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The Pony Express

Inception | Mochila | Stations | Riders | Chronology

Young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18.
Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.
Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week


Out went the call in 1860. And the applicants streamed in. The position? Riders for the first overland mail courier service connecting the eastern States with California, the Pony Express.

About 80 young riders were in use at any one time in this ambitious enterprise of delivering the mail cross-country in 10 days -- the Pony Express. In addition, some 400 other employees included station keepers, stock tenders and route superintendents. Riders were paid $100 to $125 per month.

Dozens of applicants competed for jobs, not only willing but eager to accept the life-threatening rigors they would soon experience. Mark Twain, who saw the Pony Express in action first hand, described a rider as: "... usually a little bit of a man". Though small in stature, their untarnished record proved them to have hearts of lions. History would record that they were among the most durable horsemen ever.

Its Inception

To meet the need for a more dependable communication with the West, the stage and freight company of Russell, Majors, and Waddell proposed a mail relay service between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Benjamin Franklin had organized pony-delivered mail service in eastern areas, but historians disagree on who had the first idea for a western Pony Express. However, it was William H. Russell, conferring early in 1860 with California's U. S. Senator William Gwen, then Chairman of the Senate Post Office and Post Roads Committee, who was responsible for putting the Pony Express into operation.

On January 27, 1860, Russell wired his Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, office that he had resolved to start the Pony Express -- "time: 10 days."

The massive undertaking was masterfully organized. Light, tough, young men were hired to ride the best horses money could buy. The horses used for the prairies were long-legged and fast. Smaller but extraordinarily tough animals of California stock were used for the rough mountains and deserts. New stagecoach stations were built, and existing ones readied for use.

"To establish the Pony Express required 500 of the best blooded American horses; one hundred and ninety stock stallions for changing the riding stock; two hundred station tenders to care for the horses and have saddled for the incoming rider and be off like the wind; 80 of the keenest, toughest and bravest of western youths for the riders, with stations all supplied with hay, grain and other needed materials. It required $100,000 in gold coin to establish and equip the line." -- Green Majors

In 1860, Russell, Majors, and Waddell formed the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express company for Pony Express operations, to show that mail could be carried year round over the Central Route to California. Once that was proved, government subsidies would be forthcoming, ensuring success of the venture. While the Pony Express was successful in delivering the mail in record time, Russell, Majors and Waddell lost out to Alexander Butterfield for the mail contract.

The Pony Express was an efficient mail service, but it failed as a profitable enterprise. It is not known exactly how much the service cost Russell, but during its operation the company only grossed $90,141, or about the cost of purchasing horses for the service. By all accounts the Pony Express had lost $200,000 by the time it closed operations.

Although the Pony Express lasted only 18 months, it came to symbolize swift service, the spirit of adventure, faithful execution of a very exacting and dangerous task, and heroic endurance.

The Mochila

Although mail had been delivered by horse before, it was the mochila (Sp. knapsack) that made the Pony Express stand out. It was a rectangular leather blanket of sorts that fit securely over a McClelland saddle. It had four cantinas (pockets) in the four corners that carried mail and were each padlocked.

The design allowed for easy and quick removal and placement on a fresh horse at Remount Stations. The rider's weight kept the mochila in place during the rugged rides. The total weight of the mochila, saddle and bridle was 13 pounds.


The Pony Express Western Business Headquarters was located at 617 Montgomery Street in San Francisco (where the California National Bank stands now). Mail was placed on a steamer heading for Sacramento, then riders generally followed the route of present-day U.S. 50 through El Dorado County over Echo Summit to Lake Tahoe. Remount and relay stations along this route are marked as State Historical Landmarks.

Sacramento became the western terminus of the Pony Express in 1860. The first eastward journey of the Pony Express started from the B.F. Hastings Building located at 2nd and J streets in Old Sacramento. This building housed both the Pony Express and Wells Fargo operations.

On the first eastbound trip, mail was carried up the Sacramento River from San Francisco on the steamboat "Antelope", arriving in Sacramento more than two hours late. At 2:45 a.m. on April 4, 1860, William "Sam" Hamilton raced up J street, past Sutter's Fort, and out Folsom Road on his 60-mile sprint to Sportsman's Hall Station.

Folsom, formerly called Negro Bar, on the American River, was the western terminus of the Pony Express from June 1860 to June 1861. It was the transfer point for mail from railroad to the Pony Express.

Five Mile House, sometimes called Mills Station, was the first Pony Express remount station on the eastbound express route leaving Sacramento. On the morning of April 4, 1860, rider Sam Hamilton made a quick change of ponies here and barreled on to the next stop at Fifteen Mile House. (Historical Marker at foot of Guy West Bridge, California State University, 6000 J Street, Sacramento)

Fifteen Mile House, four miles east of Mills Station, was owned and operated from 1857 as a stage station by Henry F. W. Deterding and was the site of the second remount station on the route eastward from Sacramento. On April 4, 1860, Sam Hamilton changed ponies here, with Mormon Station as his next stop. (Historical Marker on White Rock Road, south of Folsom Boulevard, Sacramento.)

