CHAPTER VIII. THE PONY EXPRESS.
Owing to the gold discoveries of 1849, the state of California was born in almost a single day. The ocean route to the Pacific was tedious and circuitous, and the impetuosity of the mining population demanded quicker time for the delivery of its mails than was taken by the long sea-voyage. From the terminus of telegraphic communication in the East there intervened more than two thousand miles of a region uninhabited, except by hostile tribes of savages. The mail from the Atlantic seaboard, across the Isthmus of Darien to San Francisco, took at least twenty-two days. The route across the desert by stage occupied nearly a month.
To reduce this time was the absorbing thought of the hour. Senator Gwinn of California, known after the Maximilian escapade in Mexico as "Duke Gwinn," first made the suggestion to the proprietors of the Overland Stage Line that if they could carry the mails to the Pacific coast in a shorter time than it then required, and would keep the line open all the year, increased emigration and the building of a railroad by the government would be the result.
The following is an authentic history of the Pony Express, as related to the authors of this work by Colonel Alexander Majors, the surviving member of the once great firm of Russell, Majors, Waddell, who were the originators of the scheme.
In the winter of 1859, while the senior partner of the firm was in Washington, he became intimately acquainted with Senator Gwinn of California, who, as stated previously, was very anxious that a quicker line for the transmission of letters should be established than that already worked by Butterfield; the latter was outrageously circuitous.
The senator was acquainted with the fact that the firm of Russell, Majors, Waddell were operating a daily coach from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, and he urged Mr. Russell to consider seriously the propriety of starting a pony express over the same route, and from Salt Lake City on to Sacramento.
After a lengthy consultation, Mr. Russell consented to attempt the thing, provided he could induce his partners to take the same view of the proposed enterprise as himself, and he then returned to Leavenworth, the head-quarters of the firm, to consult the other members. On learning the proposition suggested by Senator Gwinn, both Colonel Majors and Mr. Waddell at once decided that the expense would be much greater than any possible revenue from the undertaking.
Mr. Russell, having, as he thought, partially at least, committed himself to the Senator, was much chagrined at the turn the affair had taken, and he declared that he could not abandon his promise to Mr. Gwinn, consequently his partners must stand by him.
That urgent appeal settled the question, and work was commenced to start the Pony Express.
On the Overland Stage Line operated by the firm, stations had been located every ten or twelve miles, which were at once utilized for the operation of the express; but beyond Salt Lake City new stations must be constructed, as there were no possible stopping-places on the proposed new route. In less then two months after the promise of the firm had been pledged to Senator Gwinn, the first express was ready to leave San Francisco, and St. Joseph, Missouri, simultaneously.
The fastest time ever thus far made on the "Butterfield Route" was twenty-one days between San Francisco and New York. The Pony Express curtailed that time at once by eleven days, which was a marvel of rapid transit at that period.
The plant necessary to meet the heavy demand made on the originators of the fast mail route over the barren plains and through the dangerous mountains was nearly five hundred horses, one hundred and ninety stations, two hundred men to take care of these stations, and eighty experienced riders, each of whom was to make an average of thirty-three and one-third miles. To accomplish this each man used three ponies on his route, but in cases of great emergency much longer distances were made.
The letters or despatches to be carried by the daring men were required to be written on the finest tissue paper, weighing half an ounce, five dollars being the charge for its transportation.
As suggested by two members of the firm, when they protested that the business would not begin to meet the expenses, their prophecies proved true; but they were not disappointed, for one of the main objects of the institution of the express was to learn whether the line through which the express was carried could be made a permanent one for travel during all the seasons of the year. This was determined in the affirmative.
One of the most important transactions of the Pony Express was the transmittal of President Buchanan's last message, in December, 1860, from the Missouri River to Sacramento, over two thousand miles, in eight days and a few hours, and the next in importance was the carrying of President Lincoln's message, his inaugural of March 4, 1861, over the same route in seven days and seventeen hours. This was the quickest time for horseback riding, considering the distance made, ever accomplished in this or any other country.