Through the Gold Rush, St. Joseph learned to focus on the here and now, not to chase fanciful dreams as the ’49ers had. As a 1920s advertisement for the Empire Trust Company put it, “St. Joseph was then and is now in the vanguard of the Westward course of Empire. Shall we too be tricked by the color and glitter of distant sands, and leave behind, undeveloped, our fallow acres of potential diamonds–the countless opportunities for independence and fortune that lever lie in the accessible levels of our soil, industry, and commerce?”
Still, there was great profit to be made in moving people and materials west. The Pony Express was part of that trade. John M. Hockaday was said to have made $190,0o00 a year carrying mail and other cargo west; he eventually sold his business out to Russell, Majors & Waddell, the firm that founded the Pony Express. In 1915 E. L. McDonald and W.J. King looked back on those rough-and-tumble days of mail deliver by horse, writing, “People who travel to California in cushioned cars in these days can have but little conception of this gigantic enterprise and its offspring, the Pony Express.”
It was, in fact, a Californian who came up with the idea. California senator W.M. Gwin, traveling east from the Golden State with B.F. Ficklin, general superintendent of Russell, Majors & Waddell in the fall of 1854, realized the political value of establishing a faster mail route to California. The joke was that the senator’s term would expire before he made the trip from California to Washington, but more important was the need to keep California in the Union in the days leading to the Civil War.
At the time, mail took 21 days to reach California via Panama, and the Union forces in the state needed to know what was happening in Washington and elsewhere more quickly than that–not to mention the thousands of settlers anxious to quicken their correspondence with friends and relatives back east.
So, as Gwin and Ficklin bumped over the “Central Route” from Sacramento through Salt Lake City to St. Joseph, the senator discussed his concerns with the cargo company representative. Several years later, Gwin finally convinced W.H. Russell of the need for a quick overland route, and Russelll convinced his partners to at least go along with, if not actually endorse, the Pony Express.
It is interesting to note that the Pony Express was designed, in part, to save California for the Union. Mayor M. Jeff “Swamp Fox” Thompson may have been unaware of that fact as he loaded the first mailbag on the first horse and sent it on its way on April 3, 1860, almost exactly a year before the
Battle of Fort Sumter. St. Joseph was largely a Southern town, and when the war started and the mayor’s term had expired, he stormed the St. Joseph post office and tore down the United States flag there.
Another consideration is that the enterprise was a financial failure. The Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, the firm Russell, Majors & Waddell organized to run the Pony Express, sought to convince the government to buy into the route. Secretary of War John B. Floyd promised Russell $2,000,000 in government contracts, but Congress refused to approve them. That, combined with stretching of the telegraph from St. Jo to Salt Lake City, doomed the enterprise, and Russell, Majors & Waddell went belly up. Finally, for an enterprise that has become the center of a community’s dreams about its past and hopes for the future, some of the most basic information about the Pony Express is simply missing.
For example, who was the first rider? No one seems to know, though “a large crowd whooped and applauded” as he–whoever he was–left town on April 3. Some say it was a young man named Alex Carlyle, some Billy Richardson, and some Johnny Fry. Similarly, some accounts have the first horse leaving at 5:00, some at 7:30. Other details of the trip, however, are crystal clear; several accounts offer the image of members of the crown plucking hairs from the horse’s tail as souvenirs.
Whatever the truth of this first historic ride, the newspapers went to work on the story immediately, instantly romanticizing the event. When the St. Joseph rider’s hooves reached California soil, the St. Joseph Free Democrat rhapsodized,
They are in California, leaping over its golden sands, treading its busy streets. the courser has unrolled to us the great American panorama, allowed us to glance at the home of one million people, and has put a girdle around the earth in 409 minutes. Verily the riding is like the riding of Jehu, the son of Nimshi, for he rideth furiously. Take out your watch. We are eight days from New York, 18 from London. The race is to the swift.
Flowery rhetoric aside, the young men–boys, really–who ran the Pony Express for that year and a half indeed accomplished something great. The trip from St. Joseph to Sacramento was nearly 2,000 miles over every obstacle imaginable. A network of stations were set up along the route, one ever ten miles or so, for a total of 190 stations between Missouri and California; here, riders turned in their horses, which were good for only about ten miles each. the riders themselves rode up to to thirty miles a day before passing the reins to a fresh horseman. the entire route was completed in ten days, meaning that on any given day about seven riders needed to cover 190 miles. By comparison, the average speed for a wagon pulled by an ox or mule was fourteen miles a day.
But the facts and statistics tell only part of the store. The Pony Express’ real power as a civic symbol, then and now, lay in the legend and mythology that grew up around the enterprise and made it a key part of St. Joseph’s civic identity.