By 1860 there were nearly a half million United States citizens living west of the Rockies, not counting the Indians or Chinese. The overland stage lines which had been operating over the Oregon Trail, Santa Fe Trail, and the Salt Lake route proved unsatisfactory as mail carriers as they took from 20 to 30 days to bridge the gap between east and west.

Current in those days was a joke that a California senator’s term might expire while he was traveling to Washington, D.C., to take office. The fact is, however, that it was a California senator who campaigned for faster trans-continental mail service.

In January 1855, Senator William Gwin of California introduced a bill in Congress providing for the establishment of a year-round mail route over the Central Trail through Salt Lake City.

The proposal was to set up stations at intervals along the route, to post men and horses at these stations and relay them from station to station with letters across the continent in both directions at the same rime.

Pony Express Wyoming marker
Pony Express marker at Old Ft. Laramie, Wyoming.

After some consideration in Congress Senator Gwin’s bill was shelved as impractical. For five years the idea gathered dust while Congress looked to other means to transport the mail. By 1859 six different mail routes leading to the Pacific coast were in operation at a tremendous cost to the government.

Most expensive was the mail carried via the New York and New Orleans Steamship Line which sailed every two weeks from New York to San Francisco through the Isthmus of Panama. The service cost the government a half million dollars each year over and above receipts. The four-week schedule of the service made news carried on the ship ancient history on arrival.

It was not until 1860 that Senator Gwin managed to interest William Russell, senior partner of the big pioneer freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, in establishing a mail run through the Central Trail. Russell, so convinced by the senator’s enthusiasm for the project and seeing the possibility of getting a government subsidy to carry the entire overland mail, promised to establish the route.

However, for financial and practical reasons, Russell’s partners were very much against the venture. At length they agreed to honor Russell’s promise, and the new company was incorporated with an initial outlay of $100,000.

Within two months after Russell had given his pledge to Senator Gwin all arrangements had been made for the establishment of the new mail route. The best horses money could buy were obtained, ranging from Thoroughbred stock from Iowa to tough California cayuses and Texas mustangs. A number of fine horses were purchased from Kimball’s Ranch, located 18 miles from Salt Lake City, at an average price of about $200.00 – a high price at that time.

In order to keep the mails moving forward at a maximum rate of speed the routes were carefully mapped and the stations were placed in strategic locations between 10 to 15 miles apart. Each rider was expected to carry the mails about 75 miles at a stretch, changing mounts at each station along the way.

Pony Express Map

There were 190 relay stations, 420 horses, 400 station-keepers and assistants, and 80 riders participating in the operation.

Of necessity both horses and riders traveled light with the combined weight of the saddlebags, bridle, and saddle never exceeding 14 pounds. The mail itself was limited to 20 pounds, but usually totaled only 15 pounds.

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