The Pony Express is a legendary service ... that only lasted for 18 months.
The first mail delivered via the Pony Express was sent on April 3, 1860 when it left St. Joseph, Missouri. Near midnight on April 14, 1860, the mail reached its destination in San Francisco. It was 155 years ago, but that first journey remains memorable today, even though the service only operated until October 1861 — closing just 81 weeks after it began, killed off by the telegraph and other factors.
Oddly enough, though, most of us don't think of the Pony Express as a flash in the pan. "In the American memory, that man is still riding across the country," says Christopher Corbett, author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express.
So why do we remember the Pony Express at all? Partly because it was a genuine breakthrough in mail delivery. But also because it fits with our romantic ideas about the Old West.
Before the Pony Express, moving information was a huge pain
The 1850s saw a population explosion in California, as settlers from the Oregon Trail and California gold rush flooded into the West. But getting mail across the continent took about three weeks. In The Pony Express, author Tim McNeese describes the arduous delivery process for a typical letter: down a river, on a stagecoach to Arkansas, and then along poor roads on a stagecoach to El Paso and all the way across the desert.
The only other option was even more indirect: shipping from New York to Panama, then across Panama via train, and then onto another boat to San Francisco.
The Pony Express was a breakthrough in a few key ways
The Pony Express began when three freighters, Alexander Majors, William Russell, and William Waddell, devised a relay system of a series of riders that would gallop across the country as quickly as possible.
What made the Pony Express work were the stations that dotted the route to switch out horses and riders. Each rider went for an average of 50 miles, day or night, and then handed off his pouch of letters to the next rider and horse for the next leg.
The company bought strong horses and ponies to ride, and the riders matched the pedigree of the animals. They were the 19th-century equivalent of bike messengers — young, skinny guys who wanted to ride fast and make cash. Weight was far more important than Hollywood-famous cowboy skills like gunslinging, because a light rider could move faster.
The route from East to West was dangerous, but passable. According to Fred Reinfeld's book on the Express, only one rider died on route — and his horse still made it to the next station with the mail. Conflicts with Native Americans were greatly exaggerated in later years — the weather posed the greatest obstacle. You can hover to zoom over the map below or see a larger version here:
One persistent myth is that the Pony Express tried to hire as many orphans as possible. Though the rumor can't be verified, it does illustrate the ethos of the company: speed at any cost.
The telegraph and a bad business model killed the Pony Express in just 18 months
The electric telegraph soon killed off the Pony Express. On October 24, 1861, the first transcontinental electric telegraph was completed, reaching from the Eastern United States to Sacramento, California. Two days later, the Pony Express ceased.
But the telegraph was not the only reason the Pony Express went under. By all accounts, the Pony Express never made a profit because of its failure to secure a government contract to deliver letters, as well as interference from other conflicts, like the Paiute War, which disrupted much of travel across the West.
The business was always doomed. "It hemorrhaged money from the first day," Corbett says. "It was a bit of a madcap idea from the get-go ... the structure of the business was deeply flawed."
Some ledgers say the investors lost $200,000 in the venture and only made $90,000 in revenue. As the Postal Museum notes, the business lost up to $30 for every letter it carried.
The Pony Express became an American myth because of how we want to remember the West
The Pony Express was never just a business idea. Thanks to the public relations savvy of the owners and the enthusiasm of settlers who wanted their mail delivered quickly, the Pony Express ignited the public imagination.
A crowd greeted the first rider to reach Sacramento, and such crowds occasionally waited for — and applauded — speedy riders. For settlers searching for a quicker connection to the East Coast, it was a breakthrough.
That strong public reception continued after the Pony Express went out of business. It was boosted by champions like Buffalo Bill, who (falsely) claimed he rode for the service and promoted it in his Wild West show. Mark Twain mythologized the show as well, recording the Express in Roughin' It as an American tradition.
Dime novels leapt at the story and exaggerated the heroics of the already-bold riders. Later, in 1948, Hollywood jumped into the saddle with movies like Fort Apache, which strained credulity to insert a Pony Express rider into the action. Together, all these figures served to popularize the Pony Express myth.
Corbett says the appeal of the Pony Express is obvious: it's an American myth without American tragedy. The bloodshed, suffering, and seediness of the Wild West aren't part of the myth of the short-lived delivery service. "It's a benign memory of the Old West," he says. "It's a powerfully romantic figure on the back of a fast horse."
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