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Inception And Organization Of The Pony Express

Following the discovery of gold in California in January 1848, that
region sprang into immediate prominence. From all parts of the country
and the remote corners of the earth came the famous Forty-niners. Amid
the chaos of a great mining camp the Anglo-Saxon love of law and order
soon asserted itself. Civil and religious institutions quickly arose,
and, in the summer of 1850, a little more than a year after the big rush
had started, California entered the Union as a free state.

The boom went on and the census of 1860 revealed a population of 380,000
in the new commonwealth. And when to these figures were added those of
Oregon and Washington Territory, an aggregate of 444,000 citizens of the
United States were found to be living on the Pacific Slope. Crossing the
Sierras eastward and into the Great Basin, 47,000 more were located in
the Territories of Nevada and Utah, - thus making a grand total of
nearly a half million people beyond the Rocky Mountains in 1860. And
these figures did not include Indians nor Chinese.

Without reference to any military phase of the problem, this detached
population obviously demanded and deserved adequate mail and
transportation facilities. How to secure the quickest and most
dependable communication with the populous sections of the East had long
been a serious proposition. Private corporations and Congress had not
been wholly insensible to the needs of the West. Subsidized stage routes
had for some years been in operation, and by the close of 1858 several
lines were well-equipped and doing much business over the so-called
Southern and Central routes. Perhaps the most common route for sending
mail from the East to the Pacific Coast was by steamship from New York
to Panama where it was unloaded, hurried across the Isthmus, and again
shipped by water to San Francisco. All these lines of traffic were slow
and tedious, a letter in any case requiring from three to four weeks to
reach its destination. The need of a more rapid system of communication
between the East and West at once became apparent and it was to supply
this need that the Pony Express really came into existence.

The story goes that in the autumn of 1854, United States Senator William
Gwin of California was making an overland trip on horseback from San
Francisco to Washington, D. C. He was following the Central route via
Salt Lake and South Pass, and during a portion of his journey he had for
a traveling companion, Mr. B. F. Ficklin, then General Superintendent
for the big freighting and stage firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell of
Leavenworth. Ficklin, it seems, was a resourceful and progressive man,
and had long been engaged in the overland transportation business. He
had already conceived an idea for establishing a much closer transit
service between the Missouri river and the Coast, but, as is the case
with many innovators, had never gained a serious hearing. He had the
traffic agent's natural desire to better the existing service in the
territory which his line served; and he had the ambition of a loyal
employee to put into effect a plan that would bring added honor and
preferment to his firm. In addition to possessing these worthy ideals,
it is perhaps not unfair to state that Ficklin was personally ambitious.

Nevertheless, Ficklin confided his scheme enthusiastically to Senator
Gwin, at the same time pointing out the benefits that would accrue to
California should it ever be put into execution. The Senator at once saw
the merits of the plan and quickly caught the contagion. Not only was he
enough of a statesman to appreciate the worth of a fast mail line across
the continent, but he was also a good enough politician to realize that
his position with his constituents and the country at large might be
greatly strengthened were he to champion the enactment of a popular
measure that would encourage the building of such a line through the aid
of a Federal subsidy.

So in January, 1855, Gwin introduced in the Senate a bill which proposed
to establish a weekly letter express service between St. Louis and San
Francisco. The express was to operate on a ten-day schedule, follow the
Central Route, and was to receive a compensation not exceeding $500.00
for each round trip. This bill was referred to the Committee on Military
Affairs where it was quietly tabled and "killed."

For the next five years the attention of Congress was largely taken up
with the anti-slavery troubles that led to secession and war. Although
the people of the West, and the Pacific Coast in particular, continued
to agitate the need of a new and quick through mail service, for a long
time little was done. It has been claimed that southern representatives
in Congress during the decade before the war managed to prevent any
legislation favorable to overland mail routes running North of the
slave-holding states; and that they concentrated their strength to
render government aid to the southern routes whenever possible.