Until July 1860, the route then continued along White Rock Road to the site of Mormon Tavern, then on to El Dorado and Diamond Springs.

The Pony Express route then continued on to Placerville via a road which is now State Route 49.

A reconstructed building now stands at the site of Sportsman's Hall, California's only Home Station. It was frequently called the Twelve Mile House and, on occasion, was simply referred to as "The Hall." It was opened in 1852 by John and James Blair who had immigrated from Scotland.

During the Comstock boom, starting in 1859, Sportsman's Hall was one of the most popular and important places on the road. No inn on the Trail came close to its size or quality of accommodations. The meals provided were famous to all who traveled this way, and many on the Trail eagerly traveled extra miles to just eat at "The Hall." It served a host of freight wagons and as many as seven daily stages. It has been said that there were frequently a thousand head of horses and mules in the stables and corrals overnight, and 300 wagons passing by daily.

At 8:01 a.m. on the morning of April 4, 1860, Sam Hamilton, the first eastbound Pony Express rider, dashed up to Sportsman's Hall, where the second rider, Warren Upson, was waiting to relieve him. In less than two minutes the mochila was removed from Sam's tuckered pony and placed onto Warrens's mount. Upson tore out into a blizzard, and with the successful completion of his ride over the Sierras, went down in history.

Eleven miles east of Sportsman's Hall at Ice House Road, Moore's (Riverton) Station was a remount station and horse change station for stage companies. (Historical Marker just west of the American River Bridge on U.S. 50.)

Just west of Kyburz, Webster's Sugar Loaf House was a remount station and horse change station for stage companies. (Historical Marker one mile west of Kyburz on U.S. 50.)

Strawberry Valley House, established by Swift and Watson in 1856, was a popular resort and stop for stages and teams of the Comstock. It became a remount station of the Central Overland Pony Express on April 4, 1860. Here on that date Division Superintendent Bolivar Roberts left with a string of mules to help pony rider Warren Upson through the snow storm at Echo Summit. Strawberry was named for a man named Berry who operated the stage stop. He was known to feed horses and other livestock straw instead of hay. (Historical Marker opposite the house off U.S. 50.)

From Strawberry the route followed the South Fork of the American River through the canyon, over Echo Summit, down Hawley Grade, and into Tahoe Valley. For the first few months of operation the Pony Express route continued over Luther Pass (State Route 89) to Woodfords in upper Carson Valley.

Woodfords Pony Express Station was operated as a remount station at Cary's Barn for five weeks when the service first began in 1860. The first white settlement in Alpine County was established here in 1847 and was known under several names. (Historical Marker in front of the current store on Old Pony Express Road, just east of the juction of State Routes 88 and 89.)

Upon completion of the wagon road over Kingsberry Grade, the Pony Express route continued along the south shore of Lake Tahoe stopping at Yank's Station Toll House, near Myers on U.S. 50. This was the easternmost remount station in California. It was also a trading post, hotel and stage stop. The toll house was knocked off its foundation by flood waters and is currently located on blocks adjacent to the Tahoe Paradise Museum.

Friday's Station was the point where the Pony Express riders crossed the California - Nevada state line. In the 1860's Friday's Station was an important remount stop for the Pony Express riders, and continued as a Way Station for the Pioneer stage lines and freight teams and wagons on the Bonanza Road. (There is a marker 3/4 mile east of State Line on U.S. 50 on the property where the Pony Express riders rode up to the remount station off Loop Road, across from Caesars Tahoe. It is on private property, but you can see the original blacksmith shop.)

From Friday's Station, the route takes the Kingsbury Grade over Daggett Pass into the Carson Valley. The Old Kingsbury Grade is blocked by private ownership and the criss-crossing of U.S. 50, but the new paved road is near the actual route.

The Kingsbury Grade wagon road was built in 1860 by Kingsbury and McDonald as a replacement of the old Daggett Pass Trail. The new road shortened the distance between Sacramento and Virginia City by 15 miles. The toll for a wagon and four horses was $17.50 round trip from Shingle Springs, California, to Henry Van Sickle's station near the eastern foot of the grade.

Van Sickel Station Hotel on Foothill Boulevard about a mile north from the junction with Kingsbury Grade was built in 1857 on the Emigrant Trail and contained a bar, a huge kitchen and a store. Henry Van Sickle, who had helped to finance the construction of the new road, was tollmaster of Kingsbury Grade. The Pony Express riders stopped here to change horses.

Carson City, founded in 1858 and named for Kit Carson, was the prosperous social and supply center for the nearby mining settlements of the Comstock Lode in the mid-1800's. In 1864 it became Nevada's capital. In 1860, there was only one street that was little more than a double row of saloons, a few assay offices, a general store, and the hotel that was the relay station for the Pony Express located between 4th and 5th Streets, near the original Ormsby House.


