Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #103: The Pony Express

Coming and Going of the Pony Express, by Frederic Remington, 1900

Last Tuesday, the Google Doodle commemorated the 155th anniversary of the first Pony Express delivery with an interactive doodle that I did not play because dammit, Google, I have shit to do. Despite appearances, Web content does not write itself. But I noticed the doodle anyway, and it inspired me to write this blog post.

The Pony Express was the brainchild of these three men, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell:

No, I don't know which is which.

Russell, Majors, and Waddell were in the shipping business and hoped to win a government contract for their mail delivery service, which was the first to allow Gold Rush settlers in the new state of California to contact the loved ones they’d left behind back east. East Coast dwellers at the time benefited from the U.S. Postal Service, which was founded in 1775. But, mind-boggingly, at the time the Pony Express was founded in 1860, there was no reliable means of communication between the East and West Coasts.

The three business partners put the Pony Express together over the course of two months in 1860, because they didn’t have the Internet to distract them. The service initially hired 120 riders, who were paid $100 a month, or about $2,857 in today’s money. Most unskilled laborers at the time could hope to earn about $857 a month if they were very well-paid.
The Pony Express riders worked for their money. Riding at a pace of 10 to 15 miles an hour for eight to 10 hours at a stretch and changing horses every 10 miles, they were able to achieve what many people of the era called an impossible feat – delivering mail from California to the nearest bastion of civilization, St. Joseph, Missouri, in just ten days. One hundred fifty years later, we get impatient if an email doesn’t send right away.

The first westbound delivery reached its destination in San Francisco at 1:00 a.m. on April 14, 1860. A single letter carried on that trip survives today:

The envelope, embossed with a 10-cent postage stamp, was issued by the USPS in 1855. They took upcycling seriously back in the day.

Though the Pony Express delivered about 35,000 letters in its nineteen-month span, only about 250 of those letters remain extant. The service didn’t handle many deliveries, due to its high cost – at the time of the inaugural delivery in 1860, it cost $5 to send a half-ounce letter from Sacramento to St. Joseph, or about $142 in today’s money. By the time of the final delivery in October 1861, the price had dropped to $1 – about $27 in today’s money. These days, you can send a piece of First Class Mail weighing as much as one ounce to any address in the country, no matter how remote, for just 49 cents, and it will usually arrive in three to seven days. But of course, that’s too slow.

"In my day..."

The Pony Express sought young, energetic riders “not over eighteen.” They had to weigh fewer than 125 pounds, and had to swear an oath on a special edition, Pony Express Bible not to swear, drink, or fight with other members of the firm. I guess it’s implied that they were allowed to fight with non-members, since this is the Wild West we’re talking about.

Famous riders include William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who signed on at the age of 15, and later became famous for being Buffalo Bill. He made his longest ride when he made a round trip from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station in Wyoming after he learned that his relief rider had come down with a sudden case of being dead. He rode 21 horses across 322 miles (518 km) and completed the journey in 21 hours, 40 minutes.

Jack Keetley, who joined the Pony Express at the age of 19 and delivered mail throughout the entire 19 months of the service’s existence, made his longest ride across 340 miles (550 km) over the course of 31 hours in which Keetley stopped only to change horses – he did not eat or rest. When he arrived at his destination, he was asleep in the saddle.

The most badass Pony Express rider, IMO at least, was Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam, an Englishman who immigrated to the United States during his teens. He was one of the riders who helped complete the fastest ever Pony Express delivery, that which delivered the results of the 1860 Presidential election to California in only 7 days and 17 hours. His portion of the ride covered 120 miles in eight hours, 20 minutes. He holds the record for longest Pony Express ride, a 380 mile (610 km) round trip from San Francisco to Smith’s Creek. He made the trip because when he arrived at his original destination, Buckland’s Station, he found his relief rider so afraid of the Indians that he refused to sally forth. Haslam agreed to press on, but during his return trip, he ran afoul of the Indians that had so frightened his colleague, and took an arrow through the jaw, an injury which cost him three teeth.

But none of his dignity.

The Pony Express never won the government contract its founders hoped for, but during its lifetime only one of its deliveries failed to arrive on schedule. The mailing, which left San Francisco on July 21, 1860, reached St. Joseph two years later (no, I don’t know what happened). The Pony Express closed on October 26, 1861, two days after the completion of the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete. By the time it shut its doors, the Pony Express had earned about $90,000 dollars (over $2.4 million today) and lost about $200,000 (over $5.4 million today).