The Transcontinental Telegraph and the End of the Pony Express

On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed by Western Union, making it possible to transmit messages rapidly (by mid-nineteenth-century standards) from coast to coast. This technological advance, pioneered by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, heralded the end of the Pony Express. Only two days later, on October 26, the horseback mail service that had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the eastern and western United States officially closed.

Pony Express Route April 3, 1860 – October 24, 1861. William Henry Jackson, creator; Howard R Driggs, text; Union Pacific Railroad, [S.I.: s.n., 1951]. Transportation and Communication. Geography & Map Division

The short-lived Pony Express had been established only one and one-half years earlier, in April 1860. Initially a private enterprise under the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, it operated –at its fullest extent–from terminuses at St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco, California, using a continuous relay of the best riders and horses. The nearly 2,000-mile route—running through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, the northeast corner of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California—included vast stretches of rugged terrain once thought impassable in winter.

Pony Express Stables, 914 Penn Street, Saint Joseph, Buchanan County, MO. Jack Boucher, photographer, April-May 1986. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

Pushing the physical limits of man and beast, the Pony Express ran nonstop. During a typical shift, a rider traveled 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles at relief stations along the route. Station keepers and stock tenders ensured that changes between horses and riders were synchronized so that no time was wasted. For their dangerous and grueling work riders received between $100 and $125 per month. A few riders with unusually treacherous routes were paid $150, more than twice the salary of the average station worker.

Summer deliveries averaged ten days, while winter deliveries required twelve to sixteen days, approximately half the time needed by stagecoach. The Express logged its fastest time delivering President Lincoln’s first inaugural address–seven days and seventeen hours.

Some 200 horsemen rode for the Pony Express. Most were in their late teens and early twenties and small in stature. Famous riders included William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Robert “Pony Bob” HaslamExternal.

Signal Telegraph Machine and Operator – Fredericksburg. Alfred R. Waud, artist, ca. December 1862; published in Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863, p. 53. Drawings (Documentary). Prints & Photographs Division
Group of Western Union Messengers in Norfolk, Va… Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, June 1911. National Child Labor Committee Collection. Prints & Photographs Division.

Learn More

The United Nations

The United NationsExternal (UN) Charter was ratified on October 24, 1945, bringing the international body officially into existence. The term “United Nations” was first used in the 1942 Declaration by United Nations, when representatives of twenty-six nations pledged to continue fighting against the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

United Nations. From Northwest on 1st Ave. Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., photographer, Apr. 20, 1956. Gottscho-Schleisner Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Before the United Nations was established, there was the League of Nations. Near the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress on January 8th, 1918 and unveiled the steps he felt were necessary for securing peace, the Fourteen Point Plan. Part of the fourteen point plan was the creation of the League of Nations:

A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small States alike.

Excerpted from The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings. New York, 1919. p. 528

The League of Nations. By Edward V. Cabbage; Chicago: Delmar Music Co., [1919]. World War I Sheet Music. Music Division

The League of Nations was established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles. To listen to advocates and opponents of the concept of institutional international cooperation voice their opinions, take a look at the Library of Congress collection American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I. This collection is composed of sound recordings from  The Nation’s Forum collection. To find text and recordings, search the collection on League of Nations.

Unfortunately, the League of Nations was unable to prevent World War II from erupting in September 1939.

Washington Conversations on International Organization, Dumbarton Oaks, August 1944. Schutz Group Photographers(Washington,D.C.), August 1944. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

From August to October 1944, representatives of the United States, United Kingdom, China, and the U.S.S.R. met at Dumbarton Oaks, an estate in Washington, D.C., to formulate plans for an organization to foster international cooperation after the war. The resulting Dumbarton Oaks proposals, along with provisions agreed upon by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, formed the basis for the United Nations Conference on International Organization.

[Meeting of American, British, Soviet, and Chinese representatives to draft the charter of a postwar international organization based on the principle of collective security at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington]. Aug. 30, 1944. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

In April 1945, delegates from fifty countries met in San Francisco to draw up the final charter of the United Nations. It was signed on June 26 and ratified on October 24, 1945 by a majority of the other signatories. Poland, not represented at the conference, signed the charter later and became one of the original fifty-one member countries. Three years later, on December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 1 and Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human RightsExternal, 1948.

Learn More