The first rider from St. Joseph, Missouri - "Alex Carlisle, Charles Cliff, Gus Cliff, Johnny Fry, Jack H. Keetley, William Richardson and Henry Wallace - seven riders in all - have been named as the lad in the saddle of the bright bay mare (or the little sorrel, or the jet-black horse - take your choice), said to be named Sylph, which galloped out of town at 7:15 p.m., April 3, 1860. His identification, not quite settled a century later, has been sifted down by process of literary attrition to a draw between Johnny Fry and William Richardson. The patient reader may study the arguments of their respective advocates, ably presented in various publications and books, then decide for himself, perhaps with the aid of a flipped coin." Roy Bloss in his book Pony Express - The Great Gamble

A larger number of eye-witnesses that Johnny Fry was the first westbound rider tips the scale in his favor. He most likely deserves the honor.

Johnny Fry (also spelled Frye and Frey) was a well known rider in local horse races. It is said that young women would watch for him to make his Pony Express run past their homes and would hand him cakes and cookies, thus the invention of doughnuts.

Fry was little more than a boy when he entered the pony service. He was a native of Missouri. Though small in stature, weighing less than 120 pounds, he was every inch a man. Fry's division ran from St. Joseph to Seneca, Kansas, a distance of eighty miles, which he covered at an average speed of twelve and a half miles per hour, including all stops.

When the war started, Fry enlisted in the Union army under General Blunt. His military career was cut short in 1863 when he fell in a hand-to-hand fight with Confederate guerrillas at Baxter Springs, Kansas. In this his last fight, Fry is said to have killed five of his assailants before being struck down. Johnny Fry's name is on the monument in the Baxter Springs Cemetary dedicated to the Union soldiers and scouts who were killed there in August 1863.

Gordon Frye writes, "My grandfather's (the grandson of Johnny Frye's brother) records show that the family spelled the name variously as Fry, Frey, and Frye. Presently the family spells the name Frye."

"Pony Bob" Haslam, was one of the most daring, resourceful, and best known riders on the route. He was hired by Bolivar Roberts, helped build the stations, and was assigned the run from Friday's Station at the foot of Lake Tahoe to Buckland’s Station near Fort Churchill 75 miles to the east. Perhaps his greatest ride, 120 miles in 8 hours and 20 minutes while wounded, was an important contribution to the fastest trip ever made by the Pony Express. The message carried: Lincoln's Inaugural Address.

When the completion of the telegraph line from the Missouri River to Sacramento put the Pony Express out of business, Haslam continued on his old run as an employee of Wells, Fargo & Company, which operated its own enterprise between San Francisco and Virginia City.

He later served as a Deputy United States Marshall in Salt Lake City. In his final years he worked in the Hotel Congress in Chicago. He made a personal business card with a sketch of himself as a Pony Express rider at the age of twenty and entertained guests with stories of his adventures. He died there in 1912, at the age of 72 years.

Pony Bob Haslam is credited with having made the longest round trip ride of the Pony Express. He had received the east bound mail (probably the May 10th mail from San Francisco) at Friday's Station. At Buckland's Station his relief rider was so badly frightened over the Indian threat that he refused to take the mail. Haslam agreed to take the mail all the way to Smith's Creek for a total distance of 190 miles without a rest. After a rest of nine hours, he retraced his route with the westbound mail. At Cold Springs he found that Indians had raided the place killing the station keeper and running off all of the stock. Finally he reached Buckland's Station, making the 380-mile round trip the longest on record.

Another Famous Rider was William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, born February 26, 1845, in Iowa. At 15, Cody was a Pony Express rider and given a short 45-mile run from Julesburg to the west. After some months he was transferred to Slade's Division in Wyoming, where he made the longest non-stop ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back when he found that his relief rider had been killed. The distance of 322 miles over one of the most dangerous portions of the entire trail was completed in 21 hours 40 minutes using 21 horses.


April 3, 1860: Pony Express begins operations with the first rider (Johnny Fry) leaving from St. Joseph, Missouri.

April 3, 1860: James Randall carries the first eastbound Pony Express mail from the Alta Telegraph Company, Montgomery Street, to the San Francisco wharf where it is placed on the steamer "New World" for transport to Sacramento.

April 4, 1860: First eastbound run (rider Sam Hamilton) by the Pony Express leaves Sacramento, California, at 2:45 a.m.

April 13, 1860: First Eastern mail arrives in Sacramento (rider Sam Hamilton).

April 23, 1860: First westbound mail to be routed overland between Sacramento and Oakland arrives in Benicia, California. Rider Sam Hamilton delivered the mochila to Thomas Bedford who carried the mail on to Oakland.

October 18, 1861: Westward building crew of the transcontinental telegraph project, under the direction of Edward Creighton, arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

October 24, 1861: Eastward building crew of the transcontinental telegraph project, under the direction of James Gamble, arrives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

October 26, 1861: Pony Express officially ceased operations.

November 21, 1861: Last run of the Pony Express completed.

Historic Pony Express Re-Ride



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