The Pony Express: A Race Against Time


In St. Joseph, Missouri, the curious and excited citizens had gathered at Pike’s Peak Livery barn on Second Street. Precisely at 5:00 p.m. on April 3, 1860, the doors were thrown open and out raced a coal black horse with John W. “Billy” Richardson riding it. Flags were snapping smartly in the breeze, the crowds cheered, and a cannon boomed, and so started what was to be the short-lived Pony Express Mail Service from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California. Billy Richardson dashed his horse down the street lined with residents and visitors, threw the mochila, or four-pocket mail pouch, across the pommel of the saddle, and soon sprang from the banks of the Missouri River onto the steam ferry which would take him to the Kansas side. He’d ride slightly north, then into Nebraska. Subsequent riders would continue through Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and into California. The first trip took 9 days and 23 hours, and as the rider–not Billy by this time–arrived in Sacramento, he was greeted by tolling bells, the blare of a brass band, and more cannon booms.

The businessmen who partnered to found the Pony Express, Messrs Russell, Majors, and Waddell had to build way stations every 10 miles for a fresh horse, and a sleeping and mess lodge every 80 miles, so a fresh rider could continue the trip. A rider was expected to grab the mochila and switch horses in under two minutes. Advertisements for riders sought wiry men not over 18, under 145 lbs., preferably orphans. The riders were well paid for the time, about $100.00 a month. No wonder it cost $5.00 to send a half-ounce letter and up to $25.00 for some heavier documents. Not surprisingly, when the advent of the telegraph put the Pony Express out of business in October of 1861, the owners lost $100,000.00 on the venture.

At the end of the 18-month run, a grand total of 308 trips were made, logging about 616,000 miles, with each mochila packed with up to 20 pounds of mail. The youngest rider was a lad of 11 years. Only one rider was killed outright and scalped, as most riders could out-run Indian ponies. Many men, however, were killed while manning the way stations.

One local Utah connection, recently discovered, was a Kaysville man named James Larkins who, at age 17 or 18, was a Pony Express rider on the section of the trail from Salt Lake City to Iosepa, now a ghost town, in the Skull Valley area of the Utah Territory, about 75 miles southwest of Salt Lake City in Tooele County. After saving his money, he eventually invested in sheep and property in Kaysville and became quite wealthy.

This article was written by Sue Warren, a Syracuse Museum Volunteer who has since passed away. We appreciate the hard work and dedication of all volunteers who work to preserve and share these stories that help us see where we’ve been. This is further evidence that how we spend our life can make an impact long after we are gone. –Hailey Minton

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