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Epic Fail: The Pony Express

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 1 2

Technology oftentimes cannot keep pace with humanity’s “better ideas”.  Leonardo da Vinci, for example, had a fully working blueprint for an internal combustion engine.  He could not build it, however, for several reasons, not the least of which was metallurgy had not advanced enough in his day to provide material sufficient to withstand the forces of such a machine’s actions.

Although these days it may seem as if information technology advances are moving almost exponentially, such catastrophic changes in the human technological landscape have happened many times in history.  There are many classic examples of Man vs. Machine in reality, folklore, and myth.  The tale of John Henry (a real African-American railroad worker from West Virginia) and the newfangled Steam Drill is one such story.

Robert "Pony Bob" Haslam (1860)

But in the realm of technological advances trumping human endeavors, none is probably better known than the epic failure of The Pony Express, a case where one of the smaller subatomic nuclear particle, the electron, triumphed over 900 pounds of horseflesh.

Ride the Wagon Train
Up to the advent of railroad transport in America most people walked almost everywhere they went.  Horses were used for transportation less often than one might conclude, although most families owned them.  The overland westward migrations were largely completed on foot – the wagons were used for hauling the household goods of the settler family.  With the exception of a driver, the infirmed, or the smallest children, the pioneers walked beside the ox- or mule-drawn wagons (mules were preferred in the earliest days, giving way to braces of oxen later).

Information exchanges were both crucial and grueling.  Although the United States formed a postal service early in its history (with Benjamin Franklin as its first Post Master) keeping the country up-to-date with fresh news was sketchy.  Many frontiersmen avidly read, and looked forward to finding or receiving, any newspaper even if it was already a month old by the time of reception.  At that, these people felt lucky to have gotten it at all – the roads traveled were harsh and fraught with dangers, not only from wild animals and the elements but from highwaymen and Native American attacks as well.  

A quicker way for information exchange was needed desperately.  An overland route for delivering packages and mail existed only in the sense that freight forwarding companies, such as Wells-Fargo and later Montgomery Ward, carried mail and parcels for a fee.  Average citizens also carried things on behalf of their neighbors and friends.  Placing a letter or important business document in trust to a rough-shod mule skinner was not always a guarantee of safe delivery, however.  Using the best and most versatile technology of the day – horse flesh – was the basis for a grand idea for expedited cross-country mail delivery, the Pony Express.
No Government Contract
An existing freight forwarding company, the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, had the resources and man-power to develop an east-west mail service, covering the

Alexander Majors (Pony Express creator)
underdeveloped expanse between the westbound jumping-off point, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California.

Alexander Majors and his two partners in the Central Overland company conceived the idea of a relay-rider operation to move mail.  They planned building way stations.  They thought by using the fastest ponies and slightest built riders, their company could deliver packages from the Eastern borderlands to California in about ten days.  Considering that mail could take months to reach the West Coast from the East, ten days sounded miraculous.  That meant every item from the East Coast could make it to California in about fifteen days or so – a phenomenal breakthrough in information exchange. 

The impetus for developing such a service was not altruistic.  It was a profit venture from the start.   Majors and his cohorts already held lucrative freight delivery contracts with the US Government, shipping army supplies in the West.  They moved forward with the Pony Express plan with the sole purpose of obtaining a government contract to carry the mail across the plains, too.  Anything else that developed from that idea (regular business mail or personal package carriage) was incidental.  It was the US Government contract desirability that drove the idea.

In record-breaking time (January through February of 1860) Majors and his company established the network of riders and way stations needed.  Some stations were built; others were existing structures to whom the Express paid the owners a user’s fee for allowing it to be a stop on the line.  The placement of stations was simple: they were separated by about 10 miles on average, the distance a horse could be ridden at a full gallop before it tired completely.  At the next stop, the rider transferred his saddle bags of mail, mounted a fresh horse, and took off again.  Riders managed anywhere from 75 to a hundred miles per day before their shift was over. 

To increase the stamina of the horses a total weight limit of 165 pounds was fixed as the maximum for each horse to carry.  The device for carrying the mail was a combination saddle and saddlebag unit called a “mochila”.  It was designed to carry up to 20 pounds of mail and 20 pounds of other material for the ride. In the beginning the allowable items were a water flagon, a Bible, a horn

Pony Express "help wanted" poster (1860)
(for alerting the upcoming relay station master to prepare the next horse), a revolver, and a choice of a second firearm (either a rifle or another revolver). Soon enough, this load was reduced to just the water flagon and the revolver – all other weight was dedicated to the mail.  Forty pounds of freight meant riders could not weigh any more than 125 pounds.  For risking their necks, the riders were paid a generous $25 per week (about $450).  The average unskilled worker in 1860 earned a dollar a week (for comparison)   

Hiring riders meant creative tactics; although this job paid well, it would be extremely dangerous.  The riders were hard pressed for time, they were exposed to the elements, wild animal attacks (riders occasionally attacked by wildcats), and they were certainly vulnerable to highwaymen and Indian attack.  The “for-hire” posters scattered throughout the territory made it abundantly clear this job was not for the fainthearted.  One recruiting poster, playing up the danger element, even included the information that the company preferred to hire orphans!

