The pony express was operated by the freighting firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell. As a business venture, it was unsuccessful. Before the pony express, letters to and from California had been carried by ships, wagon trains, and stagecoaches and had required much more time for the journey. The first telegram to San Francisco was transmitted Oct. 24, 1861, and the pony express was then gradually discontinued. Its existence was brief but picturesque, and the pony express lives in legend as well as in history. In 1992 the Pony Express National Historic Trail, which covers the entire route followed by pony express riders, was designated part of the National Trails System (see National Parks and Monuments (table)).
See L. R. Hafen, The Overland Mail (1926); A. Chapman, The Pony Express (1932, repr. 1971); R. W. Settle and M. A. L. Settle, Saddles and Spurs (1955, repr. 1972); G. D. Bradley, Story of the Pony Express (2d ed. 1960); M. Mattes and P. Henderson, The Pony Express from St. Joseph to Fort Laramie (1989).
The original fast mail service had messages carried by horseback riders relay across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States. It briefly reduced the time for mail to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts to around ten days. By traveling an easier shorter route and using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches, the founders of the Pony Express hoped to establish their service as a faster and more reliable conduit for the mail and win away the exclusive government mail contract.
The Pony Express demonstrated that a unified transcontinental system could be built and operated continuously the year around — something not seen since the times of the Romans in Europe or Mongols in Asia. Since its replacement by the First Transcontinental Telegraph, the Pony Express became part of the romance of the American West. Its reliance on the ability and endurance of the individual riders and horses over technological innovation is part of "American rugged individualism".
Founded by William Hepburn Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors, the Pony Express was officially established on April 3, 1860. The first trip, westbound, was made in 10 days, 7 hours, and 45 minutes. The eastbound trip was made in 11 days and 12 hours. Every 24 hours they covered approximately 250 miles. The Pony Express, established a year before the beginning of the American Civil War, reflected the need to provide fast and reliable communication with the West.
In 1845, it took President James K. Polk six months to deliver a message to the Far West. At the time, messages to the west coast had to travel by ship around the tip of South America or by ship-train-and ship again across the isthmus of Panama.
By 1860, the fastest route was the Butterfield Stage line from St. Louis, Missouri, through El Paso, Texas, which took 25 days. It was almost 600 miles (950 km) shorter to deliver the mail over a central or northern route. There were concerns, however, whether these alternatives were viable during the winter snows.
In 1854, Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, an employee of the firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell, is said to have first proposed a faster northern route to California. Senator William M. Gwin. Russell, Majors and Waddell, headquartered in Lexington, Missouri (the hometown of Russell and Waddell), was one of the biggest outfitters for travelers on the Santa Fe and Oregon trails. The firm operated a vast complex in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Missouri, and also outfitted the army from its western base at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
In October 1857, Russell, Majors and Waddell faced financial ruin when Lot Smith and his Nauvoo Legion destroyed 54 of their wagons during the Utah War. The Army did not reimburse the firm, and the company began looking for other avenues for funds. In 1859, they bought from Ben Holladay the contract to deliver mail between Leavenworth and Salt Lake City, Utah.
On January 27, 1860, William Hepburn Russell wired the firm from Leavenworth that Gwin was supporting a contract for California service on the central route provided that it be delivered in 10 days and be ready to debut by April. They renamed their Leavenworth & Pikes Peak Express to the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to attempt the feat.
The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad had just opened in 1859 and was the first railroad to cross Missouri. It was 30 miles (48 km) up the Missouri River from Leavenworth in St. Joseph. It was determined that this would be the starting point for a rapid central mail route to California.
Alexander Majors and Ficklin assembled 190 relay stations over 1,966 miles (3,106 km) from St. Joseph to Sacramento, along with 50 riders and 500 horses. They completed the task in time for the April 3, 1860, opening. Ficklin later clashed with Russell and quit the business in July 1860. He became one of the incorporators of the Pacific Telegraph Company.
The route roughly followed the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail and California Trail. After crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph to Kansas, it followed what is modern day US 36—the Pony Express Highway—to Marysville, Kansas, where it turned northwest following Little Blue River to Fort Kearney in Nebraska. Through Nebraska it followed the Great Platte River Road, cutting through Gothenburg, Nebraska and passing Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, clipping the edge of Colorado at Julesburg, Colorado, before arriving Fort Laramie in Wyoming. From there it followed the Sweetwater River, passing Independence Rock, Devil's Gate, and Split Rock, to Fort Caspar, through South Pass to Fort Bridger and then down to Salt Lake City. It crossed the Great Basin, the Utah-Nevada Desert, and the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe before arriving in Sacramento. Mail was then sent via steamer down the Sacramento River to San Francisco. On a few instances when the steamer was missed, riders took the mail via horseback to Oakland, California.
St. Joseph Mayor M. Jeff Thompson, William Russell and Alexander Majors gave speeches before the mochila was handed off. There is debate over who actually was the first rider. The ride began at about 7:15 p.m.
The first horse-ridden leg of the Express was only about a half mile (800 m) from the Express stables/railroad area to the Missouri River ferry at the foot of Jules Street. Johnny Fry is credited as the first westbound rider who carried the pouch across the Missouri River ferry to Elwood, Kansas. Reports indicated that horse and rider crossed the river; however, subsequently, the courier crossed the river without a horse, getting the mount at a stable on the other side.
Nevertheless, the first westbound mochila reached its destination, San Francisco, on April 14, at 1:00 a.m.
Although the Pony Express proved that the central/northern route was viable, Russell, Majors, and Waddell did not get the contract to deliver mail over the route. The contract was instead awarded to Jeremy Dehut in March 1861, who had taken over the Butterfield Stage. Holladay took over the Russell, Majors and Waddell stations for his stagecoaches. From March 1861, the Pony Express only ran mail between Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The Pony Express announced its closure on October 26, 1861, two days after the Transcontinental Telegraph reached Salt Lake City.
The Pony Express had grossed $90,000 and lost $200,000. In 1866, after the American Civil War was over, Holladay sold the Pony Express assets along with the remnants of the Butterfield Stage to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.
Wells Fargo used the Pony Express logo for its guard and armored car service. The logo continued to be used when other companies took over the security business into the 1990s. Effective 2001, the Pony Express logo was no longer used for security businesses since the business has been sold.
"Pony Express" is a trademarked name used by Freight Link international courier services company in Russia; their logo is also similar to the one trademarked by United States Postal Service with "Since 1860" written under the image.