In the 1850s, North America experienced a vast westward expansion of its population, as well as an enormous boon in physical and material growth. At the end of the decade, though, came the expectation that news of a civil war was soon to erupt, and that signified an increased and immediate need for information traveling to and from the western part of the country (Walker, 2012).
At this time, messages from the eastern seaboard heading to California initially went by boat to the isthmus of Panama. It was then moved over land and placed again on a steamer ship, which went to San Francisco. This trip severely cut back the time involved than sailing around South America’s tip, but it still required six weeks at a minimum under optimal conditions, which was seldom the case. There were two routes within the United States heading to California over land, but both – the Oregon Trial and the Santa Fe Trail – had severe problems, which included arduous ground, as well as the threat of Indian attacks. The foundations for the telegraph had been established in the 1830s, but the technology was limited, and it had not yet caught on as a viable communications alternative (Schwseikart, 2012).
Demand for efficient mail – and freight – also increased substantially when, in 1859, miners in Colorado discovered both silver and gold. A number of different companies competed for the market to ship the freight, but the most successful of these was unquestionably the outfitting business of Majors, Russell, & Company. The company, which later became known as Russell, Majors, and Waddell, hired more than thousands of men to wrangle the more than 75,000 oxen required for the business (Schwseikart, 2012).
William Russell was a born businessman and quick to grasp new opportunities. It made it easy to collaborate with Alexander Majors, who had worked oxen and land and ridden on the commerce trails all his life. An committed Presbyterian, Majors “demanded that all his employees sign a pledge promising not to use profanity, get drunk, gamble, or treat the animals badly (Schwseikart, 2012).” His beliefs and actions draped him with a sense of integrity that no other man could give him, no matter what the cost. It also complemented Russell’s inherent sense of bureaucratic genius. Once Russell had established the business, he headed back to the east coast to represent his business in the major population centers there.
A third partner, William B. Waddell, joined the team in January 1855, and the three formed a major freight operation in the process. The business divided itself naturally: Russell worked comfortably in the polished urban centers of the east, Majors stayed in the saddle heading west, and Waddell operated between the two, handling the finances and office work.
Still, though, there was the original mail problem with which to contend. Russell, ever the opportunist, used the Postmaster’s displeasure with the current service, as well as the impending sense of war, to organize a company similar to that of Mongol riders in China. The route would cover 1,966 miles, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, and the company would establish outposts along the way that would allow riders to rest and to change horses for the next leg of their journey. The firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell financed what became known as the Pony Express service entirely on their own, purchasing supplies, establishing each of the almost 100 stations, and acquiring all the horses and riders for the endeavor.
Their ads recruiting riders for the demanding and dangerous job were bold: “Wanted – young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week. (Schwseikart, 2012).” Those riders were expected to ride hard between stations, and they had to change horses somewhere between six to eight times during the back and forth trip. Lateness and failure were not acceptable; the Pony Express relied on the motto, “The Mail Must Go Through.”
The service opened officially on April 3, 1860. Riders departed from St. Joseph, Missouri, and from Sacramento, California at the same time, each destined for the other’s location. The first westbound trip was made in 9 days and 23 hours and the eastbound trip in 11 days and 12 hours (St. Joseph, 2011), with the riders covering 250 miles within a 24-hour period, a standard amount for the duration of the service. And while the riders were the hired hands of the transportation system, there were five division superintendents who provided the bulk of the business’s administration. Each was required to have intimate knowledge of the route and the terrain, and, when hired, he had only two months to become operational – that included hiring riders, purchasing horses and supplies (i.e. blankets, saddles, etc.), and stocking the station. The company spared no expense – each of the 800 or so horses cost between $150 to $200, a great sum at the time, and it was expected to be able to handle a 12-hour shift. Speed was the most important factor, though, as it was easier to outrun Indians than to outfight them (Schwseikart, 2012).
Despite its ingenious concept and rigorous implementation, however, the Pony Express lasted only about 18 months, closing its doors on October 24, 1861 when the Pacific telegraph line was finally connected, enabling communication in minutes rather than days from coast to coast. Despite having made 300 runs each way and traversing about 616,000 miles with almost 35,000 pieces of mail (and losing only one piece during all that time), the company could not sustain itself financially (St. Joseph, 2011). By some estimates the owners had laid out $200,000 in materials and supplies for the endeavor but made only $90,000 of that back (Ruff, 2002). California did rely upon Pony Express news during the early part of the Civil War, but with the bankruptcy of the company, that, too, was short-lived, killed off first by the technology of the telegraph and then, a decade later, by the establishment of the transcontinental railroad (Schwseikart, 2012).
Despite its tight organization and broad implementation, the Pony Express was the ultimate example of “downsizing,” failing to sustain itself as a viable business due to developing technology and cost (Schwseikart, 2012). Yet the Pony Express captured the imagination of a nation and came to symbolize efficiency, effective communication, and a tenacity of its personnel. Regardless of its failure, it still serves as an example of American ingenuity and business acumen, delivering what was needed at the time to a population that was eager to receive it; it is an example we would do well to remember as we push the limits of our own era of technology.
“The Pony Express.” St. Joseph Convention & Visitors Bureau. 2011. Web. 24 Nov. 2012.
Ruff, M. “The Pony Express,” in Speed Reading and Reading Comprehension. Silver Spring: 2002. Print.
Schwseikart, L. “Downsizing, 1860s-Style: Lessons from the Pony Express.” Fee.org. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2012.
Walker, Bekkah. “The Pony Express.” BekkahWalker.net. 2012. Web. 23 Nov. 2012.