: “First ride! You ready?” (music)
Author Christopher Corbett wrote a book about the mail service. He says those re-creations often stretch the truth, but the legend has lasted for good reason.
Corbett: “It doesn’t have the baggage of the slaughter of buffalo and the decimation of Indians. It doesn’t have any of that kind of baggage. I think that’s part of its appeal.”
But the Pony Express legend not only contains a lot of myths, Joe Nardone says it overshadows two hard facts. First, the mail was expensive – five dollars a letter back then, or over a hundred dollars by today’s standards. And second: as fast as those riders were, that was nothing compared to what led to their demise.
Nardone: “The telegraph, 18 months later, puts man’s most finely-tuned historic mail delivery system, the Pony Express on horseback, out of business.”
(sounds of a horse galloping fade out as sounds of a telegraph fade in)
Nardone: “It’s like comparing the post office to email today.”
But Nardone and other Pony Express fans dismiss criticism that the story is overblown. After all, they point out, riders brought news of President Lincoln’s election and the Civil War to the west coast in just over a week.
Ausman: “It’s a legend – and I think deservedly so.”
Meg Ausman is the historian for the U.S. Postal Service, which uses the Pony Express trademark.
Ausman: “Because something is successful in its own time and not successful forever, I don’t think that diminishes the importance of it at that time. So I would not knock it because it was short-lived.”
And when the order came in to stop the Pony Express in the fall of 1861, here’s what the Sacramento Bee printed in a front-page editorial lamenting its end.
Narrator: “Nothing that has blood and sinews was able to overcome your energy and ardor; but a senseless, soulless thing that eats not, sleeps not, tires not. … Rest, then, in peace, for thou hast run thy race, thou hast followed thy course, thou hast done the work that was given thee to do.”
NPR's Jeff Brady and KCUR's Frank Morris contributed to this report.