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The Pony Express: a short-lived legend of the American Wild West

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Early in 1860 this curious advertisement appeared in some US newspapers: “Young, skinny, wiry fellows. Not over 18. Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Although the work sounded dangerous, a wage of $25 a week was on offer and there was no shortage of applicants.

As thousands of settlers travelled west along the Oregon Trail and many others joined the 1849 Californian Gold Rush, it became apparent that an efficient mail service beyond the Rocky Mountains was urgently needed. Because the mail coaches available were slow and unreliable, William H. Russell and his associates created an alternative  service that became known as the Pony Express.

The route chosen ran nearly 2,000 miles from St Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento in California. The 10-day journey crossed Nebraska to Fort Laramie in Wyoming, then on to Salt Lake City and Carson City and through the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Sacramento river. From there the mail continued by steamer to San Francisco.

Five hundred horses were stationed at intervals along the trail to provide the riders with a fresh mount every 10 to 15 miles. The riders themselves changed every 75 to 100 miles.

The first riders set out from each end of the trail 150 years ago on 3 April 1860. The horses wore specially made lightweight saddles and each carried a mochila — a saddlebag with pouches to hold the mail.

At first the riders carried a bible, a horn to alert the next relay station, a gun and a water supply.  Later the bible and the horn were removed to save weight.

The company had hoped to attract a huge government grant for the service but in June 1860, only 10 weeks after the inaugural ride, Congress authorised the Secretary of the Treasury to subsidise the building of a telegraph line along a similar route to link up existing lines in the eastern and western coastal states of America.

In July 1861 the first telegraph poles were erected at each end of the proposed line and two construction teams raced toward each other. The Pony Express riders continued to carry letters along their full route but telegrams were only taken between the rapidly converging telegraph relay stations.

By 26 October 1861 the telegraph line was complete, putting San Francisco in direct contact with New York City. On that day the Pony Express was officially terminated. Now a part of Wild West mythology, the service had lasted just over 18 months.

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