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It only lasted a year and a-half, but the legend continues to inspire. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, as well as the demise of the Pony Express. 

Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express Company, later known as “The Pony Express” and “the Pony,” was a costly entrepreneurial venture which began in 1860 by a freighting firm, Russell, Majors & Waddell, who already ran a stage line between the Missouri River and Salt Lake City.  The lengthened Pony route ran from St. Joseph, Missouri, through the territories of Kansas,Nebraska,Colorado,Wyoming,Utah,Nevada, and into the only formal western state of the Union –California.

Californians waited months for letters to arrive, so the Pony Express was welcome, indeed.

Previous mail delivery efforts using mules and even camels, proved unsuccessful.  John “Snowshoe” Thompson famously carried mail on homemade 10’ cross-country skis through high snow packs from Placerville to Carson City.

Eighty riders were hired to ride the Pony; their average age being nineteen.  Rider William Campbell recalled, “Sometimes we used to say that the company had bought up every mean, bucking, kicking horse that could be found, but they were good stock and could outrun anything along the trail.”

On April 3, 1860, riders simultaneously took off fromMissouri and California, east-to-west and west-to-east, to begin the new, fast mail service.  Although some claim it began in San Francisco, the mail was shipped via steamer from San Francisco to Sacramento, where the ride itself actually started. 

Adolph Sutro (later mayor of San Francisco) spoke of a sighting high in the mountains in a blinding snowstorm.  “On the very summit we met a lonely rider dashing along at a tremendous rate.  We wondered what could possibly induce him to go on through that gale, and thought it must be some very important business.  It was the Pony Express.”

In addition to challenges of extreme weather conditions and physical exhaustion, riders faced dangers of tribal attacks.  The Paiute Indian War resulted from an incident which occurred at Williams Station, Nevada, located along the Pony route.  The station had been found burned to the ground, along with three burned, mutilated bodies.  The man who discovered the horrific scene assumed it to be the work of Paiutes, who had a grisly reputation. 

As news spread, the number of bodies and Indians rose in each telling of the story, with panic following in the wake.  Many stations were destroyed and stock run off or stolen.  “The Indians committed great atrocities,” recalled rider William F. Fisher, “burning some of their victims on wood piles, scalping some and badly mutilating others. They had a good many bloody fights.”

Meanwhile, Robert Haslam aka “Pony Bob” was a regular rider on the Nevada-California border.  Unaware of what was happening, he arrived at Carson City, where no fresh horses were to be found, as they had been gathered for a military Indian skirmish.  So, he fed and watered his horse, and continued his ride east. At his next stop, the station keeper had been murdered, station burned and no fresh horses. He continued riding.  At another station, the relief rider, panicked, refused to ride.  The station keeper offered $50 to Haslam to continue, so he did.  He rode on, delivered the mail and returned to his point of origin, without any problems.  He had ridden about 380 miles in thirty-six hours.

For the delivery of Lincoln’s inaugural address to California, Haslam’s leg of the journey was 120 miles in eight hours and ten minutes, using twelve horses. 

“…our work was more strenuous than freighting,” said Campbell.  “It took sheer grit and endurance at times to carry the mail through.”

Rider Richard Cleve recalled riding for seventy-five miles in a raging Nebraska blizzard, and he still had thirty-two miles to the next station.  Just finding the road was next to impossible. “I would get off the horse and look for the road, find it and mount the horse, but in five yards I would lose it again. I tried it several times, but gave it up, so I dismounted and led the horse back and forth until daylight.”

In “Roughing It,” Samuel Clemens (who would become Mark Twain) wrote of the Pony Express. “In a little while all interest was taken up in stretching our necks and watching for the ‘pony rider.’ … carrying letters nineteen hundred miles in eight days!  Think of that for perishable horse and human flesh and blood to do!”

The Pony riders weren’t the only ones racing against time.  They would often pass on communications to those building the telegraph, which would ultimately end the riders’ employment.  Two days after the telegraph to President Lincoln was sent announcing the completion of the cross-country telegraph, the Pony Express went quietly out of business.

“Our little friend, the Pony, is to run no more.”  Sacramento Bee, October 26, 1861

Russell, Majors & Waddell hadn’t been financially solvent at the outset.  When the Pony Express ended, so did any opportunity for future business success.  Majors and Waddell died in financial ruins. 

The romantic saga of the Old West wouldn’t die, however. 

Buffalo Bill Cody’s adventures as a Pony Express rider were actively promoted in dime novels and his traveling Wild West Show, which toured around the country, and Europe, into England, France, Spain, Italyand Germany.  Unfortunately, Cody never actually rode with the Pony Express.  The closest affiliation he had was his two month stint as an eleven-year-old messenger boy for Russell, Majors & Waddell.  

Contrary to popular assumption, Wild Bill Hickok never rode with the Pony, either. 

Hollywood added to the romance of the old west and Pony Express, with its usual fabrication of facts.

Haslam, a true hero of the Pony Express, spent a brief period as a Deputy Marshal, but spent his remaining years drifting around.  He suffered a stroke at age seventy-one and died a year later, penniless, on Chicago’s South Side.  Buffalo Bill paid for his headstone.

You can experience the spirit of the Pony Express as The National Pony Express performs its annual re-ride of the historical Pony route from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento – a distance of 1,966 miles – carrying commemorative and personal letters. 

You can follow real-time coverage at http://www.xphomestation.com, where there will be reports and pictures from the trail. 

Are you at or near one of the historic stops along the Pony Express route?

You Are A Classic

My grandparents had been married 70 years when it came time for them to move into an assisted living facility.  Forced to leave their home and losing their independence was obviously difficult for them.

My mother – their daughter – had passed away a couple of decades previous, so it was up to my brothers and I to overlook the moving process. My grandparents sat next to each other watching, with sad, sad eyes as I emptied cupboards and drawers, and would respond quietly, sometimes with a catch in their voices, whenever they were asked if they wished a particular item to be donated, sold at a yard sale, or gifted. 

My grandfather had served in the Navy the first couple of years in their marriage, so moving was not new for them.  However, they had accumulated a lot of memories in the subsequent decades, and many of them were associated with treasured items – drawings and paintings created by my grandmother before arthritis kicked in, her grandmother’s lace bed coverlet and her mother’s plates, a high school textbook, dance cards, my grandfather’s tools from his basement workshop, his sailor’s uniform last worn in 1930, a sword he obtained in Panama, souvenirs from road trips after their children had grown, silhouettes of the grandchildren when they were in grade school, and so forth.

My brothers claim their part was the most difficult – loading up the few heavy pieces of furniture and boxed items that would fit in their small, new apartment.  I disagree.  I drove them away from their home.  As we pulled away from the curb, my grandfather said, “Good-bye, house.  Good-bye, old house” and started singing, “The Last Roundup,” while my grandmother rifled through her purse looking for her heart medication.

When you’re writing your life story, or helping someone else to write his or hers, ask what treasures are sprinkled throughout the home that have a history; a memory.  It will not only serve as a memory trigger, but the story can accompany the item to its new home.

What items in your home are special to you, and what’s the story behind them?

You Are A Classic

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