Unusual Tourist Sites: Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri Part 1

About the unusual tourist site the Pony Express Stables in St. Joseph, Missouri, history and information.

St. Joseph, Missouri

Pony Express Stables ... The pony express began in St. Joseph, Mo., on April 3, 1860, when a rider and his mount departed for Sacramento, Calif.--a journey of nearly 2,000 mi. This experiment was to determine if using the central continental route could shorten the time it took to send mail to and from the West Coast, help keep California in the U.S. and on the Union side during the anticipated war between the States, and--more than incidentally--secure the lucrative mail contract from the Federal Government.

Previously, there were 2 primary mail routes to California: by ship to Panama, overland at the Isthmus of Panama, and then by ship again to San Francisco, taking overall about 22 days; and the southern U.S. overland stage-coach ride known as the Ox-Bow Route, which was operated by the Butterfield Overland Company via St. Louis, Memphis, El Paso, and Los Angeles. The central route west from the Missouri River, though 1,000 mi. shorter, was far more hazardous and hence seldom used. With the Civil War imminent, California authorities feared the 1st 2 routes were subject to interference.

On the 1st ride west, the last westbound relay rider and his horse reached Sacramento on the 10th day (April 13, 1860) and was rewarded with a reception featuring bands, top-hatted civic dignitaries, and a cheering populace. A former jockey, by the name of John Fry, is believed by some to have been the 1st rider out of St. Joseph, while others contend the honor belongs to one Alex Carlyle. (April 3, departure day, was also the date that Bob Ford shot Jesse James in St. Joseph in 1882, which prompted a local wag to suggest a municipal slogan: "St. Joseph, the city which started the pony express and stopped Jesse James.")

Despite the fact that Congress was told that daily mail service by pony express could be performed for less than $1 million--much less than the amount paid to the Butterfield line--political pressures kept the newly organized Central Overland Express Stables from the mail contract. Though financially unsuccessful, the pony express men wrote a colorful chapter in American history and proved that the central route worked, providing speeded-up service until completion of the 1st telegraph line to California put it out of business in October, 1861.

At the outset, the owners advertised in this unabashedly honest fashion:

Wanted: Young skinny wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week. Apply Central Overland Express.

Some 80 to 100 men (a complete roster has never been established) took on the adventurous assignments, braving hostile Indians and unknown country. They made approximately 160 complete trips across the western half of the continent in the 19 months the company functioned. (The record mail shipment was President Lincoln's 1st Inaugural Address, which took 7 days 17 hours.) The company also employed some 300-400 stock traders, stationmen, and helpers, who manned about 190 relay stations where fresh riders and horses were ready and waiting when the equestrian postmen came in sight. This change of horses, and sometimes riders, was accomplished in 2 minutes or less.

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