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Passing Of The Pony Express

When Edward Creighton completed the Pacific telegraph, and, on October

24, 1861, began sending messages; by wire from coast to coast, the

California Pony Express formally went out of existence. For over three

months since July 1, it had been paralleled by the daily overland stage;

yet the great efficiency of the semi-weekly pony line in offering quick

letter service won and retained its popularity to the very end of its

career. And this was in spite of the fact that for several weeks before

its discontinuance the pony men had ridden only between the ends of the

fast building telegraph which was constructed in two divisions - from

the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Missouri River - at the same time,

the lines meeting near the Great Salt Lake.

The people of the far West strongly protested against the elimination of

the pony line service. Early in the winter of 1862 it became rumored -

perhaps wildly - that the Committee on Finance in the House of

Representatives had, for reasons of economy, stricken out the

appropriation for the continuance of the daily stage. Whereupon the

California legislature[41] addressed a set of joint resolutions to the

state's delegation in Congress, imploring not only that the Daily Stage

be retained, but that the Pony Express be reestablished. The stage was

continued but the pony line was never restored.

As a financial venture the Pony Express failed completely. To be sure,

its receipts were sometimes heavy, often aggregating one thousand

dollars in a single day. But the expenses, on the other hand, were

enormous. Although the line was so great a factor in the California

crisis, and in assisting the Federal Government to retain the Pacific

Coast, it was the irony of fate that Congress should never give any

direct relief or financial assistance to the pony service. So completely

was this organization neglected by the government, in so far as

extending financial aid was concerned, that its financial failure, as

foreseen by Messrs. Waddell and Majors, was certain from the beginning.

The War Department did issue army revolvers and cartridges to the

riders; and the Federal troops when available, could always be relied

upon to protect the line. Yet it was generally left to the initiative

and resourcefulness of the company to defend itself as best it could

when most seriously menaced by Indians. The apparent apathy regarding

this valuable branch of the postal service can of course be partially

excused from the fact that the Civil War was in 1861 absorbing all the

energies which the Government could summon to its command. And the war,

furthermore, was playing havoc with our national finances and piling up

a tremendous national debt, which made the extension of pecuniary relief

to quasi-private operations of this kind, no matter how useful they

were, a remote possibility.

That the stage lines received the assistance they did, under such

circumstances, is to be wondered at. Yet it must be borne in mind that

at the outset much of the political support necessary to secure

appropriations for overland mail routes was derived from southern

congressmen who were anxious for routes of communication with the West

coast, especially if such routes ran through the Southwest and linked

the cotton-growing states with California.

At the very beginning, it cost about one hundred thousand dollars to

equip the Pony Express line in those days a very considerable outlay of

capital for a private corporation. Besides the purchase of more than

four hundred high grade horses, it cost large sums of money to build and

equip stations at intervals of every ten or twelve miles throughout the

long route. The wages of eighty riders and about four hundred station

men, not to mention a score of Division Superintendents was a large


Most of the grain used along the line between St. Joseph and Salt Lake

City was purchased in Iowa and Missouri and shipped in wagons at a

freight rate of from ten cents to twenty cents a pound. Grain and food

stuffs for use between Salt Lake City and the Sierras were usually

bought in Utah and hauled from two hundred to seven hundred miles to the

respective stations. Hay, gathered wherever wild grasses could be found

and cured, often had to be freighted hundreds of miles.

The operating expenses of the line aggregated about thirty thousand

dollars a month, which would alone have insured a deficit as the monthly

income never equaled that amount.

A conspicuous bill of expense which helped to bankrupt the enterprise

was for protection against the savages. While this should have been

furnished by the Government or the local state or territorial militia,

it was the fate of the Company to bear the brunt of one of the worst

Indian outbreaks of that decade.

Early in 1860, shortly after the Pony Express was started, the Pah-Utes,

mention of whom has already been made, began hostilities under their

renowned chieftain Old Winnemucca. The uprising spread; soon the

Bannocks and Shoshones espoused the cause of the Utes, and the entire

territory of Nevada, Eastern California and Oregon was aflame with

Indian revolt. Besides devastating many white settlements wherever they

found them, the Indians destroyed nearly every pony station between

California and Salt Lake, murdered numbers of employes, and ran off

scores of horses. For several weeks the service was paralyzed, and had

it been in the hands of faint-hearted men it would have been ended then

and there.

The climax came with the defeat and massacre of Major Ormsby's force of

about fifty men by the Utes at the battle of Pyramid Lake in western

Nevada. Help was finally sent in from a distance, and before the first

of June, eight hundred men, including three hundred regulars and a large

number of California and Nevada volunteers, had taken the field. This

formidable campaign finally served the double purpose of protecting the

Pony Express and stage line and in subduing the Indians in a primitive

and effective manner. Order was restored and the express service resumed

on June 19. Desultory outbreaks, of course, continued to menace the line

and all forms of transportation for months afterwards.

During this campaign, the local officers and employes of the express

gave valiant service. It was remarkable that they could restore the line

so quickly as they did. The total expense of this war to the Company was

$75,000, caused by ruined and stolen property and outlays for military

supplies incidental to the equipment of volunteers.

This onslaught, coming so soon after the enterprise had begun, and when

there was already so little encouragement that the line would ever pay

out financially, must have disheartened less courageous men than

Russell, Majors and Waddell and their associates. It is to their

everlasting credit that this group of men possessed the perseverance and

patriotic determination to continue the enterprise, even at a certain

loss, and in spite of Federal neglect, until the telegraph made it

possible to dispense with the fleet pony rider. Not only did they stick

bravely to their task of supplying a wonderful mail service to the

country, but they even improved their service, increasing it from a

weekly to a semi-weekly route, immediately after the disastrous raids of

June, 1860. Nor did they hesitate at the instigation of the Government a

little later to reduce their postal rates from five dollars to one

dollar a half ounce.

This condensed statement shows the approximate deficit which the

business incurred:

To equip the line .....................................$100,000

Maintenance at $30,000 per month (for sixteen months). $480,000

War with the Utes and allied tribes ................... $75,000

Sundry items ...........................................$45,000

Total ................................................ $700,000

The receipts are said to have been about $500,000 leaving a debit

balance of $200,000. That the Company changed hands in 1861 is not


While the Pony Express failed in a financial way; it had served the

country faithfully and well. It had aided an imperiled Government,

helped to tranquilize and retain to the Union a giant commonwealth, and

it had shown the practicability of building a transcontinental railroad,

and keeping it open for traffic regardless of winter snows. All this

Pony Express did and more. It marked the supreme triumph of American

spirit, of God-fearing, man-defying American pluck and determination -

qualities which have always characterized the winning of the West.

[41] Senate Documents.