At that time there were three generally recognized lines of mail
traffic, of which the Panama line was by far the most important. Next
came the so-called southern or "Butterfield" route which started from
St. Louis and ran far to the southward, entering California from the
extreme southeast corner of the state; a goodly amount of mail being
sent in this direction. The Central route followed the Platte River into
Wyoming and reached Sacramento via Salt Lake City, almost from a due
easterly direction. On account of its location this route or trail could
be easily controlled by the North in case of war. It had received very
meagre support from the Government, and carried as a rule, only local
mail. While the most direct route to San Francisco, it had been rendered
the least important. This was not due solely to Congressional
manipulation. Because of its northern latitude and the numerous high
mountain ranges it traversed, this course was often blockaded with deep
snows and was generally regarded as extremely difficult of access during
the winter months.

While a majority of the people of California were loyal to the Union,
there was a vigorous minority intensely in sympathy with the southern
cause and ready to conspire for, or bring about by force of arms if
necessary, the secession of their state. As the Civil War became more
and more imminent, it became obvious to Union men in both East and West
that the existing lines of communication were untrustworthy. Just as
soon as trouble should start, the Confederacy could, and most certainly
would, gain control of the southern mail routes. Once in control, she
could isolate the Pacific coast for many months and thus enable her
sympathizers there the more effectually to perfect their plans of
secession. Or she might take advantage of these lines of travel, and, by
striking swiftly and suddenly, organize and reinforce her followers in
California, intimidate the Unionists, many of whom were apathetic, and
by a single bold stroke snatch the prize away from her antagonist before
the latter should have had time to act.

To avert this crisis some daring and original plan of communication had
to be organized to keep the East and West in close contact with each
other; and the Pony Express was the fulfillment of such a plan, for it
made a close cooperation between the California loyalists and the
Federal Government possible until after the crisis did pass. Yet,
strange as it may seem, this providential enterprise was not brought
into existence nor even materially aided by the Government. It was
organized and operated by a private corporation after having been
encouraged in its inception by a United States Senator who later turned
traitor to his country.

It finally happened that in the winter of 1859-60, Mr. William Russell,
senior partner of the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, was called
to Washington in connection with some Government freight contracts.
While there he chanced to become acquainted with Senator Gwin who,
having been aroused, as we have seen, several years before, by one of
the firm's subordinates, at once brought before Mr. Russell the need of
better mail connections over the Central route, and of the especial need
of better communication should war occur.

Russell at once awoke to the situation. While a loyal citizen and fully
alive to the strategic importance which the matter involved, he also
believed that he saw a good business opening. Could his firm but grasp
the opportunity, and demonstrate the possibility of keeping the Central
route open during the winter months, and could they but lower the
schedule of the Panama line, a Government contract giving them a virtual
monopoly in carrying the transcontinental mail might eventually be

He at once hurried West, and at Fort Leavenworth met his partners,
Messrs. Majors and Waddell, to whom he confidently submitted the new
proposition. Much to Russell's chagrin, these gentlemen were not elated
over the plan. While passively interested, they keenly foresaw the great
cost which a year around overland fast mail service would involve. They
were unable to see any chance of the enterprise paying expenses, to say
nothing of profits. But Russell, with cheerful optimism, contended that
while the project might temporarily be a losing venture, it would pay
out in time. He asserted that the opportunity of making good with a hard
undertaking - one that had been held impossible of realization - would
be a strong asset to the firm's reputation. He also declared that in his
conversation with Gwin he had already committed their company to the
undertaking, and he did not see how they could, with honor and
propriety, evade the responsibility of attempting it. Knowledge of the
last mentioned fact at once enlisted the support or his partners.
Probably no firm has ever surpassed in integrity that of Russell,
Majors, and Waddell, famous throughout the West in the freighting and
mail business before the advent of railroads in that section of the men,
the verbal promise of one of their number was a binding guarantee and as
sacredly respected as a bonded obligation. Finding themselves thus
committed, they at once began preparations with tremendous activity. All
this happened early in the year 1860.