Pony Expense
The cost to move anything via Pony Express was outrageous, not only by the standards of the day, but by any reasonable standard (as were stagecoach fares – several hundred dollars in 19th century money to ride from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco). The rate schedule for cartage with the Pony Express base-lined at $5.00 per half-ounce of material. This is the equivalent of about $90 in today’s money!  [This rate later dropped to $1.00 per half-ounce, still out of reach of most commoners]. 

Some people were willing to pay that rate, however, when millions of dollars in gold speculation interests or silver mining rights or any other business advance turned on a signature on a document delivered quickly.  The one party who never paid that rate was the United States Government – they did not approve or sign a contract with the Pony Express.  So, the epic failure of the Pony Express began by not meeting the main goal that bred it.

The Express had a romance, though, and it was quickly able to hire 120 riders in the first two months of operations.  This was a huge network, consisting of 184 stations, 400 company owned ponies, and several hundred support staff scattered throughout the territory. 

Because Alexander Majors was a “religious” man, Pony Express riders were required to take an oath when entering the service that focused more on their moral conduct than it did their professional behavior:

While I am the employ of A. Majors, I agree not use profane language, not to get drunk, not to gamble, not to treat animals cruelly and not to do anything else that is incompatible with the conduct of a gentleman. And I agree, if I violate any of the above conditions, to accept my discharge without any pay for my services.

American Telegraph
The Express ran into trouble soon enough.  Barring a service interruption because of Paiute raids

Buffalo Bill Cody (autographed, 1875)
in Nevada in May and June of 1860 (which cost the Express about $75,000 in lost animals, mail, station equipment, and other damages), the Pony Express riders thundered on, day and night. Despite its exorbitant cartage rates it continually operated in the red (the bloated cost of maintaining the network was perhaps not adequately sussed out in advance).  As a business enterprise it was an epic failure as well. 

The romantic ideal of the Pony Express rider, however, was not lost on those who rode or on the public.  The Pony Express rider in short order became a great American icon.  Many famous characters of the Old West rode for the Pony Express, most notably William H. Cody, the larger-than-life Buffalo Bill.

Other riders were famous in their own time.  The riders who

First westbound riders (1860)
ran the first relay outbound from the East (on April 3, 1860) were immediately championed: Johnny Fry, J.W. “Billy” Richardson, Charles Cliff, and Gus Cliff.  On that same day a rider from the West headed toward St. Joseph, and he was well-known in his day, too.  Technically, there were two “first” eastbound riders.  The first, James Randall, rode with a shipment from San Francisco to the docks, and placed his load on a steamship.  A rider on the receiving end near Sacramento, once the ship docked, took the mail and headed out into the open range.  This was William Hamilton (so it is really up to history to decide who was first – the rider who took the mail across town and put it on a steamboat, or the one who actually rode out for a considerable distance). The British born Robert “Pony Bob” Haslam perhaps was the most colorful.  He started riding in 1860.  In the course of his employment he carried a copy of President Lincoln’s Inaugural address; he was shot through the jaw by an Indian’s arrow, losing three teeth; and later broke durability records, traveling 380 miles alone once.  Well into his fifties, Haslam scouted for the US Army and went on a diplomatic mission with Buffalo Bill in 1890 to negotiate the surrender of renowned Native American warrior chief Sitting Bull. 

Technology waits for no man or horse.  The telegraph had been fully implemented in the Eastern part of the United States.  Lincoln had a telegraph office installed so he could keep track of field events during the Civil War.  Now the “wire that won the West” came closer and closer.  Express riders routinely came across work crews stringing telegraph line or planting poles.  They probably did not realize they were looking at the future.  And their own impending unemployment.

Express rider meets telegraph stringers (1861)

In March 1861 the US Government awarded its lucrative mail carriage business to a competing stagecoach company.  The Pony Express scaled back to remain solvent in the wake of that business defeat.  On October 26, 1861, the last section of wire needed to complete a transcontinental telegraph line was connected.  The closure of this romantic, but ultimately epic failure, the Pony Express was announced that very day.

This is the way of all technological advancements – the old gives way for the new.  During its eighteen months of operation the Pony Express grossed $90,000 in revenue, but lost $200,000.  In 1866 right after the Civil War its remaining assets were sold to another freight company for roughly $1.5 million. The combination of new technology and profit losses killed the Pony Express.






Oct 21, 2011 8:02am
Interesting article thanks Bill. I've seen the drawings/sketches whatever before but they're great. The Pony Express certainly had a 'romance' to it.
Oct 21, 2011 2:59pm
My fave was the rider waving to the telegrpah wire work crew. He might as well be waving at joblessness! Thanks for cheking it out.
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