Lauded as the Pony Express riders were, their cargo also attained mythic status by connecting civilized East with uncivilized West. As Mrs. Louise Platt Hauck stated in 1923, “Letters from the far east, the south,and the great middle west were speeding toward the land of gold and danger, of hope realized and hardship endured–California. These, freighted with importance as they were, were but symbols of that effort which was seeking to establish a direct communication between the telegraph and the frontier country so lately settled.”
Many of the land-speed records set by the Pony Express writers were connected to important events happening “back east.” News of President Abraham Lincoln’s election–significant, given the conflict between the town’s southern leanings and the Pony Express’ Union-saving purpose–reached California in eight days; President James Buchanan’s farewell message made it in seven days and nineteen hours; Lincoln’s inaugural address broke all records by reaching San Francisco in seven days and seventeen hours.
In the 1924 promotional Union Pacific brochure, Miss Mary Pack’s essay connected the Pony Express with the railway company’s new cross-country line. “It is a far cry from the days of the Pony Express and its daring riders to the present luxurious mode of travel on Union Pacific limited trains,” the brochure stated above an illustration of an “old gentleman and his grandson” riding aboard a train:
But the span of one human life covers the period, and the central picture below might easily represent one who had lived through it, relating to his grandson some of the thrilling experiences with which he as a boy was so familiar. They are seated on comfortable cushions of the latest all-steel Pullman car, speeding along over the perfectly ballasted roadbed of the Union Pacific in sight of the historic old trail over which the throughbred horses of the Pony Express strained flesh and sinew to keep East and West in quick communication at a time when the nation faced a serious crisis. The “ponies” made the trip from the Missouri River to San Francisco in an average of ten days. The old gentleman and his grandson were carried from Chicago to San Francisco in less than three days.
So when Southwestern Bell or the Pony Express Community Bank or the Pony Express Motel use the ever-present symbol of the Pony Express rider, what are they making use of? It is, first of all, a great-looking, easily accessible, and instantly recognizable logo, but it also connects disparate businesses with rugged individualism in the face of adversity, independence, and freedom from a government that doesn’t understand what it takes to get the job done. As a promotional brochure for the Pony Express National Memorial puts it in a section called “American Principles,” “The Pony Express stands for the principles upon which America was founded: resourcefulness, ingenuity, daring, and vision. The legend and legacy of the Pony Express glorify the risk-taking spirit of the American entrepreneur; the courage, endurance and loyalty of the individual riders; and, the resourceful teamwork which contributed to an informed and enlightened citizenry.”
However, the city has not always cherished its Pony Express heritage. A photograph in Miss Mary Pack’s 1924 promotional piece shows the current Pony Express National Memorial on Penn Street not as a museum, but as the site of Voltz Manufacturing Company, offering metal welding, nickel plating, and wire works. The 1930 WPA Guide, meanwhile, devotes only five lines to the Pony Express in its St. Joseph section and two lines in the Transportation chapter. Perhaps the growth of the automobile and the rise of the Interstate highway system, which my dad helped to engineer and build, led to a rising nostalgia for the days when horses provided the fastest form of transportation.
The reality is that the “important grain, livestock, manufacturing, and wholesale center” that was St. Joseph is gone, as shown by the vacant warehouses downtown and the abandoned stockyards on the city’s south side. The manufacturing center has shifted to new industrial parks on the east side as brave entrepreneurs and visionaries work to breathe new life into downtown. The riverfront, once the center of commerce in St. Jo as in all river towns, is underutilized, save for a casino and riverfront park. The riverfront’s most prominent feature is the double-decker Interstate 229, opened in the early 1980s. It towers over the park and cuts the riverfront off from downtown. Various plans have been floated for the land over the years, including a marina, a theme park,a wilderness experience area, a Wild West riverfront village, a wetlands and marsh, a western history interpretive center, and an Amtrack Station.
As for downtown, in the 1970s St. Jo joined many other medium-sized towns across the county in replacing streets, many of them named for Roubidoux’s children, with a pedestrian mall. In 1997 I met with Nancy Sandehn, president of the Museum Hill Neighborhood Association and a civic booster. She told me that as streets were replaced with beautiful brick sidewalks, merchants were advised to keep their shops open past 5 p.m. But though people were moving into the nearby Museum Hill District to restore the elegant Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, American Foursquare, and Bungalow/American Craftsman homes, the merchants could not rationalize the expense of keeping their shops open later. Instead, a hardware store and other businesses across the river in Elwood, Kansas, reaped the benefits of the rehabbers’ dollars.
I believe St. Joseph does have valuable assets, however. Its park and boulevard system, as I mentioned, is largely as it was when I was growing up alongside it in the 1970s and ’80s. And unlike Ward Parkway in Kansas City, which is home to the city’s old money elite, or the Paseo, which runs through what is now a very impoverished part of town, St. Joseph’s Boulevard is surrounded by largely middle- and upper-middle-class homeowners who are committed to maintaining its integrity.
In 1992, a developer wanted to put a gas station and convenience store on the site of an old railroad berm near the entrance to one of the stretches of boulevard. Residents raised $120,974.09 to buy the land back. “How soon before there are hot tamele stands or pizz joints at the entrance drive to Krug Park,” the News-Press and Gazette asked, “or a yogurt parlor in the Civic Center or a shopping mall at Huston Wyeth Park”
But the residents’ efforts, like the Pony Express, was doomed from the start. The developer’s insistence on getting every last penny for the land, down to the last nine cents, suggests that he didn’t seriously think they would come up with enough money, and he was right. There is now a King Convenience store at the intersection of Messanie Street and Parkway A. Meanwhile, extensive commercial development has moved to the city’s north side, far from downtown, and high-end subdivisions have followed.
Did the WPA Guide have it right eighty years ago, that, in spite of such assets, St. Joseph would rather “keep its sidewalk lounging chairs, and cling to the river and to memories of the wagon trails and the Pony Express of its early days”? Or will it find new ponies on which to hitch its future?