The first step was to form a corporation, the more adequately to conduct
the enterprise; and to that end the Central Overland California and
Pike's Peak Express Company was organized under a charter granted by the
Territory of Kansas. Besides the three original members of the firm, the
incorporators included General Superintendent B. F. Ficklin, together
with F. A. Bee, W. W. Finney, and John S. Jones, all tried and
trustworthy stage employees who were retained on account of their wide
experience in the overland traffic business. The new concern then took
over the old stage line from Atchison to Salt Lake City and purchased
the mail route and outfit then operating between Salt Lake City and
Sacramento. The latter, which had been running a monthly round trip
stage between these terminals, was known as the West End Division of the
Central Route, and was called the Chorpenning line.

Besides conducting the Pony Express, the corporation aimed to continue a
large passenger and freighting business, so it next absorbed the
Leavenworth and Pike's Peak Express Co., which had been organized a year
previously and had maintained a daily stage between Leavenworth and
Denver, on the Smoky Hill River Route.

By mutual agreement, Mr. Russell assumed managerial charge of the
Eastern Division of the Pony Express line which lay between St. Joseph
and Salt Lake City. Ficklin was stationed at Salt Lake City, the middle
point, in a similar capacity. Finney was made Western manager with
headquarters at San Francisco. These men now had to revise the route to
be traversed, equip it with relay or relief stations which must be
provisioned for men and horses, hire dependable men as station-keepers
and riders, and buy high grade horses[1] or ponies for the entire
course, nearly two thousand miles in extent. Between St. Joseph and Salt
Lake City, the company had its old stage route which was already well
supplied with stations. West of Salt Lake the old Chorpenning route had
been poorly equipped, which made it necessary to erect new stations over
much of this course of more than seven hundred miles. The entire line of
travel had to be altered in many places, in some instances to shorten
the distance, and in others, to avoid as much as possible, wild places
where Indians might easily ambush the riders.

The management was fortunate in having the assistance of expert
subordinates. A. B. Miller of Leavenworth, a noteworthy employe of the
original firm, was invaluable in helping to formulate the general plans
of organization. At Salt Lake City, Ficklin secured the services of J.
C. Brumley, resident agent of the company, whose vast knowledge of the
route and the country that it covered enabled him quickly to work out a
schedule, and to ascertain with remarkable accuracy the number of relay
and supply stations, their best location, and also the number of horses
and men needed. At Carson City, Nevada, Bolivar Roberts, local
superintendent of the Western Division, hired upwards of sixty riders,
cool-headed nervy men, hardened by years of life in the open. Horses
were purchased throughout the West. They were the best that money could
buy and ranged from tough California cayuses or mustangs to thoroughbred
stock from Iowa. They were bought at an average figure of $200.00 each,
a high price in those days. The men were the pick of the frontier; no
more expressive description of their qualities can be given. They were
hired at salaries varying from $50.00 to $150.00 per month, the riders
receiving the highest pay of any below executive rank. When fully
equipped, the line comprised 190 stations, about 420 horses, 400 station
men and assistants and eighty riders. These are approximate figures, as
they varied slightly from time to time.

Perfecting these plans and assembling this array of splendid equipment
had been no easy task, yet so well had the organizers understood their
business, and so persistently, yet quietly, had they worked, that they
accomplished their purpose and made ready within two months after the
project had been launched. The public was scarcely aware of what was
going on until conspicuous advertisements announced the Pony Express. It
was planned to open the line early in April.

[1] While always called the Pony Express, there were many blooded horses
as well as ponies in the service. The distinction between these types of
animals is of course well known to the average reader. Probably "Pony"
Express "sounded better" than any other name for the service, hence the
adoption of this name by the firm and the public at large. This book
will use the words horse and pony indiscriminately.

Next: The First Trip And Triumph

Previous: At A Nation's Crisis

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