Exploring the Beginning of the Pony Express in St. Joseph Missouri

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Standing in the 150 year old stables of the legendary Pony Express in St. Joseph Missouri, I was impressed by two verifiable facts of history:

  1. That in this day of 140-character instant global messaging there was a time when it took more than a month to send a message from Washington, DC to Sacramento, California.
  2. And that both parties the United State Congress could actually agree on something – a solution to the problem of communication with America’s west coast.

The solution was the legendary Pony Express and for 18 months it was the fastest, most innovative and exciting form of communication in North America. The end of the railroad west was in St. Joseph, so mail came that far by train. Then a relay system of hardy young riders on horseback who literally rode night and day for nearly 2,000 miles delivered mail to Sacramento in an unequaled time of 10 days.

In You Bucket Because …

  • You love horses, history and heroes.
  • You’re intrigued by innovation solutions, no matter when they were implemented.
  • Good for those fascinated by the danger and drama of the Old West.

Riding the Pony Express Trail

Johnny Fry was that first rider, bolting out of the stables at 9th and Penn Streets in St. Joseph at 7:15 p.m. on April 3, 1860 carrying 49 letters and five personal telegraphs. Crowds lined the streets, applauding, cheering and slapping the horse on the rump as that first ride began.

The Pony Express Statue in downtown St. Joseph, Missouri. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The Pony Express Statue in downtown St. Joseph, Missouri. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

“We had orders on that first ride to do our level best,” reported rider George Washington Perkins who was a little farther down the trail. “My run on that record-breaking ride was 57 miles. I had to make it with just one horse and I made the run in mighty good time considering the distance, but I killed the poor horse in doing it.”

About 200 riders, each weighing less than 125 pounds, rode a horse at full gallop about 100 miles night and day, crossing mountains, rivers, desert, through hostile Indian territory and without regard to blizzards, tornadoes or the beating sun. Only one rider died on the trail and only once was a bag of mail lost. For 18 months, at any time of the day or night, as many as five Pony Express riders were on horseback somewhere between St. Joseph Missouri and Sacramento California.

Dispelling the Myth of the Pony Express

Photo by Bruce N Meyer

Photo by Bruce N Meyer

Because it operated only 18 months, and because no one really thought what they were doing was a big deal, and because the company was bankrupt when the last rider delivered mail on October 26, 1861, very few records were kept. That, combined with embellished stories over the years and a few extra “facts” for good measure produced by Hollywood, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to the Pony Express.

However, one myth that historians work to clarify is that the Pony Express was a failed enterprise.

“It was not intended to last forever,” says Jackie Lewin, executive director of the St. Joseph Museums. “This was just a stop-gap until the telegraph and better stage coach routes could be put in place. It was actually incredibly successful.”

Visiting St. Joseph Missouri

When visiting St. Joseph (locals call it St. Jo), a few key Pony Express stops include the Patee House Museum. An elegant hotel with bathrooms and running water when it opened in 1858, the Patee House served as the business office for the Pony Express. Riders were said to have ridden horses right into the hotel to pick up the mail. A railroad mail car at the Patee House allows you to see where the mail was sorted and ready to hand-off to officials in St. Joseph as soon as the train arrived.

The Patee House Hotel was the headquarters for the Pony Express. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

The Patee House Hotel was the headquarters for the Pony Express. Photo by Bruce N. Meyer

Three blocks away are the original stables of the Pony Express, built in 1858, the same time the Patee House was under construction. It’s possible to see several levels of foundation and construction over the years. There’s also a re-created a relay station where horses and riders rested. A real one remains in Gothenberg, Nebraska. Kids have a lot of fun sorting mail under the pressure of a stopwatch. You can choose an appropriate horse for your body style and the landscape particular to that particular leg of the trail you are assigned to ride.

Another good stop for true Pony Express fans is the Mount Mora Cemetery – the final resting place of two Pony Express riders, Charlie Cliff and James Benjamin Hamilton. Their graves are marked with black wrought iron hitching posts shaped in the image of a horse. Also buried at Mount Mora is John Patee, who built the Patee House, and John Landis, the man who designed the “mochilla” or mail pouches that the Pony Express riders carried.

Send Mail Via The Pony Express

Each June the National Pony Express Association re-rides the route. For $5, the public may send mail along, receiving a special stamp that it was carried by the Pony Express. To have a letter carried via Pony Express rider, send all of the appropriate names/addresses and a check for $5 made payable to the Missouri Chapter of the National Pony Express Association.

Send it all to:

Missouri Chapter of the National Pony Express Association

P.O. Box 1022

St. Joseph, Missouri 64152

Practicalities:

  • St. Joseph is located about 40 minutes north of the Kansas City International Airport. Public transportation is limited. You will need a private automobile.
  • Schedule a tour of the Mount Mora Cemetery by calling 816-232-8471.
  • While in St. Jo, make plans to visit the Jesse James House Museum.

About 

From riding camels in Egypt and climbing glaciers in Alaska, Diana Lambdin Meyer has found the adventure she had always dreamed a job and life could provide. Sharing those adventures and stories with Diana is her husband, Bruce, a photographer who, if possible, has greater wanderlust than Diana. Together, they have been published in just about any medium known to human kind. Members of the Society of American Travel Writers, Bruce and Diana are based in Kansas City, Missouri. Check out their iPhone app "Kansas City Uncovered."

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