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.
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.
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” Haslam.
- Read a firsthand account of the Pony Express, by former rider George S. Stiers in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 – 1940.
- “The Pony Express” External by W. F. Bailey in The Century: a popular quarterly (Volume 56 Issue 6, Oct 1898), from Making of America .External. The article recounts the origins of the service, details of rides, costs incurred, and more.
- Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present contains drawings, photos, and data pages of the Hollenberg Pony Express Station in Washington County, Kansas.
- Use the full-text option and search in “California as I Saw It”: First–Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 on pony express to read reminiscences, including chapter 37 of The expedition of the Donner party and its tragic fate, by Eliza P. Donner Houghton
- Learn more about Samuel F. B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell and the 19th-century revolution in telecommunications.
- A Century of Law Making for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 yields numerous documents on mail routes and mail delivery. See, for example, An Act to Facilitate Communication between the Atlantic and Pacific States by Electric Telegraph, which provides the text of the June 16, 1860, act authorizing advertisements for sealed proposals for the construction of a magnetic telegraph.
- Search Today in History on Morse and Bell to learn more about Morse’s dispatch of the first telegraph message, and Bell’s invention of the first telephone and transmission of the first wireless telephone message.
- Search the digital collections with photographs on Western Union to view numerous images—including those of Western Union buildings, telegraph operators, and messengers.